|First page of the Newtown (now Elmira)|
section of the Tioga County (now Chemung)
Elmira City Historian
In 2002, I had the opportunity to work for James Loewen, sociologist, and professor of race relations at the University of Vermont, and author of Lies Across America, and Lies My Teacher Told Me. He was finishing a book called Sundown Towns and needed information about African Americans in Elmira in the early 20th century.
I had to look up what a “sundown town” was. It means a town that is “white on purpose.” This idea dated from around 1900 to 1950. According to his census research about Elmira, West Elmira in particular, he believed it to be a sundown town. Wikipedia says in sundown towns “restrictions were enforced by some combination of discriminatory local laws, intimidation, and violence.” Some towns had posted signs stating that people of color were allowed to be in the town limits in the daytime, but had to be out by sundown.
My first reaction was “Of course not. Not in my Elmira.” But, I thought of Loewen’s book. Maybe I am naïve. He claimed he could tell from census records, which towns were and were not, sundown towns, and West Elmira fit his criteria. In other towns, people did remember the signs and the rules. So, I started asking people who were alive in the 1920s and 30s if this was true, or if they had ever heard about sundown rules locally, or remembered the signs. I asked about 20 people, and they all said, “No.” I looked in old newspapers. Nothing. I relayed my information to Mr. Loewen, and probably because of me, Elmira is not listed in his book. It is however listed as a “possible” sundown town on his website.
In Elmira today, we are proud of our abolitionists – those who fought locally to end slavery between 1830 to 1860, whether by speech or by act. We honor those who helped along the Underground Railroad. Because it was illegal to help escaped slaves at the time, it is hard to know today exactly what happened. We have legends. The Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery website has an interactive map to learn about our local abolitionists. The John W. Jones Museum website highlights the history of local African Americans and the activity of local abolitionists.
What we don’t talk about in Elmira are our slave owners and slaves. In the 1800 census, race designations where “white,” “slave,” or “free colored persons.” Locally, four prominent citizens owned 3 slaves, and housed 5 free colored persons. In 1810, eleven Elmirans owned 13 slaves. In 1820, seven slave owners listed 12 slaves, and 9 free colored persons. Prominent residents were local slave owners. Included were: a Presbyterian church officer, a town clerk, a highway commissioner, several farmers, a state senator, a justice of the peace, a school commissioner, a judge, and more. New York State abolished slavery in 1827, and the 1830 census listed 43 free persons of color. 1840 showed 110 free persons of color in Elmira. 1850 showed 248 persons of color in Elmira, including John W. Jones who arrived in 1844. Beginning in 1850, the census designated three races – white, black, and mulatto. “Free colored person” was no longer an option. After the end of slavery, many white residents continued to house former slaves and kept their employ as servants.
In 1837, the first Methodist Conference of Western New York gathered in Elmira. As the city council forbade the meeting at the church or courthouse for fear of “creating a disturbance,” it was held on Clinton Island in the Chemung River near the foot of Washington Street where there was no jurisdiction. It was an opportunity for those who were anti-slavery to express their views. Thomas Stanley Day accepted those who felt the same way into his home on East Washington Avenue for their church services. This was one the early schisms with local churches and eventually forty people founded the Independent Congregational Church in 1846.
A young male slave, born in 1817, dreamed of freedom on the Mount Middleton plantation outside of Leesburg, Virginia – near the runway of today’s Dulles Airport. Years later in 1885, this same man – now named John W. Jones - told an Elmira Telegram reporter that he did not attempt to escape until his elderly owner “had given up the personal management of her estate.” John said, “After the death of Miss Elzy, they would all probably be separated by sale into different families, and that he resolved at an early day to take his two half-brothers and run away.” In June 1844, John told his mother that he was “going to a party” to spare her the pain of parting. That night at 10:00PM, John, his two brothers, and two men from a neighboring plantation started walking north. The first night they walked eighteen miles. Before starting out, they “swore to fight to the death, and never to surrender.” Each man carried a pistol.
On July 4, the group reached Troy, PA during a parade. The large crowd scared the men so they continued walking for fear of slave catchers. At a farmhouse at South Creek, a farmer asked them whether they were hungry. After never having an invitation into a white person’s house - they gladly went inside. John recalled to the Telegram that hot biscuits and butter had never tasted so good.
The next morning the group reached Elmira “where they made their first stop since their escape,” and all settled down for a good rest. According to “Uncle John” Smith’s obituary in 1898, they also changed their names for their personal safety. John W. Jones, George W. Jones, Charles Jones, John Smith, and Jefferson Brown walked into Elmira as free men.
John arrived at the Lake Street bridge with $1.56 in his pocket when he paid a 2-cent toll for each of the men to cross. The same day he made his first 50-cents by chopping wood for Mrs. Culp (daughter of pioneer John Hendy) on Lake Street. He said she knew he was an escaped slave, and she told him about when her father first brought her to Elmira. The Telegram’s article concludes with John’s quote, “My life, as I look back over it, seems to me a wonder of wonders. Here, I am at sixty-nine, but I do not feel like an old man - free, happy, prosperous, at least have enough to eat, yet I was once a slave, and that time seems as if it were but yesterday, so distinctly do I remember the old life.”
Elmira Telegram January 3, 1885 “Slavery To Freedom - The Life of John W. Jones, Once a Slave, Now a Rich Citizen”
Elmira Telegram April 16, 1898 “Uncle John Smith”
The John W. Jones Story by Barbara Ramsdell
US Federal Census records 1800, 1810, 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850
Life in Black & White: Family and Community in the Slave South. By Brenda E. Stevenson. (New York: Oxford University Press, c.1996.
Will of Miss Sarah Ellzey, 8 October 1840. Virginia Historical Society.
History of Tioga, Chemung, Tompkins, and Schuyler Counties, New York p 222