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By Phil Hall | January 6, 2012

On June 4, 1844, 27-year-old John W. Jones and four other men quietly escaped from their state of enslavement on a plantation in Leesburg, Virginia, and headed north along the Underground Railroad trail. They traveled mostly by night in order to avoid the bounty hunters who scoured the Virginia-Maryland-Pennsylvania corridor in search of runaway slaves. Jones began his life as a free man in Elmira, New York, where he gained work as a church sexton, learned to read and write, and eventually saved enough money to buy a house that served as a refuge for runaway slaves seeking liberty in Canada.

This wonderful documentary short by Richard Breyer and Anand Kamalakar traces Jones’ remarkable odyssey, while sharing the stories of the courageous abolitionists that provided Jones and his traveling companions with food and shelter (actions that were against the law in pre-Civil War America). The film also identifies the still-extant houses where the men took refuge during their perilous flight.

Even more astonishing is a segment that recalls a long-forgotten chapter of Civil War history: the Confederate prisoner of war camp at Elmira. Jones worked during the conflict as part of the burial staff at the camp – and the irony that a former slave would voluntarily provide dignified burials to the men who sought to perpetrate his enslavement is more than a little staggering.

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