We Get Letters: John Walter Jones: Ex-Slave, Sexton, Stationmaster
By Sheldom Firem
Divided in 2021, divided in 1865. Both Americas endure and endured deep and divisive social chasms. Does a bridge exist? Did a bridge exist? Will the modern trolls of disunity and those of history hold sway? Reconstruction failed then; will re-unification fail now?
Politicians believe we can talk our way to unity; corporations believe we can purchase our way to unity; innovators believe we can innovate our way to unity; preachers believe we can preach our way to unity; non-profits believe we can donate our way to unity; citizens believe we can vote our way to unity.
Jacob to an Esau
Belief has proven to be the weaker twin, a Jacob to an Esau, when compared to an individual’s purposeful moral behavior. Works and acts of mercy are ethical imperatives in many faiths. Theodore Roosevelt modeled the gospel of vigorous civic action to elevate society. Martin Luther King Jr. nonviolently marched.
What is a historical example of someone taking a principled stand? One compelling, lesser-known example was John Walter Jones, ex-slave, sexton, and underground railroad stationmaster. His acts of mercy included burying the dead and ransoming captives.
John Walter Jones a Brief History
John Walter Jones was born to the slave’s birthright in 1817, on a plantation near Leesburg, Virginia. When he was twenty-seven years old. Fearing his aging mistress, Miss Sarah Ellzey, might sell him, he ran away on a three-hundred-mile exodus to Elmira, New York. John became the Moses to four other slaves-two half-brothers and two male companions.
Leesburg to Elmira, Egypt to Canaan: John Jones entered Elmira with less than two dollars in his pocket, a determined work ethic and the hope of a runaway slave chasing the Northern Star. Elmira possessed an active Underground Railway system. Mark Twain’s father-in-law and industrialist, Jervis Langdon, lived in Elmira and worked with Jones in transporting slaves to Canada.
Jones’ personality led to several jobs: wood cutter, store clerk, janitor, church usher, sexton of the First Baptist Church, and an active Underground Railroad stationmaster. John Jones entered Elmira an ex-slave, became a community member, married Rachel in 1856, fathered children and died in 1900, a free citizen of Elmira. Jones’ penultimate moral action included his conveying 860 runaway slaves by train to Canada.
What was Jones’ principled action? A Civil War chronology is required.
Brutal Civil War battles bore bitter fruit; these battles produced prisoners and fatalities; some prisoners were paroled, others imprisoned. The North and South maintained prisons that housed ‘the enemy’ in unsanitary, overcrowded conditions, without sufficient food or shelter; subsequently many died.
Andersonville Prison in Georgia was the South’s shame; Elmira Prison in New York was the North’s shame.
The Elmira prison housed nearly 12,000 enlisted Confederate prisoners; nearly 3,000 Southern soldiers died there during the one year that the prison was open, closing in 1865. This is the juncture at which John W. Jones, sexton, took direct moral action. Jones, ex-slave, respectfully and meticulously supervised the burial of the Southern Confederate soldiers who died in Elmira’s prison. This last sentence may require re-reading.
If the social media of 1865 had trolls, they might disparage Jones’ motives. 1865 trolls and 2021 trolls take succor in derision. To them unity and works of mercy are anathema. They might have alleged that a former slave would not bury Confederate soldiers; they might have rationalized that he was paid to bury the soldiers; they might have broadsided that he was obligated because it was his job. But Jones’ moral motivation transcended the practical, his job description.
The facts of this ex-slave’s moral actions follow:
As sexton, despite his twenty-seven years of slavery, John W. Jones:
- buried nearly 3,000 Confederate soldiers with honors and respect (an average of eight per day).
- used an area in back of his farm as the cemetery.
- recorded the soldier’s date of death, grave number, regiment, company, rank and name.
- erected a painted, wooden marker at each grave.
- placed a sealed glass jar in each coffin with the identifying data of the Southern soldier for family/historical reference.
First Baptist Church
John Jones was a baptized member of the First Baptist Church of Elmira for most of his life; his faith had its principled requisites. The fruits of his moral action in burying Confederate soldiers were borne out in the gratitude of some of the southern families who recovered their sons’ bodies after the Civil War, although most of those Confederate soldiers still lie in Elmira’s soil.
In one instance, Jones even contacted the relatives of one soldier, John R. Rollins, the dead son of his former overseer in Virginia, so they could retrieve his body. This last sentence may also require re-reading. The wife of the overseer had been kind to John Jones, the slave, in Virginia.
An ex-slave would be totally justified in not assisting in the burial of Confederate soldiers who fought to maintain the institution of slavery and that slave’s chains. Morality throughout history has known many paths. John W. Jones’ direct moral imperative to ‘bury the dead’ with dignity and ‘ransom the captive’ were the cobblestones on his path.
John W. Jones’ principled example of purposeful moral behavior may be the foundation of the bridge we are seeking to cross in 2022. Corporal and spiritual acts of mercy continue to be relevant. The Sermon on the Mount was not an Info-War. The social gospel is rarely a convenient gospel.