The modest yellow house stands across the street from the Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York. It hasn’t always been there; its first home was blocks away but moved several years ago to overlook the rows of tombstones. I visited it recently, sat on its front steps and cried.
Built in 1869, it was the home of one of the uncelebrated individuals of the Civil War era: John W. Jones, an ex-slave who had helped 800 runaway slaves to escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad. He knew how dangerous it was to elude slave hunters and informants, as he himself had run away from a plantation in Virginia years before, eventually settled in Elmira. The most startling fact about him is this: between 1864 and 1865, he buried nearly three thousand Confederate soldiers from the Elmira POW camp with meticulous care, noting the names and locations of each one he buried. When questioned, he answered that he hoped someone would have done the same for him, so his family would know what had become of him.
I tried to describe his character in my book, Tragedy and Triumph, Elmira, New York, 1835-65, based on the limited sources available. The facts of his life are clearly noted, but the sources are inadequate in their analysis of the man. How could any man shackled to slavery for years bury Confederate prisoners with care and dignity so that they could be identified by their families after the war? How could that same man spend his nights with a dozen terrified runaways? How could anyone have such a deep well of compassion for all people during a war? He was an extraordinary man in an extraordinary time.
His yellow house by the Confederate tombstones stands as a testament to his character. It is in the process of becoming a museum but lacks funding for its completion. I plan to donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of my book to that purpose.