At An Elmira Museum, The Push To Turn An Abolitionist’s Legacy Into A Landmark

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BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — The John W. Jones Museum in Elmira begins its season on Juneteenth. The museum opens on the freedom holiday so visitors can celebrate the story of John Jones, a fugitive slave and conductor on the Underground Railroad.

The museum’s board hopes to expand the historic home into a cultural and education center.

Jones was buried in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery, under a dogwood tree. On a plaque next to his tombstone, there is a quote: “The moment you resolve injustice, nothing can hinder you to show others the way.”

On a plaque by John W. Jones’s gravesite inside Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery, there is a quote from a group of high school students who raised money to restore Jones’s former home. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

It came from a group of nine students who helped raise money to restore Jones’s former Elmira home, which the City of Elmira was close to demolishing in the late 1990s. A group of community leaders purchased the house from the city, and in 2017, opened it as a museum.

“Not A Whole Lot”

Talima Aaron, President of the John W. Jones Museum Board of Trustees, said people in Elmira are only now beginning to learn about Jones’s legacy.

“John Jones was recognized by the city in 1950. They named the first [housing] project after him,” Aaron said during a visit to the museum in May. “People lived there, grew up there, had fond memories of the community and neighborhood that was established there in the 50s and 60s; did not know it was named after John Jones, did not know who he was and definitely did not know he was Black.”

Elmira’s African American population goes back centuries; Aaron said her husband’s family has been there since the 1800s. When she first moved to the city, however, there were not many sites honoring Black history.

“There was nothing here to say that we lived, we died, we came,” Aaron said. “We talked about Ernie Davis, of course, the famous Heisman Trophy winner, but past that, not a whole lot.”

In addition to documenting the life of John W. Jones, the museum highlights the network of abolitionists who lived in Elmira during the 1800s. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

A Life Of Compassion

John Jones was born on a plantation in Leesburg, Virginia and escaped to Elmira with two brothers in 1844.

Over nine years, Jones worked on the Underground Railroad, hiding people in the baggage car of a 4 a.m. train to Ontario, Canada. Aaron said people called it the “freedom train.”

“He would get money and resources from folks to be able to take care of these fugitives so they can make it to the next step,” Aaron added.

Historians estimate Jones helped approximately 800 people to freedom.

During the Civil War, Jones was the caretaker at Woodlawn Cemetery, where he buried nearly 3,000 Confederate soldiers. Many of them came from the Elmira Prison Camp—dubbed “Hell-mira” for its deadly conditions. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, soldiers held at the camp often died from harsh winter conditions, typhoid and malnutrition.

Even though they fought to keep people like Jones enslaved, Aaron said the caretaker buried each soldier with compassion. Jones even reached out to the plantation where he was enslaved when he identified the overseer’s son.

“This was the kind of man John Jones was. He just lived simply and did the things he thought was necessary, not for fame or fortune, or a pat on the back,” Aaron said. “He just treated people decently.”

Jones kept precise records of the Confederate burials. Aaron said his documentation was instrumental in making Woodlawn a national cemetery.

Other abolitionists, like Harriet Tubman, are household names. Her home in the Finger Lakes is a national historical park.

Jones, Aaron said, should get the same recognition as Tubman.

“She is a national figure. John Jones is that too,” Aaron said. “His impact is that significant.”

Making His Legacy More Visible

The museum owns the grassy, 2.5-acre field where the house now sits. There is a vegetable garden and a playground nearby.

The John W. Jones Museum faces Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery. Behind, there is a playground and community garden. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

But Aaron said she and other board members want the property to become more, both for Elmira and Black residents there.

“I imagine a beautiful barn-like structure, but it would be modern, it would be green, it would be smart,” Aaron detailed.

That was how Aaron envisioned the museum’s education and cultural center, pointing out the museum’s window to where it would stand. She spoke of dreams to include meeting rooms for community groups to reserve, a library with books on Elmira’s abolitionists and programs for visitors.

Aaron said she wants to name the building after a local Black history buff and the museum’s first board president, Lucy Brown. She led the effort to save Jones’s home.

The education and cultural center is not built yet, and it will likely take millions of dollars to do so, but it is a goal Aaron said the community could invest in for its future, too.

“I want it to be part of the DNA of the town,” Aaron emphasized. “I want you to feel it like I feel it.”

For now, the museum’s board is working on a smaller project to make John Jones’s legacy more visible: a full-sized statue of Jones to put outside the house.

“It’ll be a lasting symbol to what we as a community value,” Aaron said.

Jones’s legacy, Aaron added, is something the entire community can stand behind.