A large crowd, umbrellas unfurled against a blazing sun, gathered at the Limestone County Courthouse Square in Athens in “fearfully warm weather” on Saturday, June 26, 1909, to witness the unveiling of a monument honoring the county’s Confederate soldiers.
The Joseph E. Johnston Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy had raised money for the monument and were “honored guests” at the dedication ceremony of the county’s Civil War survivors.
“After the exercises were concluded the old soldiers served a delightful barbecue dinner,” the Limestone Democrat reported on July 1. “The splendid barbecue was prepared under the direction of Treasurer Wm. Bridgforth, aided by one of Limestone’s worthiest negroes, Plato Jones.”
The language of the day is cringeworthy in today’s world. Yet, in 1909 Limestone County, Alabama, the newspaper reporting that Confederate veterans had an African-American man preparing barbecue for UDC members is “fascinating to me,” said Rebekah Davis, archivist for Limestone County.
“Because he was born into slavery, into generations of slavery,” she said. “His slave master before the war was one of the most prominent men in Athens, and for him to be in this position then of catering the barbecue for the Confederate luncheon is just so grand. It’s a great story.”
Jones actually earned several mentions in the Democrat in the early 1900s for his barbecuing prowess.
“It seems that he was pretty much the go-to guy for great barbecue when Athens’ movers and shakers planned events around the turn of the century,” Davis said.
Jones was born in the 1840s in Tennessee. By the time of the 1870 census, he was 22 years old and living with his 20-year-old wife, Lizzie, in the Athens house of Thomas and Mahala Jones, who appeared to be his parents. Six other household members, probably Plato’s siblings, were ages 10 to 19, according to “Holding the Fort: A History of Trinity School in Athens, Alabama.”
Jones was a trustee of the Trinity School Society, which incorporated in July 1880 “in order that we may advance the cause of education amongst our own race of people.” What would become Trinity School opened in 1865 and served African-American students in Limestone County until closing in 1970 as a result of desegregation. Jones’ work as a brick mason was instrumental in building the school, Davis said.
In 1878, Jones and his wife bought a 1-acre lot for $75 between Brownsferry and Lucas Ferry roads. By the 1900 census, they had 11 children, including Plato Jones Jr. The younger Plato Jones shared his father’s skills at barbecue and masonry, according to “Holding the Fort.”
When the elder Jones died in April 1917, the Democrat “chronicles with genuine regret the death of Plato Jones, the well-known colored brick mason. … Few negroes have ever lived in Limestone who commanded the respect and friendship as genuinely as did Plato Jones; he was a conscientious, God-fearing man and his death brings regret to all alike.”
The city of Athens honored Jones decades ago by naming a street after him.
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