Mary Richardson Jones

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Mary Richardson Jones
c. 1865
Aaron E. Darling
Oil on canvas
33½ x 27½ in.
Chicago History Museum, Gift of Mrs. Theodora Lee Purnell
1955.197, ICHi-62628

This portrait captures the quiet strength and dignity of a woman who dedicated her life to human rights. A free African American from Tennessee, Mary Richardson married North Carolina born John Jones, also a free man, around 1840. In 1845, they moved to Chicago, where John established a successful tailor shop in the downtown district. Perhaps to reflect this, the artist emphasizes the high quality of her simple but elegant clothing. Notice how carefully he painted the intricate lace of her collar. That the Joneses could have had paintings made for themselves indicates their worldly success.

Both John and Mary also became actively involved in the abolitionist movement to end slavery. They held regular meetings at their home and harbored many runaway slaves on their way to freedom in Canada. Their friends included Frederick Douglass, the noted black abolitionist, and he frequently visited their home. They also met John Brown, the radical white abolitionist, but disagreed with his plans to stage a violent uprising against slavery at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. For many years, Mary worked alongside her husband to repeal the Illinois Black Laws, which severely restricted social and political rights of African Americans, including the right to vote, attend school, and serve on a jury. After the Civil War, Mary joined the suffrage movement to secure equal voting rights for women. Mary Jones lived in Chicago the rest of her life and is buried next to her husband in Graceland Cemetery. 

1. The Illinois Black Laws were not repealed until 1865; why did you think it took so long?

2. If you could interview Mary Jones, what would you ask her?

3. What of Mary Jones’ qualities do you think the artist wanted to emphasize? What do you learn about her from this portrait?

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