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Jetta Jones, known for art collection, philanthropy, dead at 95

During her time in Chicago, Jetta Norris Jones broke barriers, becoming the first Black woman trustee at the Art Institute. She worked on the mayoral campaign of Harold Washington and later served in his cabinet.

Jetta Jones, smiling with an orange beaded necklace and a cream blouse. Jones lived the majority of her life in Hyde Park with her husband Dr. James Jones, used her love for art and her background as a lawyer to serve the city.
Jetta Jones, who lived the majority of her life in Hyde Park with her husband, Dr. James Jones, used her love for art and her background as a lawyer to serve the city.
Provided/Courtney Moore

Jetta Norris Jones grew up in a time when famous Black women role models were few.

By the end of her life, she had become that role model for others, fulfilling her parents’ wishes that she break barriers.

And so she did, becoming the only Black woman in her class at Yale Law School and the first Black woman trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago.

“Her priority always remained advancing the well-being of the African American community,” said Denise Gardner, chair-elect of the Art Institute Board of Trustees. “She really turned out to be quite a role model for me ... and I used to marvel at the way she was able to effect change. She was quite good at it.”

Mrs. Jones, 95, died April 9 in her daughter’s home in Los Angeles. After being diagnosed with dementia, she moved there in 2013 to stay with family.

A lawyer and art enthusiast who “could connect with everyone,” Mrs. Jones lived in Chicago for 60 years and held numerous prominent positions in the city. She served on the Art Institute’s Leadership Advisory Committee, the Women’s Boards of the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, and the Lincoln Park Zoological Society Board of Trustees. On a national level, Mrs. Jones was a board member of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Teri Edelstein, former deputy director of the Art Institute, said Mrs. Jones was instrumental in bringing together African American community members to create the Leadership Advisory Committee and implement the museum’s $5 million audience development grant.

Edelstein said Mrs. Jones seemed to be close friends with everyone, and would ask those she knew, like Lerone Bennett, executive editor of Ebony magazine, to join the team.

Gardner said Mrs. Jones, who she saw as a mentor, brought her on the committee to serve in a marketing role.

“I was touched by her spirit, and she seemed like the kind of person that was really going to make things happen,” Gardner said. “She’s left quite a legacy.”

Mrs. Jones mobilized the committee members with grace and kept the group functioning to perform community outreach, Gardner said.

“She had a very powerful way of coming to good decisions in a way that was accepting of everybody’s point of view,” Edelstein said. “As someone who I relied upon tremendously, that was her great strength. As a friend, she was one of the most loving and wonderful people that I’ve ever known in my whole life.”

Born in Philadelphia in 1926, young Jetta grew up in the city, later attending Mount Holyoke College before Yale Law. Her father, an attorney, urged her to give up pursuing a career as a child psychologist in favor of legal studies.

Courtney Moore, Mrs. Jones’ youngest daughter, said her mother moved to Chicago because she was intrigued by the politics and wanted to pave her own path.

Upon arriving in Chicago in the early 1950s, she worked for the city and a few aldermen before becoming a member of former Mayor Harold Washington’s cabinet as the director of external affairs in 1983.

In 1953, she met Dr. James “Jimmy” Jones at a party in Chicago after being introduced by a mutual friend. Moore said they complemented each other intellectually, sharing a “great sense of humor” and a love of art. The two were married for over 50 years. Dr. Jones, who worked as an OB-GYN with University of Chicago Hospitals, died in 2006.

Mrs. Jones and her husband were active in the Hyde Park-Kenwood area, interacting with the local community of contemporary artists and becoming friends with gallery owners.

Edelstein said the Joneses’ three-story house in Hyde Park was filled from the basement to the attic with art pieces.

“Art was a very big piece of our life growing up,” Moore said. “My parents were avid collectors with a very eclectic appetite for art.”

Before moving to Los Angeles, Mrs. Jones donated several items to the Art Institute, including an African ceremonial weapon, an African mask and a painting by AfriCOBRA artist Nelson Stevens which is on display in the exhibition titled “Bisa Butler: Portraits.”

“She loved Chicago, she thought it was a greatest city in the world,” Moore said. “She loved the energy. She loved the beauty. She loved that it had such a strong representation of African Americans who were doing great things whether it was in government or private industry.”

Following a visitation last month at Unity Funeral Parlors, Mrs. Jones was buried at Oak Woods Cemetery, next to her late husband.

Besides Moore, Mrs. Jones’ survivors include two other children, Julie Simms and Josh Jones, as well as several grandsons and great grandchildren.