Clara Stanton Jones Biography
Library administrator, educator, civic leader
Clara Stanton Jones' contributions as the first African-American president of the American Library Association (ALA) have advanced the education of blacks and helped all throughout the country who value and use libraries. She helped develop branch libraries in Detroit, created outreach programs to give access to citizens who never used libraries previously, and showed many what the library can do to enhance learning and by extension, their lives. Jones has stood tall in the face of adversity, earning the admiration of her peers. Known as an important and skilled speaker on behalf of issues facing librarians, she has spoken around the country and is considered to be one of the foremost women in communications.
Jones was born on May 14, 1913, to Ralph Herbert Stanton, a supervisor with the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, and Etta J. Stanton, a schoolteacher. Her father's family traces their ancestry back to a slave owner by the name of Stanton, Jones' great-grandfather. The slave owner must have acknowledged his black progeny for he passed on some of his land to Jones' grandfather. Stanton Mansion and Stanton College in Natchez, Mississippi, are both named after the family. Jones' maternal grandparents were born during the last decade of slavery on a farm in Saint Geneve, Missouri, later moving to St. Louis. They were hard-working farmers who bartered with neighbors for what they needed.
Jones graduated from Summer High School in Atlanta in 1929 at the age of 15. After a year at the Milwaukee State Teachers College, Jones began studying at Spelman College in Atlanta where she completed a bachelor's degree in 1934. Clara went on to earn another bachelor's degree in library science from the University of Michigan in 1938. One week later Clara married Albert Jones, a social worker from New Orleans and began work as a reference librarian at Dillard University library in New Orleans at the invitation of the head librarian. Albert had met Jones during a visit to Atlanta. "I made it my business to try to meet her again and show her some 'courtesies,'" Albert Jones said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). "We ended up courting through the mail and once by telephone each year. Can you imagine lovers planning to get married and we only spoke once a year? We made great preparation for that one phone call! For a while we didn't know what to talk about, but we finally got it together."
In 1940 Jones became associate librarian at Southern University in Baton Rouge. In 1944 the family relocated to Detroit where she worked fort the Detroit Public Library earning several promotions over the next 26 years. She became the first African American and the first woman director in the Detroit Public Library System in 1970, but it was not without controversy.
Jones' appointment to director raised the ire of several board members and the controversy played itself out in the press. One local journalist wrote several articles against Jones' appointment. During the 1970s the automotive industry in Detroit employed large numbers of blacks, many of who were United Auto Workers (UAW) union members. Because of the auto industry's importance to the local economy, heads of automakers like Chrysler and Ford and union leaders like Walter Reuther of the (UAW) could and often did influence community politics and could sway the rank and file. Sometimes it was simply a matter of a phone call from the right office. Members of a coalition of progressive businessmen, community leaders, and educators working for advancement in race relations, threw their support behind Jones' appointment, as did Reuther and the UAW. With help from her many supporters, Jones won appointment and was told by one library board member to "Go on up there to your office and run the library system," her husband Albert recalled. To show their dissatisfaction two other board members and the acting director quit immediately.
Jones recognized that many blacks were not accustomed to visiting libraries. Many had come from the segregated South and subconsciously associated institutions like the library system with "whites only" policies. Prior to emancipation, few blacks had learned to read; many blacks simply did not relate to visiting a library. Jones understood the problem and instituted outreach programs urging inner-city participation in order to solve it. She visited neighborhood churches, schools, and community centers. She visited radio stations and spread the message on television, any place that would allow her to get the word out that the library was there for their use.
Not unlike most large library systems Detroit had its share of funding issues. Jones proved to be skillful with these matters as well. Understanding the politics of funding for a system like Detroit, she urged the state to provide money for the library system's operation, making a convincing argument about its importance to the state as well as the city. Her success earned her speaking engagements at several state library associations around the country. She spoke on many related subjects over the years. One landmark speech she gave at the American Library Association's (ALA) Annual Conference was "Reflections on Library Service to the Disadvantaged," which was published in an ALA pamphlet.
In 1974 Jones ran for the presidency of the ALA but was defeated. But in 1976 the winner, Allie Beth Martin of the Tulsa Public Library, fell ill and died before the end of her term. Jones was nominated by petition the previous year but was reluctant to pursue the position. Her supporters within the organization urged her on, and on July 22, 1976, she was seated as the first black president of the ALA.
In 1977 Jones' "Issues & Answers" Program at the Annual ALA conference highlighted major concerns of its members. Fifteen hundred members participated in a discussion of the social, economic, and technological changes facing libraries. The success of her work like this ALA conference and her abilities as a speaker showcased her as a skillful leader of the organization. The high profile position and her work through the years placed her along side many noted blacks of the twentieth century, counting many as friends and peers, including the poet James Weldon Johnson, the civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, the theologian Howard Thurman, the poet Langston Hughes, and the librarian Dorothy Porter Wesley, to name only a few.
Jones has done much in her lifetime to make learning and books more accessible to the public. She was instrumental in dispelling misconceptions about library access, and her determination has endeared her to many as she fought her battles. Recalling her fortitude in response to the obstacles she faced during her early career Albert Jones told CBB, "She has always had a strong personality and I knew she could handle herself in any situation. I knew she could do it and did do it. After her appointment to director of the Detroit Public Library System people started calling her from all over the country because they wanted to see who this person was. Before she was appointed some people tried to beat her down but she never let it bother her. It was like it wasn't even happening."
McCook, Kathleen de la Pena, ed. Women of Color in Librarianship: An Oral History, ALA, 1998.
Rocky Mountain News, February 13, 1996.
"Clara Stanton Jones," Notable Black American Women, www.galenet.gale.group.com/servlet/BioRC (January 16, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Albert Jones on January 20, 2005.
—Sharon Melson Fletcher
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