By K. Levek and Jana Curry
“A lil lady with a big voice,” that’s how Pastor Ernest Lyles describes Teresa “TJ” Jones. A true servant of her community, Lyles recalls first meeting TJ when he was a youngster. “She gave me a ride one day when I was out campaigning.”
A small lady by stature, but a big heart for her community, Teresa “TJ” Jones has been a voice in southeast D.C. for over 40 years. A native Washingtonian she is a self-described “home grown east of the river” resident. With 80 years of life under her belt, TJ is an active member of her community, currently serving as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for her single member district, 8D07. She lives on 1st Place SW, in the same house she bought in 1970.
But before TJ bought her house, she was a public housing resident for 17 years. She first lived in Frederick Douglass Dwellings, now redeveloped into the Henson Ridge, Knox Dwellings and Woodland Terrace. As a resident of public housing TJ found the maintenance conditions to be substandard and began speaking out about them. Although she was not a welfare recipient, she began working with the Welfare Rights Organization, helping train members of the organization on “how to talk back to the government,” she said.
Organizing under welfare rights, TJ led the first ever rent strike in 1967 and it lasted sometime until 1969. She led the strike because of the non-maintenance policy the Housing Authority had back then, where they deferred public housing maintenance issues and tenants constantly complained. “We always had to fight with them to repair something…back then people were afraid to speak out against the government, but something had to be done,” she said. She said the housing authority threatened to put the tenants who went on the rent strike out, but she knew they couldn’t put over 100 families out on the street without a media firestorm and eventually the housing authority gave in to their maintenance demands. Shortly after the strike TJ bought her first home, where she still resides today.
After leading the strike, TJ didn’t stop her activism. She ran for the Ward 8 School Board against Julius Hobson, Jr., but lost. However, she remained active across her community. In 1968 she ran for delegate to represent the District in the 1968 Democratic National Convention. She won and sat on the credentials committee that year. She recalls that experience saying, “I am proud of myself for that.” That year the credential committee voted to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation, lead by the late Fannie Lou Hammer, whom she had the honor of meeting at the convention. She said people in power did not want the Mississippi delegation to be seated for the convention but she voted for what was right. She said, “it was wonderful to meet Hammer. We talked for about 30 minutes and I learned a lot.”
In 1972 she organized a small delegation from the Welfare Rights Organization to go back to the National Black Political Convention in Gary Indiana. She thought it was important that people understood what was going on in Black America across the country.