Digging for nuggets of history for my novel, Dark Enough to See the Stars, I uncovered some rare treasures. Brave people who put their lives on the line to help slaves escape on the Underground Railroad found their way into the pages of my book. One such person was John W. Jones, an escaped slave who settled in Elmira, New York. He became a caretaker for the First Baptist Church in 1847 and helped about 860 slaves escape to Canada. After railroad tracks were laid from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to Emira, New York, in 1854, he arranged for railroad employees to load “freedom baggage” on the train.
Honor Toward Deceased Confederate Soldiers
His actions to free slaves were outstanding, but his activities during the Civil War impressed me even more. Elmira was home to a prison camp for Confederate soldiers, and Jones was charged with burying those who died. He exhibited as much care and concern for these enemy soldiers and their families as he did for the slaves he helped to escape.
One would expect that each soldier would be buried in a simple pine box without fanfare, but no. Jones marked each coffin with any information that the soldier shared and sealed this same news in a bottle and placed it inside the coffin. He carefully cataloged and stored any valuables owned by each man. After the war, when families came to bring their soldiers home, they received photographs, letters and other treasures that Jones had saved. They were so impressed by the care the soldiers had received that only three requests were made to transport the bodies back home. Jones buried 2,963 prisoners of war. Only seven of these were listed as unknown.
A Surprising Connection to His Past
Even more surprising, John R. Rollins, the son of the overseer from the estate from which Jones fled, died at the prison camp. Jones arranged to have his body sent back to his family. After the war, Jones visited the plantation and was warmly received.
It took courage for John W. Jones to help free his fellow slaves, but it took even more resolve to overcome anger and resentment in order to show kindness to his enemies. Perhaps John R. Rollins had belittled or even whipped Jones when he lived on the plantation. Only faith in a loving God could help someone overcome the bitterness of slavery. Jones lived out the words of Jesus, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you…” Matthew 5:44.
The King Family Legacy of Mercy
John W. Jones reminds me of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because they both acted with compassion and mercy. King’s daughter, Rev. Dr. Bernice A. King posted a series of video devotions entitled “Cultivating a Heart of Mercy.” It clearly expresses her father’s heart. “What does the Lord require of you; but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8.
Visit the Museum
Elmira, New York, has honored John W. Jones by preserving his homestead as a museum. http://www.johnwjonesmuseum.org