Mary Robert Jones didn’t quite fit the setting. Decked in a heavy drab smock and a worn head-scarf, she stood out in the company of crisp church-goers in the meeting room at First Unitarian Church on 57th and Woodlawn. She was out of place, and out of this time.
“I was born in 1819,” declared Jones, or more accurately, Jones’ portrayer Ms. Phillis Humphries, prompting an audible “aha” moment from the similarly perplexed crowd. “I am the widow of John Jones, a tailor who catered to the elite, and later became the first black elected official to the city of Chicago.” These certainly weren’t your typical Joneses. Guiding the small but attentive crowd through incremental revelations of Jones’s past, Humphries explained that her character was born a free black woman in Tennessee. After moving to Chicago in 1845, she and her husband decided to risk everything by transforming their home into “a station,” a haven for run-away slaves and prominent abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass. They were among the earliest contributors to the Underground Railroad, and the footprints they left in Chicago played an instrumental role in the larger African American journey for freedom. The poignancy of Humphries’ portrayal was not lost on the shaken and suddenly subdued church-goers, who gripped their hats and held their breath as they rattled down the railroad.
Describing specific crossroads as if a timeless Google Earth, Sherry Williams–the Bronzeville Historical Society’s founder and the opening speaker of this Bronzeville Historical Society-sponsored event–plowed through history’s barrier by contextualizing the Jones’ story within the framework of modern Bronzeville landmarks. Between the site of a former home of the Jones family, and the Mary R. Jones Park between 13th St. and Roosevelt, the Jones’ lasting legacy serves an integral part of the Society’s ‘Freedom Tours’–historical walking and bus tours through Bronzeville, which both Williams and Humphries frequently plugged. But even after a verbal tour of the Jones’ Chicago, there was still some confusion in the audience as to where Bronzeville is actually situated. Williams sighed, as if confessing that her encyclopedic knowledge could really be reduced to a single sociological reality:Â “Bronzeville is wherever African Americans could live.” The train slowed to a halt.