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John Jones Museum - TravelStorys

Elmira Back Story Tour

Location Trip Time Travel Type
New York 1 hour

John Jones Museum

Narrator: Welcome to Back Story where you can hear stories about local traditions. The John W. Jones Museum commemorates the life of John W. Jones, born enslaved on July 21, 1817 in Virginia and fled to Elmira in 1844 along the Underground Railroad when he was 27. In 1851, Jones became the station master of the Elmira stop of the Underground Railroad en route to St. Catharine's, Canada. Working closely with chief Philadelphia Underground agent William Still and Elmira abolitionists Jervis Langdon, Simeon Benjamin, Thomas Stanley Day and more, Jones helped nearly 800 enslaved Africans reach freedom. In 1859, Jones also became the sexton for Woodlawn Cemetery, burying just under 3,000 confederate soldiers, keeping records so meticulous that in 1877 the US Federal Government declared the burial site a national cemetery. John W. Jones Museum president, Talima Aaron describes the selflessness and moral fortitude it must have taken Jones, a formerly enslaved man, to bury in such a dignified manner Confederate soldiers. Because of how he interred them with respect and dignity, with as much of their personal belongings, when the widows from the South came, and they wanted to take them back to the South, they were resting so peacefully they said just leave them where they are. He personally supervised each of those burials; he supervised a crew of 12. it's a story that needs to be told all over. On the other hand, he's still helping reaching back to help those who were like him to escape the institution of slavery and help them onto freedom. By 1997, Jones' home had transferred hands many times, had fallen into disrepair and had been condemned by the city of Elmira. Aaron describes how this historic home was saved from being bulldozed. Lucy Brown, she is the founder and president. Here was a working mother, an African American lady who worked in corrections, she was active in the NAACP, and was very active in the leadership of her church. When you're talking about people standing in their truth, and living a life that really stands up. Lucy started with some black history programming she was doing at a local high school. She felt that maybe if she could introduce youth to some figures from history, they'd have a connection. She felt we were losing a lot of our young people, our African Americans especially, they were going to college and not returning, just finding an ad in a bigger city, just not here. She was talking about John Jones and other figures. She was notified that his house was being demolished. It had been condemned by the city, fell into disrepair and it was a rental. So I guess, there was no family connection. It had been a rental, rental, rental. It had been infested, it was an eye sore. So they were gonna tear it down. And Lucy actually sat in front of the house and with another friend, saved the house. The house got attention through the paper, and because of that, concerned citizens that saw this also got behind her. It helped bring up the history of John Jones again. Because it was known in the ‘50s he was recognized as a significant African American contributor, and they named the first projects in the 50's after him, Jones Court. After that, not a whole lot was said about him. Until Lucy started talking about him again, people didn't realize they had this gem here and this legacy here. But she sat in front of the house and saved it. The board of Trustees was born in 1998 and they began to meet in the basement of Monumental church. And that original Board of Trustees was able to secure funding and buy the house. So they bought the house, then they had to move the house. They moved the house around the corner from College Ave. to Nobel St. Then they moved the house again to its present position on Davis St. in front of Woodlawn Cemetery. She is a pretty phenomenal woman. She's in her 90s now. Aaron again describes the significance of Jones' legacy today, and the responsibility she feels to honor that story in a way that is tangible for African Americans in Elmira and all community members. When I'm able to enlighten young people or even adults--people that lived in Jones Court that didn't know it was named after a black man- were just amazed. Jones Court was the first projects built in the ‘50s and they selected John Jones, to name this project because of his legacy of respect and how he lived his life, his life in service. It was in the African American community that actually tore down a lot of the old neighborhood, a couple of important structures, the original AME Zion, a couple of other churches, houses. There were a lot of African Americans there, but it also had folks of other races, it was a mixed-race community. But it was a very tight community. But the people who lived there did not know who it was named after. People have such fond memories growing up there, but didn't know who it was named after. I know that we--the African American community and African Americans in general- really did a lot to help build the country. So to be a part of this institution that saved this story, a lot of stories for African Americans because so little is saved becomes a story. But here you can physically come and see his physical house. We are kind of the stewards. And so is the community. We have had this type of relationship with our neighbors, so the community in which we live, they are looking out for the museum. They are taking notice and watching. That makes me feel good. It becomes more than just a building. It becomes a presence. And if we're honoring the legacy of someone who is so honorable, respectful and so on, I think it's the least we can do to continue to push that story forward. He lived a life that can be used as a guide for others. It's something for young kids to look up to. Quite heroic. He was quite a big character. To learn more about the life and work of John W. Jones and Elmira's abolitionist history, visit Ready for more stories? Continue on our Elmira Backstory Tour. This tour is funded by the NY State Council on the Arts and the Robert Gardiner Foundation. The tour is curated by T.C. Owens of the Arts Council of the Southern Finger Lakes.

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