John Jones

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John Jones
c. 1865
Aaron E. Darling
Oil on canvas
46 x 36 in.
Chicago History Museum, Gift of Mrs. L. Jones Lee
1904.18, ICHi-62629

Have you heard about the Underground Railroad? It wasn’t really a railroad but, rather, a secret network of trails and hiding places for run-away slaves. Many brave people served as “station masters,” including this man, John Jones of Chicago. A free African American from North Carolina, Jones moved to Chicago in 1845 with his wife, Mary.  It may seem like there isn’t much to see in a picture like this. But in painted portraits every detail is meant to show the status and identity of the sitter. Jones’s fine clothes, his cane, his ring, his chain, and even the chair on which he sits tells us that he was a successful business man. In fact, he established a tailor shop in the downtown area which did very well.

John and Mary became actively involved in the abolitionist movement to end slavery. They held regular meetings at their home and frequently harbored runaway slaves passing through the city on their way to Canada. During the Civil War, John Jones raised a regiment of black troops in Chicago; they trained at Camp Douglas and served on the front lines. Jones fought a long and successful battle against the Illinois Black Laws that severely restricted the social and political rights of African Americans. He also served as an honorary pall bearer at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral in Chicago and served on the Cook County Board of Commissioners, one of the first blacks to win elective office in the North. Jones died in 1879 and is buried in Graceland Cemetery, which is on the north side of Chicago, not far from Wrigley Field.


1. By helping run-away slaves, John Jones was breaking the law. Do you think he was justified? Why or why not?

2. If you could create a memorial statue of John and Mary Jones, what would it look like?

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

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