According to the FBI James Wormley Jones was one of the first, if not, the first African American FBI agent. Jones was born in Newport News, Virginia on September 21, 1884 to John Bradford Jones, a lighthouse keeper and Sally B. Jones who assisted him in his duties.
James Wormley Jones died on December 11, 1958. Under color or race on Jones’ death certificate he is identified as “white.” Numerous times in the US census he is listed as white, as well, though only as an adult. He spoke before the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which the Bureau of Investigation specifically employed him to infiltrate. During the event in New York he held himself out as black. Nevertheless, he had to explicitly convey to those in attendance that he was not white.
Why should he be considered an African American when the only record identifying him as being colored or mulatto dates back to his childhood years at fifteen? When acting as an undercover agent for the Bureau of Investigation (precursor to the FBI) to infiltrate and undermine the largest mass movement of African people in the world he mislead those involved. He lived and died as a person who identified as white. Therefore, he is exactly who he identified himself as being: so-called “white.” He never personally identified himself as being the first African American FBI agent. It is a slander against all well meaning people who identify themselves as African American, Black, Negro, or Colored to promote someone who outright rejected them as a model or icon to emulate. He, at best, represents a pseudo caucasian ie., a false Caucasian. Jones is a false Caucasian because he did not identify his full ancestry to people who identify themselves fully as “white.” James Wormley Jones gave up his African ancestors in favor of his Caucasian ancestors. In doing so, he forfeits the fullness of his heritage. That implies disdain for self, at least in part, if not fully.
For that reason, Jones epitomizes the tragic mulatto; stuck in a netherworld of being not enough of anything to matter. The only exception comes when he betrays the one group with whom he originally could have been considered having a full and true identity. For that, he is considered a hero by those who could never fully accept him simply because he has a heritage which is not fully white. Were they to fully accept him as white, they would have to cease conforming to the “one-drop theory” and likewise cease referring to him as solely African American. What is at stake here is his full humanity. Jones’ dehumanization is most shocking when the speech which he gave to the Universal Negro Improvement Association during 1920 is analyzed.
Because the audience initially mistook him for a white man, Jones put them at ease by declaring himself to be a “Negro.” He does this by, himself, invoking the “one-drop rule.” He then goes on to proclaim that he has no more privileges than “the blackest man.” He qualifies his suggestion by informing his listeners the view represents that of the “white man.” It seems that he has subconsciously revealed he himself does not share such a view. Most Black people are who they are through their own views. What a “white man” says they are went out with slavery.
After reiterating the fact that he is viewed as “a Negro” by others he proceeds to plead for an end to the distinction “among our own people.” A curious statement considering that one of the leaders of the UNIA, none other than the Honorable Lady Henrietta Vinton Davis, lacked melanin enough to be considered both mulatto and octoroon at different times in her stage career. Furthermore, she acquired a home in a segregated Washington, DC neighborhood by allowing her neighbors to believe that she was a “Cuban lady.”
Jones goes on about the “class distinction” among the “Negro race” then somewhat invokes Garvey by stating, “the greatest danger to the Negro is the Negro himself.”
From there Jones focused on the accomplishments of Russia, Germany and Japan. He used their achievements as a model for the Negro to emulate. He finished that section with a somewhat pessimistic statement to the effect that it is now or never for the Negro. His willingness to betray them seems to align him on the side of those who look forward to never.
Lastly, Mr. Jones calls on those in attendance to become members of the UNIA. He tells the audience that the ideas they have are fine but they can not be accomplished without money. What must he really have been thinking?
The “tragic mulatto” such as Jones is caught between a rock and a hard place. Never fully accepted by people who identify themselves as white; only valued among those Black people who, likewise, hate themselves for what and who they are not. By concealing a part of their heritage, the tragic mulatto never really has a purpose that speaks to who they are in totality. Dubois’ “double consciousness” does nothing for them as they have given up one “consciousness” for another. People who identify as white only see the tragic mulatto as useful when they are betraying the very people who love them probably more than they love themselves. If the tragic mulatto fully loved themselves they would not betray Black people and embrace their full heritage such as Henrietta Vinton Davis tended to do. The only purpose they seem to represent in the world is to take the position of representing the interests of people who identify themselves as white to Black people; a kind of living cultural conduit, nothing more. Identifying with Africa, African culture and African redemption never seem to hold a place for them and they openly discourage such an identity in others. Other than that they seem to lack little purpose.
Most telling about Jones’s insignificance is the fact no known photos of him survive. He was not important to the FBI. He was not important to the U.S. Army. He was not important to the DC Police. None of them thought he was important enough to photograph. He was a married man with children. His daughter even got married and had children herself. Yet no photos of Jones survive. It’s almost as if he never existed.