Who knew that a man born a slave, with no formal education would go on to become one of the most successful African American businessmen in Arkansas? Wiley Jones defied expectations on every front.
Born in Georgia in 1848, one of six children of a white planter and a slave, Jones was originally named Walter, but was dubbed “Wiley” due to his playful nature.
In 1853, five-year-old Jones moved with his family to Arkansas. They settled on the former acting governor Richard Byrd’s plantation in Jefferson County, twelve miles north of Pine Bluff on the Arkansas River. The family was eventually sold to General James Yell, a prominent attorney and planter in Pine Bluff. On the Yell plantation, ten-year-old Jones drove the mules to the cotton gin. He was later given to Yell’s son, Fountain Pitts Yell, as a wedding present. Jones served as a carriage driver for his master’s wife. He also found work as a mule driver, learned how to run a saloon, and learned the barber trade at the barbershop of his brother-in-law, Ben Reed.
Jones slowly began to accumulate a nest egg. He saved his pay from the barbershop and invested in real estate in Arkansas. He also used his savings to loan money, with interest, to his friends. In 1876, Jones opened a successful saloon at 207 South Main, and his brother James managed several businesses for him. One of Jones’ companies was the well-known Southern Mercantile Company.
He loved horses and horse-racing, so he built a park on fifty-five acres near 17th and Main in Pine Bluff. It was a city recreational park with a harness-racing track. The park was also home to fairs, bicycle races, and annual May Day celebrations. Next to this park was the “Colored People’s Fair Grounds,” which housed amphitheaters and horse stables.
In August 1886, Jones became one of the first African Americans in the nation to receive a franchise to operate a mule-drawn streetcar system, which he established in Pine Bluff. It was named Wiley Jones Street Car Lines and merged with the Citizens Street Railway around December 1890. This later became the electric railway, which the city bought. Now known as Pine Bluff Transit, it is still owned by the city of Pine Bluff.
On June 14, 1889, Jones made investments with Ed B. Houston of White Sulphur Springs. They sold lots to Pine Bluff residents for summer homes.
Jones never ran for office, but he was one of Jefferson County’s most influential political citizens in the 1880s and 1890s. He was a delegate for several national Republican conventions. He served as a circuit clerk of Jefferson County from 1892 to 1894 and was involved in different civic affairs in the city. When the defeated Republican candidate for Congress John M. Clayton was assassinated in 1889, Jones was chosen as one of the citizen’s committee to escort his body from Little Rock to Pine Bluff.
Jones was one of several businessmen who supported the Colored Industrial Institute on 16th Avenue and State Street. He also donated land on Poplar and West Fourth Avenue for the black St. James Methodist Church.
Jones died on December 7, 1904, from a heart attack and Bright’s disease in his home on 19th Avenue and Georgia Street. He was the richest African American in Arkansas at the time of his death, with an estate worth more than $300,000. He was buried in his own cemetery west of Bellwood Cemetery, now known as Miller Cemetery, in Pine Bluff.