‘Children’s Champion’

Published 5:14 pm Sunday, September 20, 2015

GARYSBURG – If James H. Jones had never become an activist and an advocate for education, he still would want to be remembered as one of the finest and most upstanding farmers in Northampton County.

But history didn’t play out that way.

Instead, Jones became the first African-American to serve on the Northampton County Board of Education when he was appointed in 1971; and his name would be forever struck in the annals of history when he later became North Carolina’s first black Board of Ed chairman.

It’s taken Jones’ daughter Anna, a former IBM executive who retired back to her home state following the death of her mother, eight years to gather memorabilia and photographs as well as conduct interviews with those who were eyewitnesses to history to tell her father’s story.

That story will debut on film with the premiere screening of her one-hour documentary, “Chairman Jones: An Improbable Leader”, on Saturday, Sept. 26 at Roanoke Cinemas in Roanoke Rapids.   The event is scheduled for 10:45 a.m. and is free to the public.

“Nothing existed in terms of documents, speeches, archive footage, or that sort of thing,” Anna Jones said in a telephone interview, “so in 2008 I started from scratch.”

The fruit of that effort is the full length high definition film featuring people in the Roanoke-Chowan community and Northampton County in particular who witnessed James Jones’ extraordinary leadership and whose lives were greatly influenced by him.

“I didn’t set out to do this,” she insists. “I just sat out to tell the story and get a few anecdotes about my parents from people in the community so I would have some story of their lives to leave for their grandchildren.”

What Jones found in her research was the pivotal role her father played as far as the integration of public schools in Northampton County and maintaining peace and harmony in the process.

Born to a family of sharecroppers in 1916 on Longview Plantation, the elder Jones learned the importance of education when his own was cut short because of work and the Jim Crow laws that existed at the time.

Jones said her father rejected his plight and eventually became an advocate and leader of education in the county. Despite two unsuccessful bids for a seat on the school board, in 1971 Northampton County expanded its school board from five to seven members.

Attorney Perry W. Martin was then in the state legislature and as chairman of the Education Committee took responsibility for making that happen.  Martin also oversaw the appointment of Jones, along with a woman, to the expanded school board.

Following his appointment, Jones ran for the seat two years later and then won election for the succeeding terms up until he died.

In 1981 the board voted Jones as chairman, making him the first black to hold such a position in the state of North Carolina.

Anna Jones said during his tenure her father pushed for an equal education for blacks, and worked for a better education for all. Tragically, Jones’ life and work ended in an accident on his farm in 1984.

“As I talked to people, one leader said my father did more for this county than anyone else,” Jones says. “That claim made me want to know more because I’d always wondered how does a person go from being a sharecropper on a former slave plantation to chairman of the Board of Education.”

Jones said the evolution of her father’s story was fascinating.

“I found out about the role he played,” she relates. “About the kind of leadership style that he had and the regard that people had for him; so all of this was new for me.”

Jones spent time going through Board minutes at the school administration office; and at the county museum in Jackson where she poured over newspaper articles.  The research took her beyond the borders of the Roanoke-Chowan to the National Archives in Atlanta where she studied court cases similar to ‘Brown vs. the Board of Education’ in 1950’s Kansas: the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students, declaring them to be unconstitutional.

“I also interviewed and videotaped people in the community,” Jones declared.

So much of the struggle for integration in rural northeastern North Carolina was new to Anna Jones, who was born in Garysburg, graduated from Gumberry High School in the early sixties and attended North Carolina College (ne, NC Central).  She later moved to Connecticut where she worked in the corporate world until returning south following the death of her mother in 2007.

Once the idea for the documentary film caught fire with her she set off with her Radio Shack tape recorder in hand interviewing the likes of the late UNC President Dr. William Friday, former Attorney General Rufus Edmisten, former ECSU chancellor Dr. Willie Gilchrist; and those in the Northampton community, including Lucille Hardy, Bill Long, the now late Melvin Broadnax, Marshall Grant, and anyone with a story to tell of her father.

“I retired here to Durham and started going to documentary film festivals, and I took classes at the Center for Documentary Studies as well,” Jones said.  “As time went on and I looked at these documentaries I thought my father’s not a Ralph Bunche, or a Martin Luther King, or anyone like that; but on a small level he made a big contribution to changing lives in Northampton County, not only for black people but for white people as well.”

Jones says many of the seniors she knew were transitioning and dying out, so it became much more important for her to get their memories down on tape and film.

“So I ended up getting a professional film crew to come out and shoot these interviews,” she declared. “I didn’t know exactly what the story was, but I knew there was a story.”

Jones said it was an interview in Raleigh with Winton native and retired NC Department of Public Instruction administrator, educator and lecturer Dr. Dudley Flood that she became aware of the historic significance of her father’s appointment.

“He (Flood) talked about how this was important not just for Northampton and eastern North Carolina but for all of the state to see that it wasn’t anathema to have an African-American in the leading role,” Jones said. “Then when my father brought in Willis McLeod as the first black superintendent in Northampton County that too demonstrated that there were black people who should have leading roles.  So this changed the whole educational landscape in the state because from there you had other blacks in education coming in.”

Jones says the odyssey has been long and tedious to get this all documented.

“I thought this (documentary film) would be easier than writing a book,” she relates with a chuckle. “Had I known how hard it would be, I might not have done it; but I finished it, I’m pleased with it, and people are reacting very positively to it.

Jones premiered a rough-cut of the film in Durham to positive reaction.

“The comment I kept getting was that everybody needs to see this,” she says.  “We hear a lot about what happened in the south in cities like Atlanta, Nashville, and Birmingham, but there’s very little documented about what went on in the rural South.

“In Northampton County we didn’t have busing and all these other issues, but education was the issue, and people have fought for it for a very, very long time,” Jones said. “It was from my father and Mr. McLeod’s leadership that blacks and whites in Northampton County came together and were able to move forward in a coalition to improve education for all the children.”

Jones said she’s most proud of her father’s induction in October 2014 to the East Carolina University Educators Hall of Fame.

“Here he was, a farmer, an unknown black leader, now enshrined with a plaque on the wall among all those PhD’s,” she recalls in wonderment. “All because of his concern, his children, and his community; that’s what made him a children’s champion.”

As Jones says at the end of her documentary, “people should remember”.