Cornell Jones: Trying to Rebuild the Ruins

November 13th, 2008


One of the unique qualities of the “American Gangster” series is our ability to look at the history of a big city from several angles and different periods of time. In our three seasons, we’ve done three episodes on Harlem drug kingpins of the ’70s, two on notorious South Central gang bangers, and three on criminal masterminds based out of Chicago.

In our third season we return to the nation’s capitol for a look at Cornell Jones, a figure who pre-dates the man we profiled in season two, Rayful Edmonds. Where Edmonds led a violent gang of enforcers in the late ‘80s, Cornell Jones’s illegal business in the early ’80s specialized in heroin and, most famously, “butt naked,” a mix of marijuana and PCP that literally drove his smokers into intense states of hyper-reality and, even madness. Where Rayful was high profile and showy, Cornell kept a low profile, ruled by charm as well as fear, and maintained strong ties to Washington, D.C. Cornell is the rare “American Gangster” subject who can give a detailed history of his city’s Black community, including a visit to D.C.’s oldest Black church.

Where Rayful was viewed as a threat to Georgetown University’s dynamic basketball program under John Thompson (when he befriended several star players), Jones was a peer of that legendary coach and, in fact, helped protect the team from any taint of scandal. That is why one of Georgetown’s first star players, John Duren, and Thompson himself, willing came on camera to talk about Cornell Jones, the man they knew and respected. Today Jones is still a part of D.C.’s Black community, working hard to rebuild the communities his criminal activities so deeply damaged. At some point, fans of “American Gangster” should watch the Rayful Edmonds and Cornell Jones episodes back to back to get a panoramic view of a drug drenched era in the city of Mayor Marion Barry.

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