Anna Ruth Jones released “Chairman Jones – An Improbable Leader” in 2015 after seven years of research, interviews, fundraising and editing.
By Marie Muir
James Henry Jones climbed out of the tractor’s driver seat, and a 15-year-old Anna Ruth Jones climbed up behind the wheel. The memory remains vivid: Her father’s silent stare followed by four short-but-powerful words: “Go ahead, move it.”
Anna returned to rural Northampton County in 2007 after both of her parents had passed to collect a few anecdotes for their grandchildren. What she discovered was the untold story of her father’s involvement in the 1969 school desegregation crisis.
“There’s a saying that when an old person dies, a library burns to the ground,” Anna says. “And I thought, I better talk to these people who lived this story and who witnessed the story, because I want to tell it from [their] perspective.”
Turns out, Anna was the best person for the job. In 2015, after seven strenuous years of research, interviews, fundraising and editing, Anna released “Chairman Jones – An Improbable Leader.” The 60-minute historical documentary film seeks to answer the question: How does a sharecropper with a middle school education become the first Black man elected as North Carolina board of education chairman?
Truth reveals itself unexpectedly as Anna travels throughout the county interviewing principals and politicians. We learn that the Jones family is descended from enslaved people on Longview Farm, a plantation turned sharecropping farm where Jim Crow laws poison the Piedmont landscape. Following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954, Northampton County was the only county in the nation to file a lawsuit rejecting the decision.
Despite the resistance to integration in his community, James committed himself to improving the quality of life for his family. He attended church and parent-teacher association meetings as well as secret gatherings with fellow civil rights activists. As the story unfolds, another question comes to mind: How did a former IBM employee with zero prior filmmaking experience create an award-winning documentary?
Anna first fell in love with the Bull City while attending North Carolina Central University – it was known as North Carolina College at the time – where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business. Like her father, Anna dedicated herself to becoming a lifelong learner – a journey that included studies at Cornell University, UNC Chapel Hill and the American Institute for Managing Diversity in Atlanta. Following a corporate career in business management, Anna retired in Durham where she felt inspired by Black culture and history and supported by a community invested in storytelling. Once her father’s story started to take shape, Anna enrolled in classes at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, attended the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and networked with local filmmakers.
On a rainy Saturday morning in September 2015, more than 400 friends and family lined up outside of Roanoke Cinemas in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, to attend the premiere of Anna’s film. “Chairman Jones” has been shown at 13 film festivals across the state, nation and world. In 2016, the documentary was celebrated by a sold-out audience at the Durham Arts Council, who named Anna a recipient of its 2017-2018 Emerging Artist Program grant. Anna has since served as a member of the Durham Arts Council, Southern Documentary Fund, Duke Chapel National Advisory Board, Rotary Club of Durham and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. “[The film] was humbling in a way, and then I felt like it was worth every bit of energy and effort that I put into it,” Anna says. “All of those times when I wanted to cry and scream and run away, it was worth all of that just to see [the people of Northampton County] embrace this one little slice of history.”