By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN — Rufus E. Jones Sr. was a relatively quiet man, but his contributions to economic development in Memphis and as a legislator in the Tennessee General Assembly spoke volumes about his life and legacy.
That was the sentiment of family, friends and colleagues who paid homage to Mr. Jones when he was eulogized on Oct. 26 at Mt. Olive Cathedral C.M.E. Church. There was an intermittent downpour that day, but not enough to deter the mourners.
Mr. Jones’ sendoff was just that important that Markhum “Mark” L. Stansbury Sr. had to be there. He knew the legislator before he was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly from District 86.
He’s also known his wife, Marvis LaVerne Jones, a member of the “Memphis State 8,” the first black students to integrate the college.
“Even though I was close to his age, he would encourage and help a lot of people,” said Stansbury, a longtime WDIA Radio personality and one of several people Mr. Jones personally helped.
He credits Mr. Jones, the late Speaker Pro Tempore Lois DeBerry, and former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr. for encouraging then-Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter to hire him as his special assistant.
“What stands out to me about Rufus Jones is his personal integrity, character and economic achievements,” said State Rep. GA Hardaway, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.
“He understood that education and economics allow you to take full advantage of the American dream,” said Hardaway, who represents District 93.
Mr. Jones advocated for African-American entrepreneurship and education, and convened “leadership to establish laws and regulations around economic development policy.”
He also was a registered lobbyist for more than 20 years.
Mr. Jones served 15 years in the House from 1981 to 1996. But he was more than just an accomplished legislator. His daughter, Dorothy D. Jones, remembers her father as a pioneering entrepreneur who served his community and loved his family.
“My family were pioneers in the early years. My father was very proud of that,” said Jones, who spoke fondly about her father and grandfather ahead of Mr. Jones’ funeral.
Her grandfather opened S.L. Jones Supermarket in the Boxtown community in 1938. After Mr. Jones graduated from Michigan State University in 1961, he took a job as a sales tax auditor for the Tennessee Department of Revenue.
He was the first African American to hold the position before following his father’s footsteps in the retail business.
After S.L. Jones expanded the Boxtown store several times, Mr. Jones and his father formed a partnership and opened a second store, Nite N Day, in the Walker Homes community in 1967. The father and son were considered one of the first multi-store supermarket owners in Tennessee.
A third store in Midtown was opened in 1968, Jones Big Star #102. This was a franchised store. Mr. Jones later severed ties with Big Star and changed the name to Jones Supermarket.
“He fed a lot of families from our business and provided jobs,” said Jones, who started working at the store in elementary school with her three siblings alongside the store’s employees. They were paid a fair wage as well.
“Generosity is the thing that captured the man,” said Jones, putting into context her father’s work and what defined him as a public servant and pillar in the community. A good education, she was taught, is a springboard to success.
“He gave his children the best education,” Jones said, in addition to her father instilling in his children good work ethics, honesty, timeliness, excellence and service. “[And] we traveled internationally to give us a broad perspective.”
Mr. Jones’ contemporaries applauded his perspective on economics, education and as a lawmaker. They included former state senators John Ford and Roscoe Dixon, State Reps. Joe Towns Jr. (District 84) and Larry J. Miller (District 88), and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen.
Miller said Mr. Jones was well respected in the Black Caucus and the Republican Caucus. In fact, Mr. Jones had served as chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators.
“He was able to work behind the scene in a quiet way, but at the end of the day he got things accomplished,” Miller said. “He was a visionary.”
Jones said her father was a simple man. “My dad never sought the spotlight. But when he was in it, he shined. He beamed.”
She said her father grappled with lymphoma for 19 years. He died Oct. 20 surrounded by his family. He was 79.