John W. Jones was born a slave in 1817 on a plantation in Virginia. At the age of twenty-seven, he along with four others ran away from the plantation and made a dangerous 300-mile flee to Elmira. Once in Elmira, Jones found employment at Miss Clarissa Thurston’s Female Seminary where he worked in exchange for reading and writing lessons. By 1851, he was working on the Underground Railroad helping over 800 slaves escape to Canada.
In 1847, he became the sexton of the First Baptist Church in Elmira, a position he held for forty-two years, and the caretaker of the church’s cemetery. Jones helped his fugitives in groups of six to ten, however, there were times he accepted more. It is believed many of those traveling were sheltered at Jones’ home behind First Baptist Church. Throughout the 1850s, Of all the men, women, and children helped by Jones, none were captured and returned to the South.
As caretaker of Woodlawn Cemetery in 1864, Jones was contracted to bury the confederate dead from Elmira Prison. Of the 2,963 prisoners who Jones buried, only seven are listed as unknown. Jones kept such precise records that on December 7, 1877, the federal government declared the burial site a national cemetery.
Jones received $2.50 from the government for each Confederate soldier buried. This money eventually enabled him to buy his College Avenue farm and to be rated as the wealthiest black man in this part of the state. Jones continued to serve as sexton for First Baptist Church for 43 years. He died on December 26, 1900, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
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