Archive for May 4th, 2011

There is a documentary film out now that is being premiered locally here tonight called 300 Miles to Freedom.  It tells the story of John W. Jones, an African American born into slavery on a Leesburg, Virginia plantation in 1817.  Fearing his sale to another plantation owner known to be violent with his slaves, Jones and four other slaves escaped in June 0f 1844 and fled north.  After a harrowing journey they arrived in the Elmira area in July, 1844.  Jones made Elmira his home and remained there until his death in 1900.

Elmira was a major stop in the Underground Railroad of the per-Civil War era, the last major stop for many slaves before heading north towards St. Catherines in Ontario.  In 1851, Jones became an agent for the Undergound Railroad and was responsible for the successful passage of at least 860 slaves into freedom.  With the coming of the railroad lines in 1854, Jones made arrangements with rail employees that allowed him to stow the escaping slaves in early morning baggage cars which came to be known as the Freedom Baggage Cars.

In 1859, Jones became the sexton, or caretaker, of  Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira.  In the next few  years, during the Civil War period, Jones was charged with the burial of the Confederate soldiers who died at the nearby prisoner of war camp, notoriously called Hellmira.  Nearly 3000 southern troops died at that time, all buried by Jones, who was recognized by the federal government for the care he took with these burials and with the precise records he kept for each soldier, eventually making the site a National Cemetery.  My mother and many other relatives are buried in that same cemetery that grew from Jones’ labor.

Jones was paid $2.50 for each burial which made him a tidy fortune which made him the wealthiest black man in the region.  While doing some genealogical research I came across some relatives of mine who lived a few houses away from the home that Jones bought and owned on College Avenue.  This home has been moved to a site across from the National Cemetery and is in the process of being made into a museum celebrating the life and work of John W. Jones.

I’ve always loved the story of John Jones life here in Elmira and am glad that it is being retold in a film.  Here’s the trailer for the film.

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