Remembering Charlotte Attorney and Civil Rights Leader Charles Jones, Sr.
January 26, 2020 by Tricia Derr
As I mourn the loss of Charlotte attorney, civil rights hero, and friend Charles Jones, Sr., I remember the day we met. It was a gloomy, rainy day in the Biddleville community. We were breaking ground for the new Mecklenburg Bar and Foundation Center. As President of the Mecklenburg County Bar at the time, I led the groundbreaking ceremony. Several people took the podium in a customary ceremonial fashion. Then Mr. Jones walked forward….
I knew he was special the moment he opened his mouth. I asked him to lunch. In turn, he invited me to his home. The following article chronicles my experience that day – back in 2013 – with the fabulous, iconic, and eclectic Joseph Charles Jones. May God rest your kind soul as you live your everlasting life in the Blessed Community.
A Beloved Community
Originally Posted: Jan 1, 2014
By Tricia M. Derr
“May I have just two minutes?” he asked, never waiting for an answer. As a resident of the Biddleville community for 66 years, Joseph Charles Jones hardly needed permission to speak.
For those of us willing to endure rain and mud, Mr. Jones’ impromptu reminder of the history of “Mother Earth” was the highlight of the Groundbreaking Ceremony. “Sometimes the Spirits just move you,” he explained.
Intrigued by this passionate and spiritual man, I asked Mr. Jones to lunch. In response, he invited me to his home. Now having visited, I would call it a sanctuary – with a home inside.
Stepping into his office was awe-inspiring. Family photos adorned the walls, memorializing an evolution from slavery to peaceful activism to honorable distinction. Baby pictures and letters hung alongside photographs and newspaper clippings of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. A Zen-inspired greenhouse envelops the perimeter of the residence. Koi ponds and exotic plants thrive in a background of jazz music, trickling water and the smell of incense. Mr. Jones’ sanctuary is an entity all to itself, dedicated to the very Spirits that moved him on that wet December day.
Formalities complete, he settled into his office chair. “My name is Charles Jones,” he said. “May I ask why you are here?” “To understand why you would so passionately welcome a new Bar & Foundation Center in your backyard,” I replied. He bowed his head for several moments. Looking up, he said “now, you asked the question, sister lady.”
Hours later, I still sat in a pew of this sanctuary/home, listening to the message delivered from the pulpit. Story after story described violence, indignity, and humiliation, all inflicted solely because of skin color. However, despite the tragedies he described, every story had the same ending. Change. Change in a person. Change in the law. Change in society. In a moment of epiphany, I realized I was not sitting across from a historian. To the contrary, I was sitting across from history. The “Spirits” of history and change were emerging.
It was 1961. Imprisoned in York County following a peaceful protest, Mr. Jones rested in his (segregated) bunk bed. His dear friend and fellow activist, Charles Sherrod, lay on the bunk below. Together, they spent hours praying and philosophizing over one question posed by Mr. Sherrod:
“Bro, what we gonna’ do ’bout this society we tryin’ to change?”
The question spawned the concept of the “Beloved Community,” “a place where all of God’s children can live together in harmony” and “where nobody can define you.” It is a place where we all “stand tall, look each other in the eye” and where “who you are is not what you do.” It is “a place of calm dignity.” The Beloved Community is the life work of Mr. Jones and many others who followed. The concept of the Beloved Community is the very essence of these “Spirits” he referenced at the Ceremony. Understanding what it was, I now wondered how to find it.
When the Jones family moved into Biddleville in 1947, it was a black family neighborhood. Next door, Ms. Graham was a nurse; her son, a talented musician. Ms. Lorraine lived two doors down and ran a “classy liquor house,” complete with fried croaker on a wood stove and “marvelous social gatherings” on Sunday afternoons.
Immediately after World War II, the Smallwood development emerged next to Biddleville. Smallwood was largely funded by FHA loans made to World War II veterans and conditioned on racially restrictive covenants prohibiting property transfer to “people of the Negro or Mongolian Race.” For young Charlie Jones, however, Smallwood simply meant that the white kids across the street were off limits. While geographically inseparable, Smallwood and Biddleville were culturally inapposite. Skin color defined boundaries – even for children.
Shelley v. Kraemer ended racially restrictive covenants. However, a new breed of vulture emerged. After Shelley, Smallwood suffered an era of “blockbusting,” which was a market manipulation scheme where real estate investors used propagandist techniques to “scare white homeowners” into selling their homes at a loss, fearing the malignancy a mixed-race community. “They are coming,” the vultures warned. Fearing “them,” the “white homeowners” sold their homes at deep discounts. In turn, the vultures offered the “white homes” to “black purchasers” at a premium.
While the vultures lined their pockets with the spoils of ignorance and shame, Smallwood and Biddleville suffered. In the 1950s, Smallwood became a white housing project known as “Belvedere Homes.” Deterioration ensued; and those who could afford to leave did. Pimps and drug lords replaced the vultures, lining their own pockets with the products of poverty and desperation.
Many “sister ladies” turned to Attorney Jones, complaining about leaky bathrooms, eviction notices and predators of various inclinations. “I could sue the City for code violations” he explained, “but, would it change?”
After confirming the transition process for the residents who were truly qualified, Mr. Jones, along with a council of community leaders, made a “calm, careful and collective decision to get rid of that old building and to protect the soil of Stewart Creek.” After much controversy and patient persistence, the City agreed and demolished Belvedere Homes. Demolition uncovered “Mother Earth” and made way for the next step in change toward a Beloved Community – the new Bar & Foundations Center.
It all made sense now. This was the reason — the very reason — why a civil rights leader, advocate and activist took the podium and passionately welcomed a historically white organization to Biddleville to build on his sacred “Mother Earth.” Mr. Jones may be 77 years old; but his vision of change and the Beloved Community continues. Now, we are all a part of it.
“Shhhhhh, listen” he said, raising his hands as I began to gather my things. Taking my hands in his, he bowed his head in silence. Closing my eyes, I bowed my head in reverence, soaking in the atmosphere. I could almost hear the heart of the sanctuary beating as if it were alive. Slowly raising his head and looking into my eyes with a penetrating gaze, he whispered “do you feel them?” “Do you feel the Spirits?”
Yes, Joseph Charles Jones, we do.