Former Illinois Senate president donates papers to UIC
In the mid-1980s, Emil Jones, Jr., was already a veteran member of the Illinois General Assembly when he met a group of community organizers on the Far South Side that included a young man named Barack Obama.
Jones, who would end up serving three decades in Springfield and would rise to become Senate president, recalls inviting Obama and the others to his district office to help educate them on the world of politics.
“I wanted to show them how things actually worked,” said Jones. “Obama was just a pushy young man. I took a liking to him but he was very naïve as related to elected officials.”
Jones, who retired from politics in 2009, is donating his papers from his long political career to the University of Illinois at Chicago where they will be housed in the Special Collections and University Archives at UIC’s Richard J. Daley Library.
UIC officials will announce Jones’s gift on Nov. 28 during a reception on the UIC campus that will include speeches from former elected officials as well as Jones’s family.
The Emil Jones, Jr., papers contain over 50 linear feet of documents, photographs and memorabilia. Among the items are photos and correspondence from his time serving as a mentor to the future president.
“One day he came by to see me and he said, ‘I enjoy this work, but I always wanted to be a lawyer, and I’m thinking of going to law school.’ He asked me what should he do?,” Jones recalled recently as he leafed through his papers at the Daley Library. “I said, ‘I enjoy working with you, but if I were you, I would leave here and go on to law school.'”
After Obama finished law school at Harvard University, he returned and was voted to the state Senate, where Jones was serving as minority leader at the time. Jones would continue helping his protégé by throwing him difficult assignments that would help him cut his teeth and build up his political muscles.
As a testament to Jones’s role as a mentor, his papers include a photograph of him standing next to Obama in the Oval Office. Underneath the photo is a note signed by Obama, which reads: “To Emil – I wouldn’t be in the Oval without you, my friend!”
While some might consider that role a pinnacle of their career, Jones’s proudest moment was when he helped impoverished schools get their proper share of funding. Federal funds that should have gone to schools with high poverty rates were instead being diverted to general state aid coffers. He sponsored a bill that eventually returned the money to the schools that needed them the most.
“Teachers used to tell me that they had to spend money out of their own pocket to aid and assist students. I said, ‘that’s ridiculous,’ because we are sending all the extra money but it was being used as general state aide,” said Jones. “My whole political career was on the line, they fought me tooth and nail but I accomplished it.”
Jones said he decided to entrust his papers to UIC because of its role as the only public research university in the city. He said he is honored that his papers will be alongside the papers of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who he remembered fought for the university to be built in the city.
He said he hopes his papers help to spur more interest in UIC by the research community and by potential students.
“I felt the papers would be a way for more folks to get involved with the university,” said Jones. “I come from Chicago, I did a lot of things to aid and assist it in my legislative career…the University of Illinois at Chicago is a perfect place for them.”
Along with the Daley papers, the Special Collections and University Archives house rare books, printed materials, manuscript collections and papers from other mayors, state and local office holders, judges and political organizations. Researchers from around the world use the collections to write about Chicago history.
The collection focuses on Jones’s legislative career in the Illinois legislature with the bulk of the collection dating between 1980 and 2000.
The collection also includes photos and documentation chronicling events such as the visit of South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and politician Nelson Mandela, meetings with Fidel Castro during a trade trip to Cuba with Illinois Gov. George Ryan, and meetings with other presidents such as Bill Clinton. They also include more private mementos of Jones’s life and family.
“The papers of Senator Emil Jones, Jr., are a rich contribution to UIC’s political papers collections,” said Mary M. Case, university librarian and dean of libraries. “They document the workings of state government during Jones’s long career in the Illinois state legislature and reveal the political processes that put forward and enacted legislation on issues of social justice, public education, health care, revenue expansion and civil rights. We are pleased to add Sen. Jones’s papers to our collection.”
For more information, visit the library’s Special Collections website.