Little more than a year after Clarence “Jeep” Jones was promoted to become Boston’s first Black deputy mayor — the highest-ranking Black official ever in city government at that time — he was looking forward to a future when others would follow the trail he had forged.
“I just hope that when I leave this job, I can leave it with some people having obtained positions in the administration that will allow them to respond to the Black community as people have been able to respond to other communities,” he told the Globe in June 1977.
Mr. Jones, who went on to serve on the Boston Redevelopment Authority board for 32 years, including 24 as chairman, died Saturday. He was 86 and had lived in Roxbury.
“More than anyone I know, he was into the pursuit of excellence and there was nothing that could stop him,” said Mel King, a longtime politician and one of Boston’s most prominent Black activists. “He deserves the highest honors and accolades for his activities in the community and for being a role model for all of us.”
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Mr. Jones was “a well-loved and widely respected community leader."
“He was an icon in our city, who gave us so much through his tireless work in making Boston a more equitable and inclusive place for all,” Walsh added. “We will miss him, and we vow to continue his work.”
For a time when they were young, Mr. Jones and future Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn were guards together on the Bruins, a legendary semi-pro basketball team coached by Jack Crump.
“He was a real team player, on and off the court. He was a team player for the City of Boston, and he was a team player on the court,” said Flynn, who remembered his longtime friend as “a great ball-handler” in their backcourt days.
Mr. Jones, who grew up in Roxbury, rose through the ranks of Mayor Kevin White’s administration and had led the city’s Youth Activities Commission for three years and the Office of Human Rights for four years before White appointed him deputy mayor.
“If the mayor made that choice of Jeep Jones, then he’s got a man who has integrity and a vested and honest interest in the Black community and the city at large, beyond race,” his longtime friend the Rev. Michael E. Haynes, then-pastor of Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, told the Globe in March 1976, days before Mr. Jones was appointed. (Haynes died in September.)
As one of White’s deputy mayors, Mr. Jones oversaw the departments of elections, human rights, manpower, penal, traffic and parking, and veterans.
And while his appointment gave Boston’s Black community a prominent voice in City Hall, he noted that his responsibility was to all citizens.
“I don’t want to be a Black deputy mayor,” he told the Globe in June 1978. “I want to be a deputy mayor who’s Black.”
He subsequently served on the Boston Redevelopment Authority board from 1981 until September 2013, and had been chairman from 1989 onward.
“You are one of our city’s greatest public servants and have made us a stronger, more prosperous, and inclusive place to live, work, and visit,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino wrote in a letter thanking him for his service, shortly before his last authority meeting.
Menino also named Clarence “Jeep” Jones Park in Roxbury in his honor.
When Mr. Jones left the deputy mayor job in November 1980, White immediately nominated him to join the Boston Redevelopment Authority board.
At the time Mr. Jones stepped down, one of his friends told the Globe that Mr. Jones had been concerned about the toll the job had taken on his health. He had also grown frustrated that he wasn’t allowed to do more in White’s administration.
“As is so often the case with a pioneer, Jones had to spend too much time blazing trails and fighting grizzly bears to consolidate territory,” a Globe editorial said when he announced he was leaving.
“The fact that Jones stayed aboard so long attests to his character and commitment," the editorial said. "He became the ‘conscience’ of City Hall.”
Clarence Jack Jones Jr. was born April 17, 1933, a son of Clarence Sr. and Elizabeth Middleton Jones. The family lived on Oakburn Avenue in Roxbury.
“It was such a close-knit community,” Mr. Jones said in a March 2008 interview conducted for Northeastern University’s Lower Roxbury Black History Project.
Down the street from his childhood home was an empty lot where construction debris from demolished houses was dumped. Mr. Jones recalled that he and other youths chopped wood from the pile, which their families used in wood stoves to heat their homes.
His athletic prowess, particularly on the basketball court, provided a route to higher education. “If I had told my friends that I wanted to go to college, they would have laughed at me,” he told the Globe in 1969.
For a time he played on a team, made up of student athletes from various high schools, that traveled to games throughout the state and New England.
A basketball teammate nicknamed him Jeep, which he said he initially didn’t like, “but it stuck.”
For neighborhood adults, his success was something to celebrate.
“I was one of the first, if not the first, kid off the street to go to college, and it was so important to people,” he told the history project. “People were buying me white shirts and things like that to take with me to school.”
He graduated from what was then Winston-Salem State College in North Carolina, where he was a four-year starter on the basketball team, served as the team’s captain, and later was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
In 2005, Northeastern University awarded him an honorary doctor of public service degree.
After finishing his bachelor’s degree, Mr. Jones served in the Army at the end of the Korean War before returning to Boston, where he was a teacher for two years and then a street youth worker. He told the history project he served as a Juvenile Court probation officer before becoming executive director of the city’s Youth Opportunity Task Force.
Mr. Jones and his wife, Wanda Hale Jones, whom he married in 1983, were extensively involved with Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, where he had served on the board of trustees and as a deacon.
“He was not only a good man, he was a great man. He was a tremendous role model and advocate and a devout Christian leader,” said the Rev. Arthur T. Gerald Jr., the church’s current pastor. “He was my mentor and one of my best friends. And I love him dearly and will miss him sincerely.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Jones leaves three daughters, Meta Jones and Melissa Elow, both of Dorchester, and Nadine Jones of Mattapan; four sons, Kenneth Cunningham of East Boston, Michael Jones of Malden, Mark Jones of Dorchester, and Mark Cunningham of Tampa; a sister, Jacqueline Hoard of Boston; 15 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday in Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury.
Mr. Jones, who died on the first day of Black History Month, was a trailblazer as he rose high in city government and at the redevelopment authority. His thoughts, though, remained with the youth in Boston’s neighborhoods.
“I know it’s impossible,” he told the Globe in March 1969, when he was appointed director of the Youth Activities Commission, “but I’d like to know personally every kid in the city.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.