Duke University, J. A. Jones Construction, and some family history

My great-great Grandfather with three of his sons, including my great-grandfather Raymond Jones, Sr., and Edwin L. Jones, Sr. which the below story involves. This photo may have been taken at the launching of a Liberty ship, when we ran the Brunswick and Panama City shipyards during WWII.

For the 1912 Commencement, a father writes to his son of the value of education.

Thousands of students and their families have experienced the vivid emotions of the awarding of a college or university degree and passage into what is referred by today’s students as the “real world.” Scores of commencement speakers have attempted to place a value on the student experience while challenging the graduates to use their hard-won knowledge to conquer the problems of the day.

While public ceremonies properly reflect collective joy, perhaps the true meaning behind graduation is more of an individual or family affair. A universal feeling is one of pride. Documentation of this sentiment is difficult to come by especially as letter writing increasingly has become a lost art. Some years ago, the University Archives received a poignantly prideful letter written at graduation from Trinity College in 1912. At that time, graduation from college was a rare event. The vast majority of graduates, especially in the south, were the first members of their family to earn diplomas, either from a high school or a college. The recipient of the letter was Edwin L. Jones, Sr. from Charlotte, North Carolina, a member of Trinity’s senior class who had won the Orator’s Medal of the Hesperian Literary Society. He had mailed a copy of the notice of the award from the student newspaper, the Chronicle, to his parents along with the schedule of the commencement weekend. His father replied, expressing a universal sentiment not uncommon today. The writer’s evident limited education adds significantly to the personal importance of the occasion.

“My Dear Son,” the letter began. “I cant tell you how glad I was to know that you had won the metal[.] now you can see that God has give you a delivery of voice. it does my heart good to see that you are taking advantage of a opertunity that I diden have[.] I wanted Education when I was a boy. but I diden have the chance to get some. I am glad that you have made good at college[.] I have worked hard every sence I have ben a little boy. but I dont mind working hard as I have to get you through College[.] As I rid the a count in your little paper of you winning the metal, it repaid me for all that I have spent on your schooling[.] I & mama do want to get up for your gratuation but I dont see how both of us will get to go as the children is so small to leave by themselves. Good by, Your Papa.”

Edwin L. Jones, Sr. made the most of his family’s priceless gift. The listing of activities under his senior portrait in The Chanticleer, the college yearbook, notes academic honors; varied literary society, YMCA, and debate club activities; positions of responsibility on the Chronicle’s business staff; letters in track and basketball; and membership in the highest campus honorary organization, “9019.” Perhaps equally as important, Jones met, courted, and later married classmate Annabel Lambeth, a magna cum laude graduate with Honors in French, from Thomasville, North Carolina. Their marriage marks the beginning of generations of Duke graduates from the Jones family. Edwin L. Jones, Jr.’s later service on the Board of Trustees and generosity in support of his alma mater likewise inspired service and support throughout the university by numerous family members.

With the growth of higher education in the twentieth century, the earning of a college degree is sometimes taken for granted. Duke University, however, likely still has graduates who are the first members of their families to receive a degree. A university education remains an accomplishment of the highest order worthy of pride by parents and students alike.

© 1992 William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002
This article originally appeared in Duke Dialogue May 15, 1992.

My great-great grandfather JAJ I, was from post-Civil War poor roots. He was born on August 20, 1869. Before the war the family had much more to live on, but the war impoverished this branch of the family and they made ends meet as tenant farmers in Randolph, NC. His father, Robert B. Jones, was named Charles by his father Hezekiah Jones who was a ship carpenter from England (they lived in coastal Swansboro, Onslow County, NC). His mother Elizabeth Horney (his father’s second wife) died when he was 3 or 4 and his father married three times and had 12 children in his lifetime.

JAJ I was offered a job by a contractor as a wagon driver in Charlotte, NC. He was a brick-maker starting at age 18 and was paid 0.25 cents a day. He was given housing on site. He then started to make mortar. Soon he was a laborer and then a mason’s apprentice. Within four years he had learned so fast (including reading blue-prints) that he was earning $2.00 a day by 1889. He realized he could make more income from bidding on small jobs that he and a small team could work on together. At age 21, he was a brickmason foreman and then superintendent, earning $3.00-3.50 a day. It was at this time that he married his first wife, Minnie (Mary) Jane Hooper. Her parents were first generation Americans for that family branch, from England. Her father ran the old tin mine in Lincolnton, NC, and then ran the gold mines in Charlotte, NC.

One of JAJ I’s first big jobs was an addition to the Southern Railway Station at 511 West Trade Street in Charlotte, NC. They had the foundation walls up when there was a flash flood which flattened the walls. While the two caucasian bricklayers were indifferent to completing the job, the remaining workers – African-Americans – helped in doing overtime work, completing the job and rebuying supplies out of their own pocket. He paid them above-average wages and gave them more jobs and specialized tasks than other contractors/foremen of the time in the South.

I’ll post more later, if you all find it interesting!

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5 thoughts on “Duke University, J. A. Jones Construction, and some family history

  1. “More!” I say. Well, in remembrance of Oliver Twist, I add “please.”

    I have a similar letter on the value of an education by my great-uncle Edwin Jones (brother of my maternal grandmother Minnie Beatrice Jones Ussery). He wrote it to me when I was about 12 years old, admonishing me not to spend too much time in books but to also get out into the world I'm reading about and work hard regardless.

    What a delight to rediscover long-lost relations.


    William Dudley Bass
    (Seattle, WA, orig. Virginia)

  2. William – I am so glad I found your website today! I wish I had letters from Edwin Jr or anyone else outside the direct line but I do not. Hope to discover some someday in my Dad or my grandfather's collection…

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