Jesse Holman Jones (April 5, 1874 – June 1, 1956) was a Democratic politician and entrepreneur from Houston, Texas. He served as United States Secretary of Commerce from 1940 to 1945.
His most important role was to head the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), (1932–1945), a federal agency originally created in the Herbert Hoover administration that played a major role in combating the Great Depression and financing industrial expansion during World War II. Jones was in charge of spending US$50 billion, especially in financing railways and building munitions factories.
Born in Robertson County, Tennessee, Jones was the son of tobacco farmer and merchant William Hasque Jones and Laura Anna Holman. His mother died in 1880, when he was six years old. His father sent him to manage a tobacco factory at age 14, and at 19 he was put in charge of his uncle's lumberyards. Five years later, after his uncle, M. T. Jones, died, Jones moved to Houston to manage his uncle's estate and opened a lumberyard company, which grew quickly. During this period, Jesse opened his own business, the South Texas Lumber Company. He also began to expand into real estate, commercial building and banking.
In 1908, Jones constructed a new and plant for the rapidly growing Houston Chronicle in exchange for a half-interest in the company, which had been solely owned by Marcellus Foster. The relationship between Jones and the Chronicle lasted the rest of his life. In 1926, Jones became the sole owner of the paper and named himself as publisher. In 1937, he transferred ownership of the paper to the newly established Houston Endowment Inc.
Sometime after 1908, Jones organized the Texas Trust Company. By 1912, he had become president of Houston's National Bank of Commerce. This bank later merged with Texas National Bank in 1964 to become the Texas National Bank of Commerce, renamed to Texas Commerce Bank which grew into a major regional financial institution. It became part of JP Morgan Chase & Co. in 2008.
In 1911, Jones purchased the original five-story Rice Hotel from Rice University although the university retained the land on which it stood. He razed the original structures and constructed the present building, which he then leased from Rice. The 17-story Rice Hotel opened on May 17, 1913 and was closed in 1977. From 1998 to 2014, this building was known as the Post Rice Lofts. Jones soon made his mark as a builder across Houston, and helped to secure federal funding for the Houston Ship Channel, which opened in 1914 and made the city a viable port.
President Woodrow Wilson offered him the position of Secretary of Commerce, but Jones decided instead to focus on his businesses — though he could not refuse when Wilson asked him to become director general of military relief for the American Red Cross during World War I.
Reconstruction Finance Corporation chairman
When the Reconstruction Finance Corporation was established in 1932, President Hoover appointed Jones to the RFC's board, even though Hoover was a Republican and Jones a Democrat. In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made him the Chairman of the RFC, while also expanding the RFC's powers to make loans and bail out banks. This led some to refer to Jones as "the fourth branch of government." Roosevelt reportedly called Jones "Jesus H. Jones." According to Joseph P. Lash, the President considered Jones too conservative and shot down a strong movement to make Jones the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1940.
Jones retired from the RFC on July 17, 1939, to become Federal Loan Administrator (head of the Federal Loan Agency, which supervised the RFC and some other bodies).
Secretary of Commerce
Jones later served as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's United States Secretary of Commerce from 1940 to 1945.
Later years and death
Jones resigned as Secretary of Commerce on March 1, 1945.
He retained the title of publisher of the Houston Chronicle until his death on June 1, 1956, at the age of 82. His remains were interred in Houston's Forest Park Cemetery.
Suite 8F Group
Jones was also an active participant in the so-called "Suite 8F Group." This was composed of very wealthy, politically active businessmen who met in Suite 8F of the Lamar Hotel in downtown Houston. The group raised money to elect influential politicians who supported their conservative business and political views. Beneficiaries included, but were not limited to, Congressman, Senator and President Lyndon B. Johnson, Congressman Albert Thomas, and Governor and Secretary of the Navy John B. Connally, Jr.
Houston Endowment Inc.
In 1937, Jesse Jones and his wife, Mary Gibbs Jones, established Houston Endowment Inc., which eventually became the largest private foundation in Texas. It was the principal beneficiary of the Jones's estates, ultimately owning a large number of businesses and buildings, mostly in Houston. Jones was named president of the foundation, and remained so until his death. He was succeeded as president by his nephew, John T. Jones.
In 1925, Jones was granted an LL.D. honorary degree from Southwestern University.
In 1941, he received an honorary degree in Doctor of Laws from Oglethorpe University.
Thanks in large part to the largesse of the Houston Endowment, the name of Jesse H. Jones is memorialized throughout Houston. The home of the Houston Symphony is Jesse H. Jones Hall in the Houston Theater District. Jones High School and Texas Southern University Jesse H. Jones School of Business are historically black institutions. The Jones family had a strong influence on Rice University as well, with the eponymous Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management founded in large part by a gift from Houston Endowment Inc., and Jones College named for Mary Gibbs Jones. The Jesse H. Jones Student Life Center, a recreation facility at the University of Houston–Downtown was also named for Jones.
In the Texas Medical Center (Houston), there are the Jesse H. Jones Rotary House Hotel, a hotel for MD Anderson Cancer patients and family members, the Jones library building for the Houston Academy of Medicine/Texas Medical Center; and the Jesse H. and Mary Gibbs Jones Pavilion (1977) connecting Memorial Hermann Hospital to the University of Texas Medical School. The original site of Texas Woman's University Houston campus, across the street from the HAM/TMC library, included Mary Gibbs Jones hall; TWU moved to a new location in 2006 and the original site became part of Houston Methodist Hospital.
Other Jones buildings include the Houston Public Library's Central Library building and the headquarters for the Houston chapter of the American Red Cross.
The University of Texas at Austin's College of Communication is named after Jones, where there is also the Jesse H. Jones Chair in the Liberal Arts, held by the renowned philosopher T. K. Seung. Baylor University's central libraries comprise the Jesse H. Jones Library (1992) and the Moody Memorial Library (1968).
The Jesse H. Jones Physical Education Complex on the campus of Texas Lutheran University in Seguin bears his name.
In 1956, the Jesse Holman Jones Hospital was built in Springfield, Tennessee, to replace the original hospital there. This hospital operated until 1995, when a new facility, NorthCrest Medical Center, was constructed.
Beyond buildings, one may visit the Jesse H. Jones Park and Nature Center in Humble. or drive across the Houston Ship Channel (for which Jones was the driving force) on what was once (1982–1994) the Jesse H. Jones Memorial Bridge.
Newspaperman Bascom N. Timmons penned a biography of Jones in 1956 entitled Jesse H. Jones: The Man and the Statesman.