Review: Chairman Jones

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Chairman Jones screens at Hanesbrands Theatre on Friday at 11 a.m. and on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Director Anna Jones will be in attendance for both screenings.

Northampton County in northeastern North Carolina has been majority black since the plantation system was established in the 1700s, but it wasn’t until 1969 that the first black person was appointed to the school board.

Born into a sharecropping family, James H. Jones left Longview Farm to establish his own farmstead. He twice ran unsuccessfully for Northampton County School Board and then received appointment to it through a political horse trade with a progressive white state lawmaker who received the backing of the county’s black leadership and then pushed through legislation to expand the school board and provide for the appointment of two new members before the next election.

A 1960 state Supreme Court ruling successfully overturning the literacy test that had been used to prevent black residents from registering to vote — an effort that Jones played a role in — and set the stage for eventual political representation. During Jones’ tenure, blacks would gain the majority on the school board, and Jones would become the first black chairman of a school board in North Carolina.

The place is tellingly described by a chorus of anonymous commenters at the beginning of the film, both black and white: “Northampton County is a small county on the scale of things, had a population that were used to each other; I don’t know how they felt about each other — they were used to each other…. Northampton County is a farming community, a county where people live and work and enjoy themselves together with the limited resources that they have…. We did have a nice, comfortable way of life in a lot of ways down here. It was very little change that took place for a long time.”

Directed by Jones’ daughter, the documentary can feel like hagiography and the pacing sometimes suffers from an overreliance on “talking head” interviews, but overall it conveys an important story about a significant North Carolina leader in a fascinating locale. Jones’ rise is all the more remarkable for the fact that he pioneered black electoral power in a county where blacks remained subjugated as sharecroppers on cotton plantations at least through the 1950s. (Disclosure: My ancestors owned slaves in Northampton County.)

— Jordan Green

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