The John W. Jones Museum in Elmira Pays Tribute to His Legacy
February 19, 2021
John W. Jones arrived in Elmira, New York on July 5th, 1844 with $1.46 in his pocket. Having escaped from a life of slavery in Virginia, he was meant for great things. Over 800 fellow fugitive have him to thank for aiding in their journeys to freedom. Nearly 3,000 confederate soldiers were buried with honor by someone who they would have mistreated. All in all, Jones was a true American hero. His name needs to be known. It needs to be remembered. His life is honored at the John W Jones Museum. This is his story.
When most people think about the Underground Railroad, the first person who comes to mind is Harriet Tubman. And for good reason! But it’s important to note that she was not the only formerly enslaved hero who helped others escape to freedom. Down in Elmira, New York, the life of John Jones is celebrated. Not only did he help at least 800 fellow slaves to freedom, he also lived his life with the utmost respect to everyone around him – including Confederate soldiers.
A huge thank you goes out to Cynthia Raj at the Chemung County Chamber of Commerce for arranging a private tour for me at the John W. Jones Museum in Elmira, and to Talima Aaron for sharing John’s story. Talima serves as the President of the Board of Trustees at the museum.
Escape from Slavery
John W. Jones’ story begins on a plantation in Leesburg, Virginia on June 21, 1817 when he was born to an enslaved mother. The Ellzey family waited until he was 12 years old before they put him to work in the fields with the other men. Because he was a favorite of the mistress, he previously stayed inside as a houseboy.
On the night of June 3, 1844, Jones told his mother that he was going to a party. His legacy shows that he lived a life of truth and honor, but he lied to his mother the last time he saw her. He did not, in fact, attend a party. Instead, he grabbed a pistol, met up with two of his half-brothers and two fellow enslaved men from a nearby plantation, and escaped into the night.
Traveling by the light of the stars, the journey was long and difficult – as it was for anyone seeking freedom from a life of slavery. When the group reached the New York border, they hid in a barn. That night Jones kept watch while his companions slept, exhausted from their journey. Later in the night, the owner of the barn, Nathaniel Smith discovered them. But they were in luck. Smith and his wife, Sarah, were allies to the abolitionist movement. The five men were invited into the house and served a warm meal of biscuits with butter.
Jones and his fellow freedom seekers traveled roughly 20 miles per day – on foot – for a total of 300 miles along the Underground Railroad. On July 5, 1844, the five men made finally it to Elmira, New York. Unlike many who took the same route, he did not continue on to Canada. Instead, he settled in Elmira and dedicated his life to helping others find freedom.
John W. Jones’ Life in Elmira
Getting to New York, a ‘free’ state, was not an automatic ticket to an easier life. John W. Jones had to continue to fight for his rights, and still risked the repercussions of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Being discovered by the wrong person could mean that he would be sent back to his plantation and suffer severe consequences.
But that wouldn’t stop him.
John W. Jones fought for his right to education. After being denied entry to two local schools, he was befriended by Judge Thurston and was able to receive just one season of formal education. During that time, he found an ally in a 14-year-old boy who helped educate him. He became known in the community after joining abolitionist meetings at the local church, and became sexton of the church’s graveyard and two more in the community.
“He soon developed into one of our best citizens. In his general make-up he was positive in his character, quick in his perceptions, just in all his dealings, courageous in what he thought to be right, economical and thrifty in all his business transactions, in a word, a just, upright man.”
— Elmira Telegram, January 31, 1892
Through his work at the cemeteries, Jones earned enough money to buy himself a house. Although the house no longer exists, it is endearingly referred to as “the little yellow house next to the church” – and it played a vital role in the Underground Railroad. Because of its prime position along the railroad tracks, Jones’ little yellow house became the perfect hiding spot for hundreds of slaves on their journeys to freedom.
The landscape of Chemung County was just as beautiful during Jones’ life as it is today. Explore these trails in Elmira to enjoy the views and reflect on his life.
Conductor on the Underground Railroad
Unlike most of the Underground Railroad, which didn’t have anything to do with trains, Jones actually did use a passenger train car to help others escape. The transportation was coordinated with the help of William Still in Philadelphia and workers on the trains. There was a daily 4am train that traveled north to Ontario, Canada. Through Jones’ work hiding runaways onboard, it was nicknamed the “Freedom Passage Car”.
Elmira, June 6, 1860 “Friend Wm Still: All six came safe to this place. The two men came last night, about twelve o’clock; the man and woman stopped at the depot, and went east on the next train, about eighteen miles.”
Like most other abolitionists in Upstate New York at the time, Jones was very vocal about his activities. Talima Aaron, President of the Board of Trustees at the John W. Jones Museum, proudly states that Jones “lived a life of service and advocacy.” And it’s also important to note that he wasn’t alone. Jones had several allies around town who also aided in the success of the Underground Railroad.
John provided everything that the runaways needed – food, shelter, clothing. At times he housed up to 30 freedom seekers at once! It is through John W. Jones’ efforts that at least 800 former slaves found their way to freedom. Records indicate that no one was lost along the way. A truly amazing feat.
A Hero to All, Even His Enemies
Jones’ work on the Underground Railroad was undoubtedly remarkable. But perhaps even more astounding is his history with the Confederate soldiers in Elmira. The town developed the nickname “Hellmira” due to the deplorable conditions at the Confederate prison camp. So it should come as no surprise that there were several casualties – and the bodies had to be taken care of.
That’s where John W. Jones, the town sexton, comes in. Jones accepted the responsibility for burying 2,973 Confederate soldiers at Woodlawn Cemetery between 1864 and 1865. These were the same people who would have enslaved him, captured him, tortured him. But did he share the same sentiments? No. He treated each soldier with the utmost respect. Jones didn’t consider their personal beliefs; all that mattered to him was that they were fellow humans. He learned as much as he could about each man, and buried each in an individual grave with their own grave marker.
Despite having almost no formal education, Jones’ records were incredible. So much so that the US government was able to use them to identify all but 7 of the nearly 3,000 Confederate soldiers.
The cemetery is open to the public, and is an astonishing site to behold. Rows and rows of identical markers show the honor that John Jones gave to each of the men. A small bronze plaque pays tribute to Jones and his meticulous care for the soldiers. The same gratitude was also shown by the families of the soldiers, all but 2 of whom decided not to move their loved one to a grave near home.
Visit the John W. Jones Museum in Elmira
With the money Jones earned from burying the Confederates, he was able to purchase farmland where he established a new home for his family. The small wooden farmhouse still stands at 1250 Davis Street. It has been transformed into the John W. Jones Museum and was first opened to the public in 2016. The museum is typically open during summer weekends. But due to the social distancing requirements of the pandemic, please visit their website to see what the schedule will be for this coming summer. You may also contact the museum to check availability for a tour by appointment.
The museum is not your typical polished building with modern displays. And that’s not what it should be. Jones’ house stands today as it existed in the late 1800s. Some of the walls, part of which are rumored to be made from planks from the old prison camp, are stripped to their original state. Tattered pieces of wallpaper remain in other areas. One room has been moderately restored to what historians expect it may have looked like when Jones and his family lived there. But the rest is a blank slate from another century, decorated only with sign boards on easels telling John’s story.
And this is how it is designed to be. Talima explains that “We’re leaving this space [as is] to speak to you.” It’s meant to be more interpretative. Visitors take an emotional journey back to the Civil War era by standing in Jones’ home and learning about his life’s accomplishments.
John W. Jones’ Legacy Lives On
In the current political climate, it’s more important than ever to pay respect to all American history. And to make an effort to learn more about the history of those whose lives have been marginalized. Names like John W. Jones need to be known. They need to be taught. They need to be honored. Black history is American history. And it needs to be told.
I’m honored to have had the chance to visit the museum during the winter and to have a personalized tour from Talima Aaron. Her passion for sharing his story, and those like his, is contagious. If you’re anything like me, after you learn Jones’ story, you’ll feel the same way as she does. But really, who wouldn’t?
Visits to the museum are free, but tours have a small fee required. Regardless, the entire operation runs on volunteer work, government grants, and fundraising efforts. Do your part to make a donation. With all of our help, the museum will be able to fulfill its dream of building a cultural and education center on the property. One where visitors and students can learn, collaborate, interact, and pay respect to the area’s history and its people.
Across the street from his farmhouse, you can visit John Jones’ grave in the main part of Woodlawn Cemetery. His wife and children are buried beside him.