Jones was born in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and was the son of William Jones and Louisa Jones. By 1850 he had moved to Pittsburgh, where he was recorded in that year’s census as living with his mother and siblings in the city’s eighth ward. He was also enumerated in the sixth ward household of John C. Peck, an African American leader in western Pennsylvania’s Underground Railroad network who worked as a barber and wigmaker and to whom Jones was apprenticed. A decade later Jones reported to the census taker that his occupation was hair worker and that he possessed $1,000 in personal property. Jones attended Allegheny Institute and Mission Church (later Avery College), which was affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and later in his life others often commented on his fine handwriting.
Jones helped organize two militias of African American men in Pittsburgh, the Hannibal Guards about 1856 and the Fort Pitt Cadets about 1860. In May 1862, two months before Congress authorized accepting African Americans into noncombatant military roles, he offered the services of the cadets to the United States Secretary of War and also pledged to recruit two hundred men. Jones was drafted on July 10, 1863, as a private into the 8th Infantry, United States Colored Troops (USCT), which was mustered into service at Camp William Penn, in Philadelphia, on November 1. Quickly promoted to sergeant major, he was with the regiment at battles in South Carolina and Florida before being transferred to Virginia in August 1864. The following month the regiment joined other USCT units at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm/New Market Heights, in Henrico County. Jones was appointed regimental clerk of the 8th Infantry on December 14, 1864. When the regiment entered Petersburg on April 3, 1865, its commanding officer, breveted Brigadier General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, reported that the troops received “a most cheering and hearty welcome from the colored inhabitants of the city, whom their presence had made free.” The 8th Infantry participated in the Appomattox Campaign early in April 1865. Jones was reassigned to headquarters of the 2nd Brigade during June and July 1865 while the 8th Infantry served on the Texas/Mexico border. He mustered out as a sergeant on November 10, 1865.
1867 Statistics Concerning Freedmen’s Bureau Schools
After briefly working in Saginaw, Michigan, Jones had moved to Virginia by December 1867, when he signed a petition to the constitutional convention then meeting in Richmond that called for public transportation and schools not to be racially segregated. From January 19 to July 23, 1869, he served as postmaster of Newport News, in Warwick County, a job that was traditionally reserved for political appointees. By the spring of that year he was teaching in one of the Newport News schools conducted by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (generally known as the Freedmen’s Bureau). Armstrong, his old commanding officer who since 1866 had been a bureau official in the vicinity, may have recruited him. On April 25, 1869, in the Elizabeth City County town of Hampton, Jones married Philadelphia-born Annie M. Stevens, who acted as his teaching assistant. They had one daughter before her death on March 21, 1876. The small wooden school housed as many as seventy-five regularly attending students who advanced rapidly according to Jones. He did not receive his promised salary of 25 cents per pupil and only a $7.50 monthly stipend for lodging. Five days before his wedding (and shortly before the bureau closed all its schools), Jones complained to the bureau’s assistant superintendent of schools, Ralza Morse Manly, that “I have taught until I am without clothing or money.” To supplement his income he worked as a shopkeeper at the time of his marriage.
Jones was active in local politics and in September 1870 he chaired the Republican nominating convention for the First Congressional District and was also named to the party’s state central committee. That November he was elected court clerk for Elizabeth City County. On November 7, 1871, he won election to a two-year term in the House of Delegates to represent the counties of Elizabeth City and Warwick. He received 556 votes in a crowded field, with his nearest competitor receiving 345 votes. Jones was appointed the lowest-ranking member of the Committee of Schools and Colleges. He unsuccessfully recommended that the Committee for Courts of Justice report a bill giving local authorities the jurisdiction to compel confiscated personal property be returned to its owners. Jones presented a petition from some of his Elizabeth City County constituents supporting a bill to impose a tax on oysters, which ultimately failed to pass in the state senate. Newspaper reports at the times of Jones’s elections to the House of Delegates described him as a Radical Republican. This was an accurate description since in April 1872 he was active in the state convention of the radical members of the Republican Party of Virginia, which elected him an alternate delegate-at-large to the Republican Party’s national convention later that year.
During the session that began in December 1872 Jones sponsored a successful bill authorizing Elizabeth City County to borrow money to rebuild the courthouse destroyed by fire during the Civil War. He also introduced a resolution and a bill that were particularly pertinent to African American citizens. The first was a resolution that the Committee for Courts of Justice “be instructed to inquire into the expediency of reporting a bill defining the authority of sheriffs and constables in making arrests, and preventing said officers from striking, shooting or abusing persons whom they arrest, except in self-defence.” The committee determined that the duties of these officials were defined adequately and that no new legislation was required. The second was a bill to amend several sections of the code adopted in 1860 “in relation to offences against morality and decency” that had prohibited interracial marriage, provided different penalties for free and enslaved persons who committed adultery, and targeted enslaved people or specifically referred to free people in prohibiting houses of prostitution, lewd conduct, grave robbing, and desecration of churches. It did not pass, either.
Jones won reelection in 1873 with 1,070 votes out of more than 1,700 cast, sweeping a field that included African American independent candidate Alexander G. Lee. Jones once again occupied the lowest seat on the Committee of Schools and Colleges, and was also appointed the lowest-ranking member of the Committee on Labor and Poor. He sponsored unsuccessful legislation related to oyster-harvesting tax laws and again to laws governing social behavior. During the two sessions that met in 1874 and 1875, Jones and other like-minded elected politicians continued to contend with a hostile white majority. Early in 1874, he and a group of African American legislators denounced the General Assembly’s resolution to oppose the passage of a civil rights bill, then pending in the House of Representatives. Jones and the others demanded that Congress pass the bill, which they viewed as “the only hope of our protection.”
In August 1875 Jones was a delegate to a state convention in Richmond that had been called to address the political and economic discrimination faced by African Americans in Virginia, and he was appointed to the committees on address and on organization and labor. He ran an independent campaign for a third term in the House of Delegates in the autumn of 1875 and was defeated with 296 votes out of 1,426 cast in a four-man race won by regular Republican candidate Robert M. Smith, who was also African American. Two years later Jones ran for the Senate of Virginia and was badly defeated in a three-way race by Daniel M. Norton. Jones continued his political activism and in March 1881 represented Elizabeth City County at a state convention of African American Republicans who met in Petersburg and voted to affiliate with the new biracial Readjuster Party, which promised to refinance the prewar state debt to enable the state to appropriate more money for the public school system. He joined a small group that withdrew from the convention and issued a declaration insisting “that the colored people agree to support no man who will not agree to vote for the abolition of the whipping-post,” for repeal of the poll tax as a prerequisite to vote, and for “the maintenance of the free schools.”
On June 23, 1878, in Hampton, the widowed Jones had married Margaret Blunt, a native of Greenville, North Carolina, and fifteen years his junior. They did not have any children. In 1880 Jones reported to the census enumerator that he was a justice of the peace. He later received a patronage position as a customs inspector and worked at Norfolk in 1883 and at Newport News early in the 1890s. On February 9, 1885, Jones was elected junior vice commander of Post 9 of the Grand Army of the Republic in Hampton. He was a deputy sheriff in Warwick County in 1887 and 1888 and later studied law, qualifying to practice in the county court on January 10, 1895. Jones was active in buying and selling property, as well as acting as a trustee in others’ land transactions. From 1873 to about 1885 he owned a town lot in Hampton valued at $150. Rufus Jones died on July 17, 1897, and was buried at Hampton National Cemetery, in Hampton, where his grave is marked with a simple stone.