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  • Writer's pictureTyeal Howell

The Jones Family Legacy: Brooklyn to Urbana

The small town of Brooklyn, Illinois once boasted 3,000 people in its heyday, but now is a village of less than 800. This town has a special major connection to Historic Urbana through the Jones Family. Originally named Lovejoy, Brooklyn stands along the mighty Mississippi River and offers a commanding view of downtown St. Louis as you enter from the south along Illinois State Route 3.

The community was founded by former slaves and freed men and women in the late 1820s. The vast majority of its population has been, and continues to be, African American. It was a stop along the Underground Railroad and is known for being the first incorporated black community in America in the 19th century.

Charles B. Jones Sr. was born in North Carolina in 1825. He was enslaved along with his parents and siblings. The family eventually bought their freedom through their own means and with the help of anti-slavery friends. Charles Jones' father, Allen Jones, was a firm believer in the power of education to open doors for his family. The Jones Family established a school for freed children in their native state, but it was burned down by those in the community who did not want to see black children in the South educated in the 19th century.

The entire Jones Family moved to Oberlin, Ohio prior to the Civil War. There, Allen Jones established a blacksmith and gunsmith shop. He saw to it that his formerly enslaved children were educated with his sons being among the first and earliest African American graduates of Oberlin College including Charles Jones Sr.

Charles would find his way to Urbana prior to the Civil War and would become an instructor and Principal within the segregated Urbana Schools of the time with Jones leading the Urbana School for African American children. Charles Sr. was also politically active and was elected a ward assessor in the city and started to acquire real estate throughout town.

The drive for education rippled throughout the Jones family with Charles Sr's. daughter also serving as a teacher in the local schools and Wilberforce University. Charles Sr. also had two nieces who left their mark in the educational world in big ways. Anna Holland Jones would become the first black principal in Kansas City, become a celebrated author, influential advocate for women's right to vote, and civic leader. Another niece of Charles Jones Sr was Sophia Bethena Jones. She would also teach at Wilberforce but go on to be the first woman of color to graduate from the University of Michigan as a medical doctor in the 19th century and establish the nursing program at Spelman College in Atlanta.

Charles Jones Jr. would follow in his father's footsteps. He too would graduate from Oberlin College and pursue teaching as his main career where he would become the Principal and Superintendent of the Brooklyn, Illinois Schools. A post he held for many years. He would also become a political powerhouse in metro St. Louis by being elected as a County Commissioner and elected as Mayor of Brooklyn for several terms. On the eve of his inauguration of what would be his final term as Mayor, Charles Jones Jr. died in May of 1925. His body was returned to Urbana for burial. Charles Jones Jr. had an estate valued over $300,000 at the time which he made largely from real estate in metro St. Louis. That's roughly $5.3 million dollars in today's value.

Following the death of Charles Jones Sr. in 1902, Charles Jones Jr. took possession of the Jones Family home on East Reynolds Street. He had the old home moved from its lot and erected the residence seen today in 1907-08 as his "summer home". When not in Urbana, the house was occupied year-round by Charles Jr's siblings, John and Laura. John Jones was one of the original employees of Howard Paper Company. None of the Jones Family needed to work as they lived off the income and sale of their large amount of real estate holdings in Urbana. The family home was sold in 1944 following the death of Lela Jones who was Charles Jr's sister-in-law.

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