With roots in America’s earliest free black settlement, resident retraces history with purpose

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Lafayette Jones shares stories with the public at Freedom Park. (Courtesy James City County)
Lafayette Jones shares stories with the public at Freedom Park. (Courtesy James City County)

When Col. Lafayette Jones Jr. was a young boy growing up in Williamsburg, his grandfather, George A. Jones, would drive him around the area, pointing at various sites, and regale him with stories of their family’s history.

Today, Jones shares those same stories with the public at Freedom Park. The park, located at the corner of Centerville and Longhill roads, was once the site of one of America’s earliest free black settlements from 1803 to 1863, which included the Jones Family.

Jones has been speaking about his family’s history as well as the history of Williamsburg on a quarterly basis at Freedom Park for the past nine years.

Jones has traced his family history in the area back to 1634. In 2007, he published the book “My Great Great Grandfather’s Journey” based on his grandfather’s tales and his own research. The book details the history and development of Freedom Park and some of its residents.

“I wanted to know about the area, and who was there,” Jones said. “I wanted to know about the families that lived there. I wanted to know about my family. I needed to know my own family history to motivate me to do the things in my life. You need to know where you come from. This is something that I can pass onto my children and grandchildren.”

Jones shares his stories through slide shows and presentations whenever he can at family
reunions and in the community.

“Col. Jones has been involved with Freedom Park since the early planning stages, and has been an integral part in telling the story of the people who lived here,” said Alister Perkinson, Parks Operation Coordinator for James City County. “It is unique to be able to have someone who can tell the story through the eyes of the actual people who lived there, and that connects with people. Col. Jones’ presentations allow people to not only know the history of the area, but to know the people themselves.”

Jones has received many thank you letters about his lectures and his book. He enjoys passing on his background and experiences with children in schools in particular.

“I think the history is something school children should be aware of, especially African American students,” Jones said. “African American kids need motivation, and I feel this history can motivate them. It’s important for them to also know the history of their own families.”

Jones graduated from the former Bruton Heights High School in 1961. He earned a degree from the University of Nebraska and then spent 22 years serving in the United States Army. He returned to Williamsburg in 1991 to care for his sick brother, and soon resumed research on his family heritage.

He learned that three of his family members attended the Bray School, one of the first schools for free blacks, in the 1700s. His grandfather’s brother, Andrew Jones, was a businessman who founded one of the first African American training schools in the 1920s.

Jones, who is still researching and has a second book potentially in the works, took a break last year to focus on the push to rename Rawls Byrd Elementary School. Jones was a student when Rawls Byrd was superintendent during segregation in the 1960s. Byrd refused to allow Jones to apply to James Blair, a high school for white students at the time.

“He said that no black kid would ever go to that school,” Jones recalled. “He was not a very kind man. It feels great that they’ve decided to rename the school.”

Jones remains active in the community as a member of the Williamsburg-James City County Men’s Christian Association, Hampton Roads Thursday Morning Breakfast Club, Bruton Heights Alumni Association, and the 100 Black Men of Hampton Roads.

He also assisted with the formulation of African American programs for Jamestown’s 400th Anniversary in 2007. He is a two-time recipient of the prestigious James City County Historical Preservation Award.

Jones hopes to focus more on the history of Williamsburg in his next book, which will include stories about James Lafayette Armistead, a slave from New Kent County who served as a spy for the Marquis de Lafayette during the Revolutionary War. Armistead used to live with the Jones family along Jamestown Road near where Jamestown Settlement is today.

“I enjoy passing on information and enlightening others,” said Jones. “I like validating everything that my grandfather told me. I still share his stories with my children and grandchildren, and I’ve given them each a copy of my book so that they won’t forget.”

Col. Lafayette Jones Jr. will next speak at Freedom Park on April 22.

Read more profiles of local residents in WYDaily’s section In Our Hometown