Tragedy & Triumph


Leave a comment

The Yellow House

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.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

An Interview with the Abolitionist and Underground Railroad Official

From my book, Tragedy and Triumph, Elmira, New York, 1835-65

An Interview with the Abolitionist and Underground Railroad Official

The black man leaned forward in his seat and in a staccato voice, as if reading from a list, said, “Under no circumstance draw attention to yourself. Work to become a trusted part of the community. Confide in no one; simply keep your own counsel. Always be on your guard. Do not attend any abolitionist meetings, associate with anyone labeled that way. You must appear indifferent to the cause. Remember this well: you have volunteered to help fugitive slaves reach freedom. If you fail in this, you fail us all.”

Elizabeth nodded solemnly.

Joshua Edwards scowled at her as they sat across from one another on two wooden chairs. The small room, located in the musty third floor of the university’s library, contained little furniture other than the chairs, and a table filled with jars of glue, needles, thread, and books that needed to be mended. A small window nailed shut to its casement in the corner let in little light. Elizabeth wished that she could open it but remained seated as she waited for him to speak again. There was no sound in the room; a dense silence that spoke of the heaviness of their meeting pervaded the air.

Continue reading