Broken, Abused and Battered,
but Not Destroyed
By: Rebecca S. Jones
HOUSTON – Jolanda “Jo” Jones hails from the hard knocks streets of Third Ward. Life for her has never been a bed of ease; instead it has been quite the contrary. As a young child, she experienced a devastating tragedy that would serve to profoundly affect her family life. Shortly after returning home from Vietnam, her father ended his life with her in the room. Following the tragedy, she suffered torturous nightmares and was often bullied by childhood acquaintances who teased her, about her father’s suicide. Eventually, she and her mother moved from Third Ward, leaving those childhood acquaintances behind. Remembering the pain she encountered, she chose to keep her father’s secret to herself.
As time went on, Jolanda became the oldest of four siblings. Her mother being a single parent would often need babysitters while she went to school. It was during this time, that Jolanda was repeatedly raped by her uncle who babysat her. She was less than ten years old. Threatened by her molester for years, she never told a soul. Needless to say, she suffered emotionally, psychologically and physically from the abuse.
The Struggle Continues…
Growing up, life was a pure financial struggle for her family. Oftentimes, they were evicted, had utilities disconnected and made their home any place in the city that would allow them a lease. At a young age, she was responsible for the rearing of her siblings, as their mother worked to make ends meet. In our interview she shared, “I was miserable, forced to be an adult, as a kid.” To add to the list of unfortunate incidents, the family lost most of their possessions in a house fire. Their rent home was consumed from using candles in place of electricity. Sentimental valuables of her father were destroyed, including memorabilia from his service to the United States Marine Corps and his art work as a student under the tutelage legendary TSU art teacher John Biggers.
A Shift in the Atmosphere:
Over time, the perils she faced during her tumultuous upbringing served as a mountain of motivation for her. From watching television she gathered that, “all the rich people were doctors and lawyers.” This ideology created a desire within her, to aspire to become a physician or an attorney. Though her mother was always working, she consistently encouraged, promoted and enforced education to her children. That factor combined with, Jolanda’s realization, in kindergarten, that the student with the highest grade received a “smiley face” stamp on their paper further motivated her. She said, “I made it my mission in life, to always get the highest grade, so that I could be the only who got the smiley face.”
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In addition to excelling in academics, Jolanda found comfort in sports. In searching for an escape from chores, she noticed playing sports privileged her to come home later. While playing football, basketball, dodge ball, racing in the streets and participating in other sporting games; her athletic potential manifested. In the seventh grade, she began running track at Lanier Junior High School. She recalls her track coach, Barbara North being an instrumental mentor for her. On occasions when her mother was unable to drop her off or pick her up from practice, it was through the hospitality of a classmates and their parents, who allowed her to do sports; like when her seventh grade track teammate Falana Batiste’s mom took her from practice and allowed her to spend the night; or her high school track teammate Laurie Boydston, who when she learned Jolanda was getting up and walking to school in the morning to arrive by 6am, started picking her up for track practice. Those are just a few, but it took a village.
In eighth grade, her mother moved the family to Alief, after finding out that it was noted amongst one of the best school districts in Texas. In this era, there were very few African-Americans in the area. Hence, Jolanda was confronted with racism for the first time in her life after relocating. She has vivid memories of being called n*&&a and having to fight the racists at the bus stop. She suffered humiliation at school because of her race.
By the time she arrived at Elsik High School, she endured being discriminated against amongst some of her White peers, including some teammates, who did not want her on the varsity basketball team. Notwithstanding her outstanding athletic abilities, as a freshman, she was not welcomed on the varsity by some of her teammates. She was bullied, called racial epitaphs and made to feel not welcomed, so she begged the varsity coach to be able to play on the junior varsity team. The coach acquiesced but she dominated so much on junior varsity, often scoring over 30 and 40 points a game, her coach moved her up to varsity when district play began. Even then she wasn’t welcomed so on the bus, rather than sit in the back of the bus with the varsity team, “I would always have to sit with Coach, because my teammates were so mean to me,” she recalled.
Overall, Jolanda excelled abundantly in numerous capacities while in high school. She graduated from Elsik High School magna cum laude, was an All-American in both, track and field and basketball and was All-State in cross country. Furthermore, she was the only person to win the Texas State 5A Team Championship as an individual, winning the 800 meters, 400 meters, and high jump, setting the state record at 6’1 ½”, and placing 2nd in the long jump, scoring all of Elsik’s 38 points, tying the entire Dallas Carter team. These achievements earned her the prestigious Houston and Vicinity Outstanding Scholar Athlete and the Hertz #1 Award, where she was chosen as the best athlete in Texas, male or female, and was flown to NYC and presented the award by the now-infamous OJ Simpson. Although things were looking up for her academic and athletic-wise, death continued to pervade her family life. Before graduating high school, she had lost: two uncles to suicide, several cousins to the penal system and her aunt was killed in a brutal murder. In spite of, she remained focused and committed to persevering through life’s unfortunate circumstances. She said, “At that point in my life, I was just doing what I could to change my station in life.”
With the slew of honors Jolanda earned from her phenomenal stint at Elsik, she was presented scholarships galore from major universities all over the country, including the Ivy Leagues. She decided to matriculate at the University of Houston. While there, she continued to advance in her capabilities. As such, she was on various university and community boards and organizations; a member of the student government, as well as Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.; nominated for the Rhodes scholarship; the 1989 US Track and Field Heptathlon Champion and NCAA Top Six Award winner; runner-up for SWC Female Athlete of the Decade for the 80s; two-time Academic All-American and earned an unprecedented three NCAA heptathlon championships. Ultimately, she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in Political Science and her outstanding achievements in scholarship, athletics and community service earned her an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship.
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