John W. Jones was born into slavery on a plantation belonging to the Elzy family. He worked on the plantation for 27 years, at which time he feared he would be sold by his elderly and ill master. He fled along with four other slaves.
Slave hunters found them in Maryland, but the four managed to escape. They made their way to Pennsylvania, which was a free state. Exhausted and starving, they hid in a barn belonging to Nathaniel Smith. They were found by the owner's wife and given food and a safe place to rest.
After recuperating, the slaves made their way to Elmira, NY., which was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. It was the only stop between Philadelphia and St. Catherines, Ontario, where the slaves were headed.
In 1851, Jones became an agent on the Underground Railroad of Elmira. During the next nine years, he helped 860 slaves escape. There were times he aided up to 30 runaways in one night...some in the First Baptist Church and some in his home. None of these runaways were ever captured.
Jones made an agreement with Northern Central Railroad employees in 1854. Fugitive slaves were hidden in the Freedom Baggage Car that traveled directly to Niagara Falls. Most of Jones' "baggage" was delivered to St. Catherines.
In 1847, Jones became sexton of Elmira's First Baptist Church. He kept records of the church's dead. He buried 2,963 Confederate soldiers from Elmira Prison Camp in Woodlawn Cemetery during the Civil War and kept immaculate records of these men. Only seven of these soldiers are listed as unknown. Jones received $250 for each buried soldier the government. He used the money to buy a farm on College Avenue. His house still stands on Davis Street.
Jones served as sexton of First Baptist Church for another 43 years. When he died on December 26, 1900, he was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.