April 22, 2018

Remembering Clara Stanton Jones | Backtalk

On October 20 I had the privilege of attending the memorial service for Clara Stanton Jones in Oakland, CA. Her death on September 30 at age 99 gives us the opportunity to pay homage to her, and reflect on of the personal and professional sacrifices of generations of trailblazing librarians. For over a century librarians have been willing to place themselves on the bleeding edge of social change in America, and Clara was a model in that respect.

Clara Stanton Jones was a giant in this profession and urban libraries, in particular, owe her a special debt of gratitude. Jones’s professional accomplishments during a career that spanned 40 years included many, many “firsts.” From the time I joined the American Library Association (ALA) as a student I heard of Clara Stanton Jones, the first African American president of ALA.

It was not until much later in my career that I became aware of the significance of the other monumental ‘first’ in her career. In 1970, Jones became the first African American and the first female director of the Detroit Public Library (DPL). However, of perhaps even greater historic significance is that her elevation to that position in Detroit also made her the first African American in the nation to lead a major public library.

Like so many professionals of color whose careers intersected with the beginnings of affirmative action in the American workforce, Jones faced daily challenges to her intellect and abilities, and constant affronts that tested her character. Upon her appointment as DPL’s director, two dissenting commissioners and a top administrator resigned, and the Friends of the Library withdrew their offer to supplement the new director’s salary. Nevertheless, she was confident in her abilities and singularly focused on her goals. The detractors who imagined that a barrage of racial epithets and insults, backroom conspiracies, and carefully orchestrated counter-measures could derail her, found themselves outmatched. They misjudged her and they misjudged the times. They were outmatched in wit, in intellect, and in class.

Much of what I know of Jones on a personal basis has come from people at DPL who knew her well. Many shared stories that are a reminder that Jones was not only a trailblazing professional, but also a warm and caring person. Carolyn Moseley, her secretary (who has also served five subsequent DPL directors) stressed that Jones genuinely cared about people and felt a responsibility to use her position and resources to provide opportunities for others to be successful.

I once asked Moseley what Jones really had to say about the injustices she faced at DPL because of her race. She said, “Mrs. Jones didn’t discuss those kinds of things in the presence of her staff.” That doesn’t surprise me in the least. Clara Stanton Jones never lost sight of the importance of presentation and perception.

Taking great pride in her fortitude, we might imagine that she never wavered, but that is not true. Yet, I’m relieved to know that she surrounded herself professionally and socially with people who helped to lighten the load of being a barrier-breaker. Jane Hale Morgan, her deputy director and successor as director, stated that Jones often used her as a sounding board, and in the midst of the controversy about her ALA presidential candidacy, Jones sometimes telephoned her late at night in need of a sympathetic ear.

Reflections at her memorial service reminded those in attendance that Jones’s entire professional life embodied the verse, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” She was from a generation of middle-class African Americans for whom the expectations of life were set early, and Jones took those expectations seriously. Her parent’s admonition to “never forget who you are, where you came from, and where you’re going” no doubt sustained her through many turbulent days.

She was graceful and gracious, and her personal style enhanced the already abundant qualities that led to her tremendous success. Jones was elegant and fashionable, and keenly aware of how physical presentation, even the timbre of her voice, could be used to garner support for causes in which she believed. Although she was only 5’6” in height, many people describe her as having been “tall” and refined. Her confidence and regal stature, enhanced by her personal style, no doubt left a bigger-than-life impression.

I was fortunate to meet Jones while I was director of DPL. She graciously accepted an invitation to meet with me during a trip I made to California. I felt that I had been granted an audience with royalty. Meeting her in person was like coming face to face with history; the history of race relations in America, the history of the library profession, and the history of DPL. I sat in awe of this woman of nearly 90 years who touched so many lives and inspired so many people of all ages and races. Although our encounter was brief, I left the meeting feeling that I had been given the seal of approval, and it emboldened me to embrace the sense of fearlessness alive in her legacy.

Jones was keenly aware that we all stand metaphorically on the shoulders of those who came before us, and she embraced the fact she was heir to a long line of trailblazers. Jones proudly reflected that at the board meeting at which she was appointed director, her critics were silenced by an eloquent speech that compared her qualifications to those of the two previous directors. That speech was made by Marjorie Bradfield, the first African American librarian hired by DPL in 1937.



  1. Kenneth Jones says:

    Dr. Wheeler, your essay about my mother has left her youngest son in tears of appreciation and fond memories. Those who knew her publically and professional thought very highly of Clara Stanton Jones. To my borther, sister and me, she was “Mama” who showed us unconditional love. Her absolute first priority was to be there for our needs, providing a shinning example of her teachings that we, too, can achieve our dreams while fulfilling our respnsibilities.

    Please think of Clara Stanton Jones as a pioneer, leader and intellectual power, but also think of her as a loving wife and mother who taught strength-of-charater. She would remind us all that we are not in competition not with others, but with the best that we can possibly do.

    Her accomplishments as a mother and professional were also greatly complimented by the fact that she was married to a prince, truly a man for all seasons.

    Thank you for your rememberances of my mother.

    Kenneth Jones