Edward Smyth Jones
Edward Smyth Jones was born in Natchez, Mississippi in March 1881 to enslaved parents named Hawk and Rebecca. Jones attended local schools while growing up and developed interests in reading and writing. He studied at Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College for fourteen months during 1902–03, exchanging his labor in lieu of tuition fees.
Jones self-published his first poetry collection, The Rose That Bloometh in My Heart and Other Poems (1908), after he moved to Louisville. He released the book under the pseudonym Invincible Ned. The book of thirty-one poems includes an ode to Paul Laurence Dunbar and the parody “A Psalm of Love” based on the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem of the same name. Jones’s other works are his best-known collection, The Sylvan Cabin: A Centenary Ode on the Birth of Lincoln, and Other Verse, which includes a brief introduction by poet William Stanley Braithwaite as well as a dedication to the judge who had freed Jones from jail, and Souvenir Poems: Our Greater Louisville (1908), both of which were self-published. Jones was anthologized in the Works Progress Administration publication An Anthology of Negro Poetry By Negroes and Others, edited by Beatrice F. Wormley and Charles W. Carter (1937); Robert T. Kerlin’s Negro Poets and Their Poems (Associated Publishers, Inc., 1923); and James Weldon Johnson’s seminal anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922). More recently, Jones was featured in Poems and Songs Celebrating America (Dover Publications, Inc., 2014).
Jones, who relocated to Indianapolis later in the 1900s, made the news in July 1910, when he hiked and stole freight-train rides east to make his way to Harvard Yard. Once he arrived, he asked to see Harvard University’s president to plead his case for an education there. Instead, Jones was arrested for vagrancy and spent three days in jail. While incarcerated, he wrote the poem “Harvard Square.” Friends soon enabled him to attend Boston Latin School for one year. However, Jones soon had to leave due to financial trouble. He took a job as a server at the Columbia University Faculty Club to recoup funds—a fact that was revealed when he was profiled in the New York Times. In 1913, Jones sent one of his poetry collections to President Theodore Roosevelt as a gift. The president thanked Jones in a letter through his secretary.
Unlike his better known contemporaries, Jones abstained from writing dialect poetry in favor of more conventional verse. In his book, Freedom Readers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy, scholar Dennis Looney cites Smyth’s “Harvard Square” for the Italian poet’s influence on the poem, noting how Smyth uses The Divine Comedy as an allegory for the African American experience in the early twentieth century.
Little is known about Jones’s later life. By the twenties, he was likely working as a laborer in Chicago. He died there on September 28, 1968 of a cerebral thrombosis.