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Shocking and tragic end to activist's incredible life

Brian Wright O’Connor | 11/12/2010, 7:48 a.m.
Activist Andrew Philemon Jones. (Photo courtesy...

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Activist Andrew Philemon Jones.

Andrew Philemon Jones didn’t just play the violin, he made it sing. Horsehair bow flying over the strings, resin rising like smoke, he’d walk around the room, coaxing notes and chords from the fragile shell that came at you in a wall of sound.

Throughout the performance, his eyes would peer out over the lacquered wood, gauging the effect of his solo symphony as his digits ran up and down the fingerboard. A wry smile completed the picture of Andrew in his glory, provoking with music before setting down his beloved violin to provoke you with ideas.

In all the years I knew Andrew, he was a gentle soul – angry at injustice towards humanity but possessing a great love towards humans. News of the manner of his death in South Africa came as a shock. In late October, after an argument with his estranged wife – the mother of their three young sons – Andrew left their office, returned with a handgun, and fired one bullet. The shot went through her shoulder. He pulled the trigger a second time. The gun jammed. Andrew killed himself after she fled from the room. He was 58 years old.

Andrew had battled demons but demons could hardly explain or condone such a violent end.

Friends and family who attended his funeral in Johannesburg, the city where Andrew had started a new life after leaving Boston in 1995, were similarly shocked. His wife, Kubeshni Govender Jones, was sufficiently recovered to attend the services, as were their boys – Cochise, Sicelo, and Ayanda.

Many Bostonians may remember Andrew as the driving force behind the Greater Roxbury Incorporation Project (GRIP) – the movement for the secession of Boston’s African American neighborhoods into a new municipality. The 1986 referendum campaign attracted national attention and embarrassed the Flynn administration, which mounted an aggressive campaign to defeat a ballot question seen as a vote on the quality of City Hall’s governance of Boston’s black community.

 The idea for black self-governance was not a rebuke, however, to the South Boston-born mayor who made racial reconciliation a theme of his administration. It came to Andrew during a stint as an ABC News field producer covering a town hall meeting in Vermont, where the notion of self-determination, deeply stamped into the character and landscape of rural New England, struck in Andrew a resonant chord.

It just seemed to Andrew like the right thing to do. “The right of a people to self-determination cannot be denied,” he often said. “It’s as American as apple pie.”

Working with urban planner Curtis Jones, Andrew launched the campaign in 1985. By the following year, the pair had come up with the name “Mandela” for the municipality in honor of the imprisoned South African leader.

Faced with the hope of self-rule on one hand and predicted financial disaster on the other, voters rejected the question by a 3-1 margin in the midst of national news coverage of the bid for black self-determination.

Andrew was “crushed” by the loss but acknowledged that GRIP should have been hatched at kitchen tables in Roxbury rather than over linen table cloths at the Harvard Faculty Club. Joyce Ferriabough, who ran the opposition campaign, respected Andrew’s passion but questioned his judgment. After hearing Andrew grumbling about Flynn’s “plantation politics,” Joyce confronted him.