Born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1878, Charles “Raincoat” Jones had a hand in many of the businesses on 7th Street – both legitimate and under-the-table. “Raincoat,” as he was called, worked as a café owner, club owner, sausage maker, barbecueman, candy store operator and a pawnshop operator. But he was best known as a loan shark who ran several successful gambling dens and owned big chunks of real estate in West Oakland. A slender, dapper man, Jones was arrested more than once for illegal dice games. But for all his back-alley activity, he was admired as a savvy entrepreneur and philanthropist. He helped raise money to keep afloat struggling clubs and businesses in the Bay Area, including The Sun-Reporter, an influential black newspaper based in San Francisco.
There are a lot of stories out there about how Jones got his unusual nickname. One was that he had a penchant for wearing a raincoat. According to several people who remember him, when West Oakland was bustling during World World II with activity from the nearby shipping docks and army base, Jones kept the inside of his raincoat stocked with a ready supply of alcohol, which he sold to revelers once the bars had closed for the night.
But the Oakland Tribune has the final word on his nickname. In an article in which Jones testified under oath about the origin of his name, he said he was playing poker one night with four others who shared his name: Long-Arm Jones, Short-Arm Jones, Sing-’em Jones and Big Foot Jones. Whenever the bartender asked them who was buying the next round, all four would shout, “Jones,” and Raincoat would have to pick up the tab. By the end of the night, Raincoat Jones had paid for most of the rounds and his chips were running low. The bartender again asked who was paying for the next round. Everyone around the table said, “Jones.” It was raining that night and Jones was wearing a raincoat. He said, “’From now on, just call me Raincoat.”
Jones was a veteran of the Spanish-American War, where he was stationed in Cuba in 1898 as part of the black infantry units sent there to keep order after the American occupation. Afterwards, he made his way to Alaska, where he joined thousands of people in search of recently discovered gold. He’s reported to have operated a gambling tent that made more money than his fellow gold-rushers. During World War I, Jones served as an Army post cook in Georgia.
Jones arrived in Oakland in 1918, where he first opened up a cafe. By the time workers began moving to Oakland to land jobs on the docks or on the railroads, Jones owned a profitable gambling den, a pawn shop, a cigar store, a pool hall and several hotels. As workers began to arrive en masse from Texas and Louisiana, Jones bought real estate up along 7th Street to rent out to the newcomers. For a time, he was rumored to be extremely wealthy, lending money at high interest rates to local businesses and individuals. When the Sun-Reporter newspaper nearly went under, Jones helped convene a meeting of influential African American businessmen from Oakland, and helped raise $30,000 to keep the paper alive. To this day, the newspaper is published in San Francisco.
Jones always wanted to be able to set up a pharmacy in his West Oakland community, operated by a black pharmacist. According to Sun-Reporter editor Thomas C. Fleming, it was one of the few business ventures he was unable to get off the ground.
Charles “Raincoat” Jones died on January 7, 1968 in West Oakland. He was 89-years-old.