The City and Mr. Jones

Developer Milton Jones confronts Sistrunk's segregation-induced funk

In Dania of the time, blacks drew strength from one another, and their community flourished. The Jones home was close to Fifth Avenue, the hub of black Dania, where Letty Bryant, grandmother to the Jones boys, was one of the first African-Americans to own a grocery store. There were also bars, restaurants, shops, even a taxi stand. Many blacks held jobs in the skilled trades then, so residents helped each other build homes and do the plumbing, electricity, and carpentry.

They also had to rely on one another for most of their merchandise. What black-owned businesses didn't have -- mostly shoes and clothing -- they had to buy from Jewish retailers, who allowed them to try on apparel and footwear. Other white-owned stores required an African-American patron to guess at her dress size and bring a string premeasured to the length of her foot.

On the Sistrunk Boulevard corridor in Fort Lauderdale, life was much the same. Two black physicians, Dr. James Franklin Sistrunk, for whom the street is named, and Dr. Von Mizell, established the blacks-only Provident Hospital in 1938 -- three years before Milton was born there. The Sistrunk neighborhood was the place for blacks who wanted to spend a hot night on the town; blues clubs, dance halls, a movie theater, and restaurants flourished there.

All in the family: The Joneses (from left, Sean, Barbara, Milton Jr., and Daphne) work closely to make their development company a success
Joshua Prezant
All in the family: The Joneses (from left, Sean, Barbara, Milton Jr., and Daphne) work closely to make their development company a success
Like father, like son: Sean and Milton Jones Jr. drive almost identical black Mercedes sedans to the Regal Trace apartments
Joshua Prezant
Like father, like son: Sean and Milton Jones Jr. drive almost identical black Mercedes sedans to the Regal Trace apartments

Zarline Scott, president of the Fort Lauderdale Black Historical Society, grew up near Sistrunk and remembers the excitement of seeing black performers who played in Miami Beach but were not allowed to dine or sleep in most establishments there. "We got a chance to see Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, Sidney Poitier, Eartha Kitt, a lot of entertainers," Scott recalls with relish. "The best." Sometimes those entertainers stayed in Fort Lauderdale, either at the Hill's Hotel on Sistrunk or with a family that took in boarders. Comments Scott: "It gave them a chance to gig for their people, for little or no money, because the whites paid them so much."

Albert Jones remembers a tight-knit feeling among Broward County's African-Americans. "The black community was really one that was a haven for us kids growing up," he says, "the unity of family and friends and church." Kids called the grownups auntie and uncle, whether or not they were related. Says Albert: "You carried yourself well; said "yes sir,' "no sir'; and any adult could reprimand you." Though they were poor, that sense of community spirit instilled a sense of pride and self-worth in many children, including Milton Jones.

Even as an adolescent, Milton took pride in his appearance. He once removed his shirt before playing sports at school so that he wouldn't come home dirty. But he wasn't above acting like any other child. Milton would sometimes yell at Albert for being a pesky little brother. Albert also recalls that his parents, strict about school and chores, made the boys wash dishes, though that was considered girls' work. But Milton escaped scrubbing plates more often than Albert. "My brother always liked to supervise," Albert says with a grin. "He wouldn't do a lot of menial stuff."

Milton was a straight-A student all through school, but he also found time for fun. On weekends he and other kids walked along the railroad tracks to Port Everglades, packed on to a ferry and rode 30 minutes to the black-only beach that is now John U. Lloyd State Park. Or they stayed on the mainland, caught fish and crabs, and ate oranges from trees growing near the water.

Sometimes one of the families who lived on their street invited all the neighborhood children over to play board games like Scrabble and Monopoly. One would think a future developer might have cleaned up in Monopoly, but Milton says only, "I did OK."

At age ten he started working in his grandmother's grocery store. Mildred and Milton Sr. surely did their part in forging their son's success. "I was a pusher when it came to school," Mildred recalls. "[The boys] knew they'd better go to school." Albert says it was very important to his parents that he and his brother attend college. "[My parents] never had a college education, though my father, with everything he did... it was like he had a college degree." Indeed, Milton Sr. graduated from doing handiwork to maintaining the numerous properties acquired by his boss, white Dania developer Ernest Klatt. The elder Jones gradually recognized the value of real estate, and years later would propel Milton Jr. into a lucrative profession.

Jones Development Corp. is housed in a tiny, utilitarian space in a warehouse located on the west side of the tracks in Dania Beach. The walls are a shade between cream and beige. The metal cabinets are stuffed with documents acquired over the past few decades. After passing through the tiny reception area, one comes across Barbara Jones's desk, which is in similarly cramped quarters. The only superfluous presence in the no-nonsense office is that of two framed, poster-size, early-20th-century handwritten land deeds, dotted with red wax seals. The pieces add a touch of unexpected whimsy; Barbara admires the fine script and marvels at how real-estate documents were once drawn up by hand.

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