Monumentalizing John W. Jones (C19 Podcast)

For the C19 (Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists) Podcast, I wrote and produced an episode titled “Monumentalizing John W. Jones.” This episode uses a monument to unravel the story of John W. Jones, a self-emancipated Black activist, civic leader, and entrepreneur living in nineteenth-century Elmira, New York. Jones is most often remembered for the “caring” way he buried nearly 3,000 bodies of Confederate soldiers who died in a Civil War prison camp in Elmira. Jillian Spivey Caddell describes how her scholarly interest in Elmira and the life of John W. Jones (along with his connections to another famous visitor to the city, Mark Twain) led her to discover that her own ancestor was among the Confederates buried by Jones. To get a full sense of Jones’s character, Caddell interviews Talima Aaron, president of the Board of Trustees of the John W. Jones Museum; Rachel Dworkin, archivist for the Chemung County Historical Society; and Mary Wheeling, who also shares a personal connection with Jones and Elmira. The episode meditates on questions of how personal histories and scholarly interests collide and suggests ways that knowing the story of Jones can influence our teaching of C19 American literature and culture. Finally, it resituates Jones as central to conversations about Civil War memory and forms of nineteenth-century Black citizenship.

Listen to the episode here:

John W. Jones (ex-slave) - Wikipedia

Resources

Bibliography

Glathaar, Joseph T. Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served Under Robert E. Lee. UNC Press, 2011.

Gray, Michael P. The Business of Captivity: Elmira and its Civil War Prison Camp. Kent State UP, 2001.

Holmes, Clayton Wood. The Elmira Prison Camp. G.P. Putnam, 1912.

Merritt, Keri Leigh. Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South. Cambridge UP, 2017.

Spires, Derrick R. The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States. U of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.

Still, William. Still’s Underground Rail Road Records. Philadelphia, 1886.

Teaching the Story of John W. Jones

Mark Twain, “A True Story Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It.” Boston: Atlantic Monthly Co., November 1874.

  • Twain’s first story published in the Atlantic Monthly was a thinly veiled fictionalization of a story told to him by his family’s African-American cook in Elmira, Mary Ann Cord. Cord’s remarkable story of reuniting with her son during the Civil War illustrates the “troubles and joys” of Elmira’s Black citizens–and Twain’s complicated relationships with them.

Frederick Douglass, “Oration Delivered on the Occasion of the Unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument, April 14, 1876.”

Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1997.

Jonathan W. White and Scott Sandage, “What Frederick Douglass Had to Say About Monuments.” Smithsonian Magazine, 30 June 2020.

  • Douglass’s speech along with the newly re-found letter by Douglass about the Freedmen’s Monument (also called the Emancipation Memorial) shows students that monuments have always been sites of cultural and societal dialogue. Savage’s influential reading of the monument demonstrates how race is always inscribed in the materials and aesthetics of U.S. monuments.