The author, Bertha F. Wilson, is an archivist at the World Bank Group Archives in Washington, DC where she has worked for 23 years. As a member of the Archives’ Access to Information team, she works with external researchers to facilitate access to the Bank’s historical records. In this article, her third contribution in a series that celebrates Black History Month, Bertha highlights former Bank Group staff member Thelma D. Jones. Jones, who is still very active in her community, has a long history of commitment to volunteerism and passion for creating opportunities for others.
I met Thelma D. Jones in 2001 when I visited her office to pick up a T-shirt for a World Bank Group (WBG or Bank Group) volunteer event. I recall being impressed with her energy and warm smile as she handed out the T-shirts from different boxes carefully organized by size. This was the beginning of my volunteer activities and cooperation with Jones, which included dozens of events that were hosted by organizations such as the World Bank Group-International Monetary Fund (WBG-IMF) Staff African American Association, the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA), and many more.
Jones’ hard work and achievements have laid a foundation where diversity and inclusion among Bank Group staff can be valued and shared. She opened the doors of the Bank Group to the local community via tours, internship opportunities, and cultural celebrations that gave staff the opportunity to engage. In August 2010, Jones organized a Bank Group-wide tour for SWNA Youth Activities Task Force (YATF) students that included a tour of the World Bank Group Archives, which I developed and hosted. After hearing more about Jones’ achievements, I was inspired to learn about the history of her role and how she contributed to the World Bank Group in the past.
Jones’ Bank Group career began in April 1972 when she was hired as a typist, and she retired in October 2005 as a Communications Associate. She held positions in many departments across the organization, including the Operations Evaluations Department; the United States Executive Director’s Office; Investment Department Director’s Office; Finance and Private Sector Development; External Affairs; and the World Bank Institute. Upon his retirement, Colbert “Colby” I. King, United States Executive Director, and later a columnist for the Washington Post and Pulitzer Prize winner, recognized Jones’ talents in his farewell remarks: “...Ms. Thelma Jones, may be the best in the Bank.”
During her 33-year tenure at the World Bank Group, Jones not only volunteered or led volunteer efforts internally for the organization, but also in the Washington, D.C. community in a personal capacity. She was profiled in the August 1985 edition of the internal staff newsletter, Bank’s World, where she shared that her parents, who were sharecroppers (tenant farmers), had taught her about civic responsibility. Jones, one of eight siblings – six girls and two boys – grew up on a farm in Snow Hill, North Carolina. During and after graduating from high school, she worked for the local Neighborhood Youth Corps which found part-time jobs for underprivileged youth. While there, Jones was encouraged to continue her education and subsequently enrolled at Durham College in Durham, North Carolina, where – to support herself – she also held a part-time position in the Secretarial Science Department. After graduating from college with honors, she moved to Washington, DC and eventually settled in Southwest DC in 1976. Southwest DC was, and remains, the focus of Jones’ volunteer and community activities.
“… my mom, in her infinite wisdom, didn’t think returning to North Carolina was a good choice. So, she had arranged for me to come and stay with her sister and her family here in D.C. And, of course, I got a job through a temporary agency, the agency assigned me [to] The World Bank, and the rest was history for more than thirty-three years.” - Thelma D. Jones, quoted in Oral history conducted by Lola Rogin
Her home, work, and college life uniquely prepared her for the roles that she filled later in life including her work as one of two staff who represented the Bank Group in the United Way’s “Loaned Executives” program in 1985. From 1977, Jones was actively involved in the Bank Group’s United Way Campaign and was its chairperson in 1992. With twin challenges of a sluggish economy and the negative news articles about the United Way published at the time, Jones embraced her role with gusto, rallying staff to actively participate in the campaign. As the World Bank Group’s charitable efforts evolved, Jones was a key task force member to propose a new approach separate from the United Way and ultimately was a principal founder of the new Institutional Outreach Program in 1997. Today’s Community Connections Campaign, which disbursed almost $12M last year to charitable organizations, is an integral part of this program.
Building community and sharing African American history and culture are Jones’ hallmarks. Jones is the founder of the WBG-IMF Staff African American Association, established in 1999, and is the President Emeritus. She was responsible for initiating the first Black History Month celebration in the World Bank Group in February 1994 and the Bank Group’s annual Kwanzaa celebrations in 1996. The impact of Jones’ achievements is still felt today, as staff of the World Bank Group continue to benefit from these activities and groups.
Outside the Bank Group, Jones was the Volunteer Training Coordinator for the SWNA Youth Activities Task Force in Washington DC, and in 1986, she spearheaded summer internships at the Bank Group for young people affiliated with this organization. By 1999, the Bank Group’s Summer Internship Program was modeled after the one Jones led at SWNA YATF. Jones is also a breast cancer survivor, and in 2012, founded the Thelma D. Jones Breast Cancer Fund (TDJBCF), modeled after the The Breast Cancer Support Group of the Bank and Fund. The TDJBCF support group primarily helps African Americans and historically underserved communities.
When Jones moved from North Carolina to Washington, DC – eventually settling in Southwest DC – she was part of the Great Migration of African Americans from America’s southern region, which occurred from 1916 through the 1970’s. DC’s Southwest has a long history. The earliest inhabitants were Algonquian people, who remained in the area even as it developed into the Federal City in the late 1700s. In the mid-19th century, Southwest DC was a stop on the Underground Railroad, which facilitated the escape of enslaved people. By the 1950s, Southwest was home to a thriving African American community and other ethnicities. However, the “urban renewal” program implemented during the 1950s and 1960s demolished 99% of the homes, displaced 23,000 individuals, harmed 1,500 businesses, and destroyed the history and culture of African American neighborhoods; and yet it became a model emulated by other large American cities. Southwest and the Wharf area of DC is experiencing another evolution, which may be characterized as another community displacement, where open spaces, street views of the waterfront, and most recently a popular fish market are now only memories.
In keeping with her volunteer spirit, Jones has stepped-up her service to the Southwest community during COVID-19 by organizing deliveries of nutritious meals, fresh produce, personal protective equipment, and Christmas gifts to those who would have gone without.
Jones has received numerous awards, honors, and citations, including: the White House Champions of Change award; the Mayor’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Community Service; and the "Seven on Your Side Black History Month Honors," an award given by local DC television outlet, WJLA.
“I am a community activist, philanthropist, breast cancer survivor, advocate and founder and board chair of the Thelma D. Jones Breast Cancer Fund. I am also a parent, grandparent, and a doting pet owner.” - Thelma D. Jones, quoted in "‘My Life's Purpose is to Build a Living Legacy’, Thelma Jones”
Jones has enriched our organization with her energy, individual spirit, and care. By creating opportunities to celebrate our diversity and leveraging our combined strengths for the benefit of each other and our clients, Thelma, and other staff like her, are the change they want to see in the world.
The writing of this article was supported by Thelma D. Jones. Jones participated in several conversations with the author and reviewed a draft of the article prior to publication. Jones has been profiled frequently both in World Bank Group publications and by the external media. A list of these publications and a selection of other related resources, some of which have been used to write this article, is available here.