Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
[This article originally appeared in the Chemung Historical Journal, September, 1997. The author is a 54-year member of the First Baptist Church of Elmira and member of the Pastoral Relations Committee for Rev. Claudine Crooks. A stone memorial was dedicated to Jones 180 years after his birth.]
BY WILLIAM S. RAMSDELL
John W. Jones was born on a plantation in Leesburg, Va., June 22, 1817. He was a slave to the Elzy family, His owner was Miss Sally Elzy, a kind old spinster who never allowed her slaves to be abused. Jones experienced the love of his mother, but never knew his father who had been sold away before his birth. In 1844, Miss Elzy was growing old and near death. Fearing being sold to another plantation, John, his two step-brothers Charles and George, and two other slaves from an adjoining estate, fled north in June 1844. After a dangerous 300-mile trip plagued by slave hunters, they arrived in Elmira, July 5, 1844.
Bright and personable 27-year-old John was always a willing worker who did many odd jobs in the community. He split wood for Mrs. Culp, daughter of Col. John Hendy, an early pioneer in the valley. Jones was also given a job as janitor for Miss Clara Thurston's school for girls. Her father, Judge Ariel S. Thurston, became a very important ally to John. He used his influence and money to see John learned to read and write under the tutorship of Hugh Riddle who conducted a school on Lake Street. (Blacks were not welcome in public schools at that time.) A 14-year-old classmate named Loop befriended Jones and gave him much assistance in his studies.
In 1847, Jones was appointed sexton of the First Baptist Church of Elmira where he worked for 43 years. He was baptized there, becoming a member on July 20, 1878, and served as usher in addition to his sexton duties. Also in 1847, he became assistant to Sexton Whittlesey, who was in charge of the Main Street (Baptist) and the Second Street cemeteries. Upon Whittlesey's death, Jones assumed the sexton's job for both cemeteries.
Soon after Jones became sexton for the First Baptist Church, he purchased a small yellow house adjacent to the church and lived there with his wife Rachel. In 1850, Jones became an active agent for the "Underground Railroad" and housed and fed many fugitive slaves in his house. During his nine years of active operation, over 800 slaves were cared for and as can best be determined, not one was ever captured. Elmira was the only regular agency between Philadelphia and St. Catherine’s, Canada. A few loyal citizens helped Jones by providing food and travel money for the fugitives. Among these were Rev. Thomas K. Beecher of Park Church (half-brother to authoress Harriet Beecher Stowe), Jarvis Langdon (father-in-law of Samuel Clemens), Simeon Benjamin (founder of Elmira College), James Robinson, William Yates, and Riggs Watrous.
Jones had great ambition and a penchant for hard work as he demonstrated when he became Woodlawn Cemetery sexton in 1859. This was in addition to his other duties at the First Baptist Church. He dug the first grave in the cemetery, which laid to rest the body of early pioneer John Hendy.
The Elmira Prison Camp was put in operation July 6, 1864. So many Confederates died in the camp that 2 and 1/2 acres of Woodlawn Cemetery were used for internment. As Woodlawn Cemetery sexton, Jones was responsible fur the burial of 2.973 prisoners. The records Jones kept were perfect, except for seven listed as unknown. He personally supervised the burials and saw that they were conducted properly and reverently. The government paid him $2.50 for each body buried. The accurate records kept by Jones were officially accepted by the authorities in Washington. Without the efforts of this humane former slave, many of the Confederate prisoners' relatives in the South would have not known the fate of their loved ones. The government officially designated the 2 and 1/2 acres as "Woodlawn National Cemetery" December 7, 1877.
Jones volunteered time and freely gave his services to the YMCA as janitor and usher.
Jones was also very inventive and competitive. In the days when he was sexton of the First Baptist Church, there was no paid fire department. As was the practice, a volunteer fireman would rush to Jones' little "yellow house" to rout him out to go to the church and ring the bells to summon the other volunteers. After other churches obtained bells, there became a contest to see which sexton could be the first to ring the alarm. A $2.00 fee was paid by the fireman to the sexton whose bell rang first. Jones generally won the contest by cleverly attaching one end of a rope to the bell clapper and the other end to his bed post.
Jones was loved in this community. Here was a man, a former slave, who possessed compassion for unfortunate slaves and yet, displayed forgiveness to those who would enslave him. He retired as First Baptist Church sexton in 1890. The new edifice, built at that time, was so immense the duties were beyond the ability of a man past 73 years of age. With regret on his part and much deeper sorrow to all the members, he gave up the task and retired. After his retirement, he sold his little house next to the church and used the proceeds to purchase a residence and 16-acre farm at 1159 College Ave. The small house he lived in until his death still stands near the corner of College and Woodlawn avenues.
Jones died December 26, 1900 at the age of 83. He was laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery nest to his wife, Rachel and two sons John W. Jones, Jr., and James Edward Jones. (The gravesites are not far from those of the Clemens family.)
On Sunday June 22, 1997, a memorial stone was dedicated to John W. Jones.
The Southside High diversity group (The Jones Nine), Southside High school Assistant Principle and Diversity Liaison, Arline Ely, supporters - Lucy Brown, Bill Wheeler and many others are to be commended for their work in memorializing this true Elmira hero. We are all better off because of their efforts and dedication.
John W. Jones has always been and will continue to be an integral part of the history of the First Baptist Church of Elmira and the Woodlawn National Cemetery.
· The Elmira Prison Camp, 1864-1865 by Clay W. Holmes, A.M.., G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1912.
· Southern Tier, Vol. 2 Arch Merrill
· "Elmira Prison Camp" by Clay W. Holmes as printed in Chemung County Historical Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1, September 1864
· First Baptist Church of Elmira, 150 Anniversary Book (1829-1979)
· Chemung Historical Journal, "Underground Railroad Activities in Elmira", September 1968.
· American Baptist Magazine, History in Black and White by Rev. H. Victor Kane, January 1980.