In a time when slavery was treated as a normal thing, and it was easy to hate the nation that wanted to keep you enslaved, one man stood up and chose to help his fellow escapees. At the same time, he gave the fallen soldiers fighting against his freedom a decent burial. His name was John Jones.

Born Into Slavery, Just Like the Others

Just like the majority, John was born into slavery and served the Ellzey family as a houseboy for Miss Sarah, William Ellzey’s daughter. Miss Sarah treated John nicely and was a good friend to him, but she was getting old at that time, and John was worried that he would be sold to another family once Miss Sarah died. To prevent this, he decided to leave with his two half-brothers named George and Charles, along with two other slave friends. They followed a major route along the Underground Railroad and walked along what is now known as the State Route 14. They felt exhausted as they were heading North, so they snuck into a barn in New York to get some sleep. When the barn owner named Nathaniel Smith found out that fugitives were sleeping in his barn, he invited them into his home and took care of them. His wife Sarah served the strangers hot biscuits and butter. They continued their journey after becoming well-rested, grateful for the hospitality that was shown to them. Sarah’s gesture moved him so much that John continued to thank her by planting flowers and maintaining her grave after she died a couple of years later.

Settling in Elmira

It was July 5, 1844, when John stepped on the land of Elmira and to his partial freedom, at that time being, at least. With less than $2 in his pocket, he decided to stay there and tried to get an education. Naturally, his request was denied until a local judge was pleased with him allowed him to attend classes in an all-girls school in exchange for janitorial work. He also became part of Elmira’s First Baptist Church in 1847 and worked as a sexton, primarily working and maintaining its cemetery. The next thing he knew, he was maintaining all its three cemeteries and earning enough money until he could afford a small house that he turned into a hub for the fugitives. In a span of nine years, he would help around 800 slaves escape to freedom.

Burying the Bodies

The same railroad tracks that they traveled to escape became the same tracks that carried Confederate prisoners of war during the last years of the Civil War. The prison camp in Elmira was small and was supposed only to hold 5000 prisoners, but due to ill-planning, around 7,000 to 10,000 prisoners were cramped. Many of them had to live in tents regardless of the weather. Their latrine became a cesspool. Rats were all over the place. They even sent dogs to catch these rats, but the prisoners ate them out of desperation. They suffered from dysentery, scurvy, typhoid, pneumonia, smallpox, and all sort of diseases that resulted from their poor living condition. 2973 Confederate prisoners died and had to be buried by the town Sexton or gravedigger, John.

Elmira Prison, Elmira, New York. (Moulton & Larkin, photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

And so he did but not only because it was his job but also because he wanted to give them a proper burial. He did so by keeping a thorough record of each prisoner, even using improvised dog tags and jars containing papers that had their whereabouts. According to an article written by Mental Floss:

“No one told him how to do that job, he did it in the way that he thought was right—even though the people he buried were fighting a war to keep people like him enslaved,” Aaron says.

“He even knew one of the young men who had died, and he reached back to the South and told the parents so they knew where their child was buried. That speaks to his compassion.”

Talima Aaron is the President of the John W. Jones Museum Board of Trustees. Furthermore, he said,

“People always talk about the tension between him being an escaped slave and burying with respect and dignity these Confederate soldiers fighting to keep people like him as slaves. But to me there’s a subtext: Here is a grown man who escaped slavery, and the first thing he wanted to do when he reached freedom was get an education. Because of that, he was able to keep these meticulous records that later led to this national designation: It became a historical moment because this man, who was denied an education, got one.”

Confederate monument at Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, NY. (Hlj, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

John earned $2.50 per soldier that he buried which would be worth about $45 today, that doesn’t seem like much, but after he buried all of them, he had the equivalent of nearly $120,000 in today’s money. this put him among the ten richest African-Americans in New York. This enabled him to buy around 12 acres of land and to vote. A law that time stated, Black men could only be allowed to vote if they had at least $250 worth of property. Only then was he a truly free man.

He died in 1900 and left a lesson that it doesn’t matter how you started in this world. What matters is the path you decide to take and the actions you choose to do.

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