A century ago, a son of former slaves became the FBI’s first black special agent
By KATHERINE HAFNER | The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot | Published: November 19, 2019
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — It was a rocky time for America.
Just coming out of World War I, the U.S. economy was on shaky ground, workers were striking and a series of domestic bombings had scared the nation — particularly its authorities.
Against that backdrop, said FBI historian John Fox, a 35-year-old black man from Fort Monroe, Va., the son of at least one former slave, decided he’d work for the still-nascent Bureau of Investigation, which had formed 11 years earlier. He applied on November 19, 1919.
James Wormley Jones was accepted later that month and became the FBI’s first documented black special agent. Under the direct supervision of J. Edgar Hoover, he worked to infiltrate a black nationalist organization led by Marcus Garvey. Before that, Jones had served as a captain in the Great War abroad and as a police officer in the District of Columbia.
Yet there’s little to be found about Jones beyond his biography.
“We really don’t know all that much about him, even what he looked like,” Fox said. (A photo circulating online and used to promote a recent Newseum event is in fact a photo of a different James Wormley, a prominent black D.C. hotelier who died in 1884.)
A century later, the FBI is celebrating Jones as a trailblazer.
“When special agent Jones joined the FBI in 1919, he charted a course for” other black agents, Paul Abbate, FBI associate deputy director, said at a recent event honoring the history of African Americans in the bureau.
“Over the last 100 years, African American special agents have led the investigations of many of the FBI’s most significant cases (that) reflect the fact that African American special agents have been at the forefront of preventing, disrupting and investigating” crime.
‘There should be books written’
Jones was born in September 1884 at the Army installation on Fort Monroe.
His father, John Bradford Jones, was a lighthouse keeper for Old Point Comfort Light who previously had been enslaved in Hampton Roads. Fox said there’s some evidence that John Jones at one point had been enslaved aboard the CSS Virginia, the ironclad that Confederates built out of the scuttled USS Merrimack. His mother, Sally Jones, also likely was a freed slave.
At some point, James Jones attended public schools in Cambridge, Mass., but returned to Virginia for later schooling, including a year at Norfolk Mission College for Negro Students, a forerunner to Booker T. Washington High School. He also completed a few years at Virginia Union University in Richmond but “did not take any degree,” according to his FBI application — which was common for the era, Fox said.
Jones married and had two children with his wife, Ethel.
He joined the Washington metropolitan police department as a foot patrolman, then moved through the ranks to horseman, motorcycleman and eventually detective, said John Glover, a retired FBI agent who was the bureau’s highest-ranked black agent before retiring in 1989, at a recent commemorative event.
“There should be books written about James Wormley Jones.”
In 1917 Jones joined the Army and was sent to Gondrecourt in northeastern France, where he instructed fellow soldiers in handling explosives, Fox said. He was in the segregated “Buffalo Soldiers” 92nd Infantry Division.
According to the 1919 “Official History of the American Negro in The World War” by Emmett Scott, a special adviser to Secretary of War Newton Baker, Captain Jones was “reported to have stood like a stone wall and rallied his men, when others were wavering in the face of a murderous fire and of great odds.”
He “displayed such fine leadership, such fearlessness of danger, that his Division Commander, in a personal talk with the writer, praised in highest terms the valor and leadership shown by the Captain,” wrote Ralph Tyler, who was the only African American accredited by the U.S. government as a war correspondent in World War I, reporting on black soldiers, according to a Journalism History article.
Tyler wrote that Secretary Baker praised Jones in a particular fight: “When the awful bombardment died away, just as the gray streaks of early dawn pierced the night’s blackness, which was made grayer by a thick heavy fog, (Jones) ordered a charge ‘over the top’ with fixed bayonets; through the treacherous fog and into no-man-knew-what or seemed to care.
“Trench after trench of the enemy was entered and conquered … The newspapers have given due and proper credit to the Americans for this daring raid, but the world has not been informed that it was the colored soldiers of America, under Captain J. Wormley Jones, a former Washington, D.C., policeman, who made the charge that was as daring, and more successful, than the Tennyson-embalmed charge of ‘The Light Brigade.’ ”
Returning home to the capital, Jones resumed a role in the police department but soon submitted his FBI application. Fox said it’s unclear whether he was recruited but guessed that Jones’ local law enforcement ties brought him to the attention of the bureau. There were only a few hundred total agents at the time.
At the time, the big focus at the then-Bureau of Investigation was on a series of anarchist attacks that happened earlier that year, Fox said, including a blast that blew up the attorney general’s front porch.
“There was a big push across the nation to find out who was involved in this,” Fox said.
A young Hoover was put in charge of the new General Intelligence Division that sought to monitor “radicals.”
“The purpose was to basically find out what the scope of the radical threat was,” Fox said. “They cast very broadly. Supporters of anarchist movements, supporters of movements more based on racial separatism,” all came under the focus of the division.
“The bureau had a specific need for people who could get close to Marcus Garvey.”
Jones was hired and soon was put to work — there was no training program back then — undercover in Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, a controversial group that advocated a return to Africa for black Americans. Jones reported directly to Hoover.
Fox said he believes Jones became a secretary with some role in keeping the books at Garvey’s organization. Garvey later was convicted of mail fraud.
A few years later, the bureau pulled back on what it was doing in pursuing subversion cases “because DOJ had overreacted, in many ways, to the threat,” Fox added.
By 1923, when Jones left the bureau, a handful more African Americans had joined as agents, including James Amos, a former bodyguard for President Theodore Roosevelt who worked for the FBI for three decades.
Jones joined the Pittsburgh police department until retirement and died in Pennsylvania in 1958. His brother, Paul Jones, also was a police officer in Washington and died in the line of duty in the ’30s.
“We believe that the history of African Americans in the bureau is the history of the bureau,” said FBI spokeswoman Christina Pullen. “We’re proud of that legacy.”
The FBI has been marking the 100-year occasion throughout 2019, including at an event earlier this month at Washington’s Newseum.
At the event, Glover, the retired agent, said he thinks the FBI “will always struggle with diversity,” which is a challenge nationwide. Today, fewer than 5% of FBI agents are black.
Pullen said the bureau has been pushing a minority recruiting initiative in recent years to help diversify its workforce.
“We want to look back at the past, but also want to look toward the future, and what we look like in another 100 years.”
As for Jones, Glover said it’s no wonder the bureau found his strong law enforcement and military background appealing.
“He’s the kind of guy I would look for.”