Texas Originals

Jesse H. Jones

April 5, 1874–June 1, 1956

During the Great Depression and World War II, one of the most powerful men in the United States was a tall, silver-haired Texan named Jesse Holman Jones.

Born in 1874, Jones made his fortune in real estate and banking. He helped get the Houston Ship Channel built and brought the 1928 Democratic National Convention to the city. He became sole owner of the Houston Chronicle in 1926.

In 1933, President Roosevelt appointed Jones chairman of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Under Jones’s leadership, the agency loaned billions of dollars to build infrastructure and save banks, farms, homes, and businesses. It was all repaid with a profit. Jones and Roosevelt then used the RFC to build enormous factories that produced the planes, tanks, and ships essential to an Allied victory in World War II.

Jones also served as Roosevelt’s secretary of commerce. He was granted discretionary powers so broad that many called him "the fourth branch of government."

After World War II, Jones returned to Houston and focused on philanthropy. In 1937, he and his wife, Mary Gibbs Jones, established Houston Endowment, which has since donated hundreds of millions of dollars to education, health care, human services, and the arts.

News of Jones’s death in 1956 provoked outpourings of praise for his tireless service to the city and the nation.

For More about Jesse H. Jones

The Jesse Holman Jones Papers are held by the Briscoe Center for American History of the University of Texas at Austin. The collection includes business and financial records, correspondence, speeches, magazine and newspaper clippings, blueprints, and photographs concerning Jones’s career. The Jesse H. Jones Papers held by the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, span the years 1916–1960. The collection, the greater part of which concerns the period from 1926–1945, includes correspondence, speeches, reports, and other printed matter documenting Jones’s career, including his time as director of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and as secretary of commerce. The Jesse H. Jones Family and Personal Papers, 1841–2000, are stored in the Woodson Research Center at Rice University.

The PBS film Brother, Can You Spare a Billion? The Story of Jesse H. Jones (2000) tells the story of Jones’s remarkable life. The film’s website includes an oral history archive, a timeline, and other educational resources.

Jesse and Mary Gibbs Jones established the Houston Endowment in 1937 following a city-commissioned study that concluded that “Houston’s problems of human welfare have grown just as rapidly as its commerce.” The Endowment now ranks among the largest private philanthropic foundations in the nation. With assets of over $1.6 billion, it makes grants totaling approximately $80 million each year with the aim to “enhance the vibrancy of greater Houston and advance equity of opportunity for the people who live [there].”

Selected Bibliography

Brown, Norman D. Hood, Bonnet, and Little Brown Jug, Texas Politics 1921–1928. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1984.

Caro, Robert A. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power. New York: Knopf, 1982.

Fenberg, Steven. Unprecedented Power: Jesse Jones, Capitalism, and the Common Good. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2011.

Patenaude, Leonel. "Jones, Jesse Holman." Handbook of Texas Online. Accessed online December 5, 2017.

Jones, Jesse, and Edward Angly. Fifty Billion Dollars: My Thirteen Years with the RFC (1932–1945). New York: Macmillan, 1951.

Murphy, John H. "Houston Chronicle." Handbook of Texas Online. Accessed online October 2, 2018.

O’Connor, Kyrie. "Jesse H. Jones: A Civic-Minded Powerhouse." Houston Chronicle, May 19, 2016.

Olson, James S. Saving Capitalism: The Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the New Deal. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Patenaude, Lionel V. Texans, Politics, and the New Deal. New York: Garland, 1983.

Timmons, Bascom. Jesse H. Jones. New York: Holt, 1956. 

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Portrait of Jesse H. Jones.
Jesse H. Jones (left) with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Courtesy of the Houston Chronicle.