ENGLEWOOD — Harriet Marin Jones had no idea her grandfather was a Chicago history maker.
Growing up in Europe, Jones’ mother rarely spoke of her grandfather. She knew he was African American and an “amazing man,” she said. The stories ended there.
A 17, Jones moved to Chicago for a year to study at Loyola University. She was living with her grandmother when classmate Nicholas Ford — who later became a Cook County Circuit Court judge — picked her up and learned her grandmother’s name was Lydia Jones.
“He asked me if I was related to Edward Jones,” Jones said. “When I told him he was my grandfather, he asked if I knew my grandfather used to run the Policy business in Chicago, went to prison and was kidnapped. I had no idea. I started wondering what the whole story was. What had been kept hidden from us?”
That question continued to rejuvenize Jones on her 10-year journey to create “Kings of Kings: Chasing Edward Jones,” a documentary disclosing the untold story of Policy in Chicago and the Black men behind it.
The illegal racket thrived as thousands of people paid small amounts of money — sometimes a penny — for a chance to hit the daily number drawn from a spinning cylinder to make big bucks. The Policy kings ruled the neighborhoods and wielded tremendous influence in Chicago.
The documentary premiered this week at the Chicago International Film Festival. Neighbors in Englewood can attend a free screening 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Hamilton Park Cultural Center, 513 W. 72nd St. Jones will host a Q&A session with attendees after the film.
Through interviews, archival footage, newspaper clippings, family photos and animation, “King of Kings” tells the story of Edward Jones, a descendant of slaves who moved to Chicago in the early 20th century and created a $25 million empire as the leader of Policy syndicate.
The game laid the foundation for what eventually became the Illinois State Lottery, the numbers game legalized in 1974.
Jones melded interviews with civil rights activist Timuel Black and musician Quincy Jones with commentary from Jones’ descendants to tell a historical and family story for the film.
“I wanted to do a documentary where I mixed all the generations,” Jones said. “I wanted to have people that knew my grandfather, but also people today. I wanted to see the repercussions of the story of the Policy Kings compared to how it was then and today.”
‘Robin Hood Of Chicago’
After studying at Loyola, Jones didn’t return to Chicago for years. But her grandfather’s story was “always in the back of my head,” she said.
Throughout the years, Jones wrote two books, worked on a television show, directed a play and launched online courses to fund her passion project, she said.
“I just knew I wanted this film to go all way and finish it so it could be on the screen and people could see it,” Jones said.
When Jones realized she “needed to learn more,” she returned to Chicago and spent hours looking for articles, Jones said. She spent days at the Library of Congress. When documents and photos were no longer enough, she started doing interviews that “blew my mind,” she said.
Edward Jones, alongside his brothers George and Mack, was “the Robin Hood of Chicago,” Quincy Jones says in the film.
Although Policy was an illegal game, the Jones brothers funneled their millions into the Bronzeville community, launching the careers of doctors, lawyers and artists and creating small businesses in the neighborhood.
The Jones Brothers also founded the Ben Franklin Store on 47th Street, the world’s only Black-owned and -operated department store.
But adjacent to stories of riches and success were stories of kidnappings, ransoms and alliances with Chicago gangsters such as Al Capone. Jones would run to Mexico with his family to escape the repercussions of dealing with the mob.
“As a filmmaker, once I started digging into the story, I was like, ‘Wow, this is an amazing story. I couldn’t dream of a better story than this,’” Jones said. “It has all the ingredients of gangster films and Hollywood epics. For me, it was exciting. I didn’t feel the weight of history at that time. I was excited by the energy of the interviews and finding out more things every day.”
The Jones brothers created a legacy in Chicago, transforming a nickel-and-dime game into a multi-million dollar enterprise that took them to the Cotton Club in New York and parties with Frank Sinatra, Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday. They also faced racism, discrimination and segregation.
When it came time to edit, Jones had 50 hours of interviews, 40 hours of archival footage and 100 photos to sort through, she said.
“King of Kings,” named after Jones’ grandfather’s nickname in the city, is her attempt at “telling this story the best way that goes beyond my family story,” she said.
“I have two children who are French, and it’s their story, too,” Jones said. “It was important for them to know their own story and that the blood that’s running through their veins has this amazing, colorful past. Beyond my children, I want Chicago and the United States to know that this is the history of this country.”
Jones’ grandfather’s story is proof anyone’s family can be rich with a legendary history, she said. You have to do the work and ask the questions to get to the truth, she said.
“I think the history of my grandfather was amazing, but the story of everyone is amazing,” Jones said. “If you start digging into it, there’s so much you can learn.”
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