Joe Louis Jones: Guru of Shelby County

Photo of Joe Louis Jones taken at the Historic Courthouse on May 14, 2015.April 10, 2016 - In its broadest sense, “guru” is defined as a teacher or master of certain knowledge. When that knowledge concerns local history, there is no one who could hold the title of “Guru of Shelby County” other than Joe Louis Jones. That is because of his docent work in our historic court house, his interest and expertise in local history, his still-sharp memory and, of course, his longevity. He is simply unmatched in his ability to pass on the love and knowledge of our rich local history to future generations.

While Louis Jones has backed off of his long-time job as docent of Shelby County’s Historic Court House, he and I continue to talk regularly about things historical. Most of our frequent conversations are often triggered by his telephone call to me—a call which begins either by “Do you know this song”, followed by his singing of it; or “Did I tell you about the time that…” This inevitably  leads to some interesting historical tidbit or, better yet, to some historical fact which is foundational to the future essence of a county we now enjoy.

His call last week is worth repeating, just as countless earlier ones were. It started like this. “Do you know that you are talking to possibly the only person alive who can say that they knew a slave, first hand?” That caught my attention, since it was easy to count the number of years (152) since slavery was abolished. “How can that be?” I asked.

He continued. “Back in about 1936, when I was a very young boy, I was riding with my dad in his pickup, and we passed a black man on foot. He had grey hair and seemed so old that maybe he shouldn’t be walking down the road by himself. So we stopped and were greeted appreciatively when we offered a ride. In the next few minutes with him in the cab, I discovered that he had been born about the middle of the 19th century and, indeed, had been a slave in the area for a few years before emancipation.”

It seems like a simple story but for the fact that a link to the distant past had been established. Just as important, it was the one and only Louis Jones who remembered an episode in his early life that brought local history to life. Sadly, that link with the mid-19th century is all but gone except for written historical accounts and the rare bits of oral history shared by Louis and a very few others.

In an even broader sense, Joe Louis Jones is one of only a few 4th-generation residents of Shelby County who are still alive to tell of real-life events of their mid-19th century ancestors. That is because oral history, passed down from father to son, is always personal and tends to be very accurate. In Louis’ case, his great grandfather, Louis Jones (1790-1865) came down the Mississippi by boat from Indiana to settle, even before the mid-19th century, in the Newbern area. His grandfather, Pleasant Louis Jones (1835-1920), in the same area of our county, started the first school in Shelby County—the Friday School.  (His father was Pleasant Dalton Jones (1882-1872).

It was this Friday School of the late 19th century that was the topic of our telephone conversation this week. A rather scant history of our early schools suggest that the Friday school, indeed, was taught only on Friday because the children were needed at home, transportation was inadequate, and/or school attendance once a week was sufficient in those days.

Finally, those who enjoy genealogical reports may read a rather complete account of the first Jones family to arrive in Shelby County and their descendants. That was compiled for and reported a couple of years ago in the online magazine, “We the People of Shelby County” at