Mary Elizabeth (Bessie) Jones

BESSIE JONES, A GOSPEL SINGER, LIVES ON ST. SIMON’S ISLAND, photograph by Paul Conklin in Brunswick (Ga.), May 1973. National Archives at College Park Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S), Record group: Record Group 412: Records of the Environmental Protection Agency, 1944 – 2006, Agency-Assigned Identifier: 076/03/004503, via Wikimedia Commons

African American, Autoethnography, Cultural Activism

Mary Elizabeth (Bessie) Jones


Bessie Jones was a singer who shared the Gullah music traditions and taught about Gullah children’s culture at schools and festivals. She was among the first National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellows in 1982.

Born in rural Smithville, Georgia, Bessie Jones was raised by her mother Julia and stepfather, James Sampson in Dawson, a Black farming community in mainland Georgia. Immersed in the Gullah traditions of her environment, she immersed herself in the musical and play traditions of her community.  From an early age, Jones had been expected to work in the fields or take care of other people’s babies, thus she received sporadic schooling until she was 10 years old and then became a full time nursemaid to a white family. Forced to marry an older man at age 12, she gave birth to her daughter, Rosalie, before she was ready to be a parent.  In 1924 when her daughter was 10, Jones left her daughter in the care of her mother and found work as a domestic, laundress, agricultural worker, and a cook, while seeking to enjoy her own youth in Georgia and Florida.  Two years later, in 1926, her first husband died, and in 1928, she married her second husband, George Jones. The couple became seasonal migrant workers, and in the off-season Bessie Jones worked as a maid and cook. In 1933, after settling near her husband’s family on St. Simon’s Island, she continued working as a migrant worker as well as a nurse for children of white families who lived or vacationed on St. Simon’s Island. On St. Simon’s Island, Jones joined the Lydia Parrish Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia, a group dedicated to cherishing the living traditions of the island. After several years, on Jones’s recommendation, the group changed its name to the Georgia Sea Island Singers. 

In the mid 1950s, Jones met Alan Lomax when he came to record the Spiritual Singers. Lomax was impressed by Jones’s singing and her interest in teaching her family stories. In the 1960s, he provided opportunities for her to share the knowledge learned from her grandfather with public audiences. Embracing the assistance, she and the Georgia Sea Island Singers and felt a sense of duty to teach the cultural knowledge that had been shared with her by her stepfather’s extended family across the nation. She especially valued how her grandfather Jet Sampson, who had been enslaved in Africa along with his five brothers and brought to the Americas in 1843, had taught her his songs, stories, as well as the traditions that developed during slavery–“the old ways.” She devoted the rest of her life to sharing this knowledge through performances by herself, and with the Georgia Sea Island Singers, in concert halls and festivals, including the Smithsonian Folklife Festivals of the 1970s, where Jones performed traditional spirituals and ring shouts, and taught children’s games and stories. Understanding the power of music to move people, she and the Georgia Sea Island Singers also performed as members of a prayer band accompanying Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and sang with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers in 1964. Jones shared her experiences in numerous interviews, recordings, and books.

Among her publications are:

and Bess Lomax Hawes. Step It Down: Games, Plays and Songs from the Afro-American Heritage (1972)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

(coming soon)