“Resolved . . . that we have heretofore always wished to cherish and obey the law, but we are determined to resist this law [Fugitive Slave Act] at the sacrifice of our lives. . . . Resolved, if we discover any person or persons in the act of aiding or making themselves tools of the slave-catchers, we will be prepared to meet them as enemies.”
Born into slavery in Virginia in 1817, John W. Jones fled north at the age of 27. He made a home in Elmira, New York, where his house stands today as the John W. Jones Museum. The museum serves to commemorate the important role the town played as a station on the Underground Railroad—a stop through which Jones helped hundreds of people pass on their way to freedom, many of whom fled onwards to Canada by hiding in baggage cars of the new Northern Central Railway. At times, Jones aided up to 30 people a night in their escape. Not a single person of the over 800 assisted in his lifetime was captured.
This feat is especially significant considering the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 – a law that required the capture and return of those who had escaped from slavery, even if they were living in free states. The legislation was part of the Compromise of 1850 and was enforced well into the presidency of Abraham Lincoln (who had stated his support for the law as a senatorial candidate).
Jones’s response to such atrocity in the name of “compromise” was published in The Liberator, a Boston abolitionist newspaper: “Resolved, That we, the colored citizens of Elmira, do hereby form ourselves into a society for the purpose of protecting ourselves against those persons [slave-catchers], prowling through different parts of this and other States since the passing of the diabolical act of Sept. 18th, 1850, which consigns freemen of other States to that awful state of brutality which the fiendish slaveholders of the Southern States think desirable for their colored brethren, but are not willing to try it themselves.”
In addition to his critical role in the Underground Railroad, Jones figured prominently in the history of Elmira, serving as sexton for the First Baptist Church for 43 years. Jones was also responsible for the burial of nearly 3,000 Confederate soldiers, keeping such precise records that all but seven were given accurate identification. He was paid $2.50 per burial for his diligence, which made him the wealthiest Black man in his area of New York. Among the Confederate dead buried by Jones was the son of the Ellzey family overseer, his former enslavers. The mother of the soldier had been kind to Jones, who wrote a letter to the family informing them of their son’s passing and subsequently arranged a respectful burial.
Jones’s remarkable character is also detailed by this anecdote: flowers continuously appeared on the grave of a woman named Mrs. Smith, who had aided Jones in his own escape to freedom, but following Jones’s death on December 26, 1900, the curious flowers ceased to be laid.
Today, the John W. Jones Museum serves to commemorate the life of a distinctive (though often forgotten) man, preserving his legacy and educating the public about his role in Elmiran and American history.
John W. Jones’s life was marked by extreme courage and steadfastness during a period of great danger and complicity of those in power. Jones’s extraordinary character and invaluable work in helping hundreds of people to freedom make him one of the great unsung heroes of the 19th century.
-authored by Nicholas Parker
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