Early Chicago: John Jones

John Jones

John Jones was one of the first African Americans to win elective office in the North. (Source: Chicago History Museum)

John Jones was an outspoken civil rights activist and a committed leader in the fight to repeal Illinois' Black Codes. He was born in North Carolina to a free mulatto mother and a father of German descent. Trained as a tailor, the 23-year-old Jones moved to Chicago with his wife Mary Richardson Jones in 1845. Though he arrived in the city with just $3.50 in his pocket and had no formal education, Jones developed a thriving tailoring business, invested in real estate, and by 1860 was one of the nation's wealthiest African Americans. In 1871, Jones was elected the first black Cook County Commissioner.

Not long after his arrival in Chicago, Jones befriended local abolitionists Charles V. Dyer, a physician, and noted lawyer Lemanuel Covell Paine Freer. Freer taught Jones to read and write. Jones saw the value of the skills for business and also put them to masterful use in abolition work, including the publication of a 16-page pamphlet entitled The Black Laws of Illinois and Why They Should Be Repealed. Jones also worked tirelessly in the struggle against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which denied runaway slaves the right to trial by jury and imposed high fines on anyone who aided slaves or interfered in their capture.