The Iran hostage crisis, 40 years later: The story of the forgotten hostage from Detroit, Charles Jones

Today is the 40th anniversary of one of the darkest days in American history.

It was 40 years ago today – Nov. 4, 1979 – when a group of militant Iranian college students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage.

No American who was alive back then will forget how they felt that day, and no one will forget how they felt for the next 444 days, until the hostages were finally released. Outraged, angry, helpless, depressed. It crushed the American spirit.

We’ll also never forget the joy we felt on Jan. 20, 1981, when the hostages were finally set free. The Iranian captors didn’t want President Jimmy Carter to be able to take any credit for their freedom, so the hostages were released on the very day that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.

The facts of the Iran hostage crisis are well-known, and it’s likely we’ll be seeing a lot of stories about it today on the anniversary. So this story is not about the Iran hostage crisis. This story is about the one hostage from Detroit who was forgotten by his hometown.

Charles Jones was one of only two hostages from Michigan (the other was Joseph Subic of Redford). Jones was a Detroiter through and through, and he also held a very important distinction – he was the only African-American hostage of the 52 people that were held.

When the Iranians took control of the embassy, they released most of the African-Americans. For reasons that are still not clear to this day, Charles Jones was the only one who continued to be held hostage.

And considering the fact that he was a central character in one of the most significant events in our country’s history – the Iran hostage crisis – you would have thought that Detroit would have kept tabs on him.

You would be wrong. Detroit did not keep tabs on him. Michigan did not keep tabs on him. Charles Jones – the only hostage from Detroit; the only African-American hostage – was forgotten by his hometown.

And here’s how I know that.

Charles Jones passed away on May 8, 2015, in Sequim, Wash., at the age of 74, and as far as I can tell, not a single Detroit news outlet reported on that fact. They didn’t report on it in 2015, and there hasn’t been a word about it since then.

That, to me, is both remarkable and sad. One of the most significant Detroiters in history died four years ago, and not a single Detroit media outlet knew about it. That’s just not right.

Charles Jones of Detroit waves after being freed from 444 days of captivity in Iran.

In fact, the only mention I can find online about Jones’ passing is this obituary in the Peninsula Daily News, a small-town newspaper in the state of Washington (where he lived at the time of his death). Nothing else.

Every editor at the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News should be ashamed of that. Every news director at the TV and radio stations in Detroit should be ashamed of that. Somebody should have been keeping tabs on Charles Jones.

In any town, that’s one of the responsibilities of the local media. You keep tabs on your community’s important and significant people, long after they’ve left the headlines. If a former mayor or Congressperson dies, you do a story on it. If a local war hero dies, you do a story on it. If a local icon dies, you do a story on it.

If the only person from your town who was an Iranian hostage dies, you do a story on it.

Seeing as how nobody did, though, here’s the story of Charles Jones – what I’ve been able to piece together from historical newspaper articles and his obituary. On the 40th anniversary of the day his life changed forever, it’s important that all of us in Michigan remember Charles Jones.

So here’s his story.

According to a 1981 story in the Detroit Free Press, Jones grew up in Detroit and graduated from Mumford High School in 1958. One of his classmates was Steven M. Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins. Upon graduation, Jones enlisted in the Air Force and spent time in England and Turkey.

He left the Air Force in 1962, returned to Detroit and got married to his childhood sweetheart, Mattie. After two years in private industry, he landed a job working for the U.S. State Department as a communications officer. Jones had been yearning to return to public service, and in 1964, the opportunity finally arrived.

“There was no way he wasn’t going to take that job,” Mattie told the Free Press in 1981. “He wanted to get back into his field.”

For the next decade and a half, as he and Mattie started a family (they had four kids), Jones moved around the globe. He did stints in Egypt, Zaire, Germany, Israel, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, France and Canada.

And, of course, Iran.

Forty years ago today, Charles Jones was working at the U.S. embassy in Tehran as a communications officer. His job mainly consisted of receiving and transmitting teletypes for the embassy.

The front page of the Detroit Free Press on Nov. 5, 1979.

According to the 1981 story in the Free Press, when the Iranian militants stormed the embassy 40 years ago today, Jones was caught destroying embassy papers. There was a rumor back then that instead of being just an ordinary communications officer, Jones was actually some sort of spy. Some people were theorizing that that’s why Jones was the only African-American hostage who wasn’t released – because the Iranians thought he was a spy.

His wife strongly denied that rumor. “All that spy talk is ridiculous,” she said in 1981. “He’s just a communications officer.”

Whatever the reason, the Iranian militants decided to keep Jones hostage. And for the next 444 days, just as it was for the other 51 hostages, Charles Jones’ life was a living hell.

To minimize the chances they might be rescued, the hostages were split up and kept at various sites around the city. Jones was held in a building with several other communications officers.

They were kept in separate rooms and forbidden to speak to each other. They had to spend their time every day doing … nothing. Nothing to read, nobody to talk to. They just had to sit there, day after day after day. Every time a hostage had to use the bathroom, the guards would put a bag over their head and lead them there in shackles.

In this 2009 interview with the Peninsula Daily News, Jones recalled that he and the other hostages were frequently threatened with execution.

“They could look you in the eye and say, ‘I’m going to kill you,’ and in the next breath, bring something to you,” he said.

Their cells were filthy and dark. They rarely if ever saw the sun, and their guards would frequently deny them food. Jones said that he was never beaten himself, but other hostages were. From his cell, Jones could hear other hostages being beaten and tortured.

On the day before they were to be released, Jones was hauled into a room by the guards.

“They pulled us in, one by one, and interrogated us,” Jones said in 2009. “They wanted me to sign a statement saying we had been honorably treated. I said, ‘I’m not signing anything.’ ”

The torturous existence finally ended on Jan. 20, 1981. When Jones and his fellow hostages boarded the plane bound for Europe, somebody broke out the champagne.

Jones, who never drank his entire life, just had some ginger ale.

When the hostages set foot on American soil again, they were treated like the heroes that they were. Jones rode in a ticker-tape parade in New York City, and received the key to the city from Mayor Ed Koch.

According to news reports at the time, the African-Americans in the parade crowd cheered especially hard for Charles Jones. One black man in the crowd ran up and gave him a bear hug, saying simply, “Man, we love you and we’re glad you’re home!”

He did multiple media appearances, and he received a lifetime pass to attend any game he ever wanted from Major League Baseball.

Mostly, though, he just wanted to resume his life. He told one interviewer that he didn’t to become a “professional hostage.”

He was also quick to remind people that in his mind, he wasn’t a hero. “I’m not a hero, I’m a survivor,” he would always say.

On top of everything, the stress of the Iranian ordeal had taken a toll on his personal life, and Jones’ marriage was ending. He was anxious to get on with the next chapter of his life. He continued his work with the U.S. State Department, doing tours in Antigua, Senegal, Papau New Guinea, Grenada and Ireland. He also met a woman named Maria, whom he married in 1990.

When Jones retired in 1995, he moved to Canada and settled in British Columbia, where Maria grew up. They eventually found their way back over the border to Washington, to the tiny town of Sequim. They settled down there, and that’s where Jones spent the rest of his days.

He became active in the local Democratic Party, and in 2008, he served as a delegate to the Washington state convention for Barack Obama. (I wonder if Obama ever knew that the only African-American Iranian hostage was once a delegate for him. Somebody should tell him that.)

Charles Jones, later in life

Charles Jones died peacefully on May 8, 2015, at the age of 74, leaving behind an amazing legacy of service to his country.

To be honest, he sounds like he was a flat-out fascinating guy. He had an amazing life of foreign service (among other things, he was working in Vietnam right before the fall of Saigon), and for Pete’s sake, he endured the Iran hostage crisis. I would have LOVED to have been able to interview this incredible man.

This is the kind of person we should be making movies about. This is not the kind of person we should be forgetting.

So shame on you, Detroit. He deserved so much more from his hometown media. The kid who grew up in Detroit and went to Mumford High School deserved so much more.

It should have been front-page news in the Free Press and News when he passed away. It should have been one of the lead stories on the evening news in Detroit.

Instead, he got nothing. They all forgot about Charles Jones. 

And so, on the 40th anniversary of this horrible day, let it be said that not every Michigan media outlet has forgotten about Charles Jones.

The Livingston Post remembers. Thank you for your service, good sir. You have earned your rest.

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