A Final Salute to Dr. H. G. Jones

[This post was written by Donna Kelly, Head of the Special Collections Section.]

Whether you knew him as H. G. or Dr. Jones, he was certainly a formidable presence. I was fortunate to call him my colleague and my friend. While working at Historical Publications in 2000, he approached me about publishing a book called, Sketches in North Carolina USA, 1872 to 1878: Vineyard Scenes by Mortimer O. Heath, in cooperation with the North Caroliniana Society. His steadfast attention to detail brought both admiration and frustration. The final product sits on my bookshelf with his personal note to me, which was written on his 78th birthday: “For Donna, who made this book possible and beautiful. With thanks and best wishes, HG Jones, 7 January 2002.”

H.G. Jones sits behind a tabble with various photocopies in plastic sleeves spread out in front of him.

Historian H. G. Jones looks over his papers and sketches from his compilation of Sketches in North Carolina USA: 1872 to 1878. 2002, News & Observer file photo. Reproduced with permission.

Dr. Houston Gwynne Jones was born on January 7, 1924 in Caswell County and he passed away on October 14, 2018 in Chatham County. Throughout his life he was the ultimate historian, recording his own thoughts and activities in a daily journal, now preserved as part of his collection (PC.1681) at the State Archives of North Carolina. He served as director of the Department of Archives and History and as state archivist from 1968 to 1974. When the agency no longer had departmental status, he made certain that the biennial report for 1970–1972 was printed with a black cover. In fact, the opening paragraph of his director’s report stated: “It must be something like preaching one’s own funeral—the writing of the final biennial report of the State Department of Archives and History as an independent state agency.”

H.G. Jones behind a desk with books and papers on it. A typewriter sits on his left and a bookshelf stands against the far wall

H. G. Jones, State Archivist, 12 September 1956; Photo by D. Phillips. From the General Negative Collection, State Archives of NC, N.56.9.28.

After graduating high school, H. G. volunteered for the Navy in World War II. He wrote about his experiences in the book, The Sonarman’s War: Chasing Submarines and Sweeping Mines in World War II. After the war he attended school under the G.I. Bill, earning both a master’s degree and Ph.D. He then taught for several years until he was appointed State Archivist of North Carolina by Gov. Terry Sanford in 1956. In 1968, Dr. Jones was tapped to serve as the director of the State Department of Archives and History, until he resigned in 1974 to take on the duties of the curator of the North Carolina Collection and adjunct professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill. Many of today’s public historians took courses under him. He retired from that position in 1994, although he became the Thomas Whitmell Davis Research Historian and could be seen in a carrel in Wilson Library conducting research until his health prevented him from doing so.

From 1969 to 1986, Dr. Jones wrote a weekly column titled “In Light of History,” which was devoted to North Carolina history. He also wrote many award-winning books, including For History’s Sake, Local Government Records, North Carolina Illustrated, and North Carolina History: An Annotated Bibliography. Just a few years ago, he wrote Miss Mary’s Money: Fortune and Misfortune in a North Carolina Plantation Family, 1760–1924.

Dr. H. G. Jones, with pipe and beard, January 1974; Photo by Randall Page. From the General Negative Collection, State Archives of NC, N.74.1.162

In 1975, Dr. Jones co-chartered the North Caroliniana Society to encompass all the state’s cultural heritage, not just history. He remained secretary-treasurer of that organization until 2010. As evidenced in his collection at the State Archives, Dr. Jones served as chair or president of nearly all of North Carolina’s historical organizations at one time or other during his lifetime. He was appointed to the North Carolina Historical Commission in 1978 and served as an emeritus member from 2002 until his death. Nationally he was elected president of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), secretary of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), and commissioner of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). His publication, The Records of a Nation, was used as evidence during the Watergate hearings.

Dr. Jones received numerous accolades throughout his career and beyond. A few of the highlights include the Award of Distinction (AASLH), the Award for Distinguished Service in Documentary Preservation and Publication (NHPRC), the Christopher Crittenden Memorial Award (North Carolina Literary and Historical Association), the Ruth Cannon Cup (North Carolina Society for the Preservation of Antiquities), the John Tyler Caldwell Award (North Carolina Humanities Council), and the North Carolina Award for Public Service, bestowed upon him by Gov. Mike Easley in 2002.

There are many more things that could be noted here about Dr. Jones, but many of his accomplishments can be read online using a simple Google search. Here are but a few links:

What I will remember most is my last visit with him on September 19, coincidentally my birthday. I shook his hand and he told me how much he pitied the archivist who would have to organize his papers. I smiled and assured him that his collection was in much better shape than most that make their way to the Archives. His voice was weak, but his spirit was strong, and it was evident that he was concerned about his legacy, even near the end. His wish was that his papers be preserved in the State Archives, an agency that grew stronger under his leadership as both an employee and later as a member of the Historical Commission, spanning over half a century.

Portrait of Dr. H. G. Jones, emeritus member of the North Carolina Historical Commission, May 18, 2015.