Thursday, August 26, 2010

To Do the Right Thing

For the past few months I have been directing a documentary film with my mentor and colleague about a remarkable individual by the name of John W. Jones. John was a product of two hundred years of free labor that gave America a head start in the world, "slavery". Born on a plantation in Leesburg, Virginia in 1817, John W. Jones sought freedom at the age of twenty seven when his owner Sarah Elzy, who took good care of him was in ill health. Instead of freeing him she decided to transfer him to a relative. For a slave this was reason enough to escape, as the future lay uncertain and the threat of being separated from family and being violently abused was great.

John's grandmother had always pointed at the geese flying north, and filled his imagination with stories of freedom and opportunity. So one night he decided to follow the geese. With four of his brothers in tow he made a run. With only a shirt on his back he took on a daunting journey north on foot. Traveling mostly by night guided by the stars, dodging bounty hunters, on rafts and freight trains, seeking shelter in safe houses that made up the Underground Railroad, he arrived three hundred miles later, in Elmira, New York. It was 1844 and Elmira was booming.

For most runaway slaves Canada was the final destination but for John, Elmira became home. With the help of some formidable white abolitionists of the time, John started his life as a sextant at the local First Baptist Church. He taught himself to read and write and established himself as an honorable black man in a white man's world.

A few years later civil war broke out and Elmira became a site for one of the largest prison camps of its time. The Elmira Prison Camp soon came to be known as "Helmira" and was the Abu Garaib of its time. Twelve thousand confederate soldiers were packed into a camp made for three thousand. They were made to live in squalor under canvas tents most often on paltry rations. Within a year three thousand prisoners died of disease, cold weather, poor medical attention and hunger. It so happened that since John was a sextant he was handed the job of burying the dead. While it was the norm to just discard the dead in unmarked ditches- as they were the enemy, John W. Jones out of his own christian kindness decided to give each soldier a proper burial. He gave each a coffin and a wooden gravestone on which he recorded their name, regiment and company. He maintained a meticulous log and enclosed the same information in a bottle and placed it inside the coffin. He received $2.50 for each body he buried. John became a wealthy man by giving a Christian burial to the very people who were fighting to keep the unchristian system of slavery alive.

John lived at a time when photography was in its early experimental stage and the magic of moving images was just being invented. As a black man his encounter with technology of this nature was highly unlikely. Yet there exists one photograph taken during his halcyon old days. What endure are stories and the three thousand marble pointed grave stones at the Woodlawn National Cemetery that speak of his great deeds. So when we decided to make a film about him, we knew there was not much to go with in terms of archival material. We knew he was no intellectual like Frederick Douglas who left behind great writings. And we were not interested in making a Ken Burns style opus. We wanted to catch John W. Jones' ghost blowing in the wind. We wanted to find out for ourselves if his spirit still inhabited the land that he traversed. We wanted to find out if anyone had ever heard of this man, who had helped more than 800 slaves escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad. The only way to find out was to walk in his steps.

So with a camera in hand we decided to take the journey from Leesburg to Elmira. Walking on foot was out of question. 300 miles was a long distance, time was of the essence and we were not brave enough to walk the woods by night. So we decided to do what Americans do. Rent an automobile and burn some fossil fuel.

From research we plotted the journey he possibly would have taken and the towns he must have touched along the way. Our plan was to spontaneously stop in these towns and ask people on the street, in cafes, churches, porches, farms and factories if they knew if the Underground Railroad passed through their town and if it did had anyone ever heard of a man called John W. Jones. Our mission was two fold. To find out if people in fact knew their place in history and if they didn't, we felt compelled to enlighten them with the tale of this great man who lived more than a century ago. A man who did the right thing strictly out of good conscience, when all that was expected of him was to stay alive.

We started in Leesburg, Virginia by just walking down a street and pointing a camera at a group of people lounging on a sunny porch. They were keenly aware of the role Virginia had played in the business of slavery. In 1860 one out of every four families in Virginia owned slaves. They also enlightened us with a lesser known fact that Leesburg was the capital of the nation for a day. But they had not heard of John W. Jones and were moved by his story. Then we met Dr. Deborah Lee who knew everything there was to know about this man. She had the journeys of slaves seeking freedom cataloged in her book titled Honoring Their Paths. A page in her book was dedicated to John W.Jones.

She drove us to the very plantation John had seen the geese fly north and then walked us to a thicket on a rolling meadow. Inside the overgrown bush lay grave stones which were hard to reach. The marked ones, which we could not see as they were deep in the bush, belonged to John W. Jones' owner Sally Elzy and her family. The unmarked ones which were on the outer rim of the site, Deborah said belonged to the slaves who served them. John. W. Jones' mother lay under one of the plain gray stones sticking out of the ground.

Next we stopped at a majestic mansion on the Oatlands Plantation a few miles from the grave site. The view from the verandah of the building was breathtaking. Perched on a hill the mansion looked down on lush green rolling meadows and ridges as far as the eyes could see. Deborah pointed in the distance and said John would have worked here and crossed those meadows on his way to freedom. The plantation grounds and the mansion today are a popular destination for lavish weddings. While I could appreciate the beauty of the place, the elegance was definitely undermined by the despicable history that lay beneath.

Our next stop was in another small historic town in Fauquier County a few miles from Leesburg. "The Plains" is a quaint little town on the Virginia Civil War trail. Surrounded by lush green farms and meadows the air there was certainly special. We stopped at the only local cafe which claimed the actor Robert Duvall as a neighbor and a regular. Speaking to the young men and women working there we were surprised to find how aware they were of their towns history, especially its relationship to the Underground Railroad. One of them directed us to a farm which had remnants of slave quarters. The bare walls made from irregular stones and mud, spoke volumes of the condition the people lived in and why seeking freedom was inevitable for some.

Outside the coffee shop we ran into a black man with a limp, who seemed like a permanent fixture of that street, and everyone knew him by his first name. He had lived there for fifty years or more and had worked on local farms and had experienced segregation. When we told him what we were doing he directed us to an old lady up the hill who knew a lot about that time. We walked into a cluttered modest house. A grand old slender lady in her nineties sat on a sofa in her nightgown. The smell of cigarette was thick and Oprah was on TV. Surrounded by a sickly overweight daughter in a wheel chair and a gaggle of grand and great grand children she listened to the John W. Jones tale. She nodded her head and refused to speak to the camera, for fear of her soul being snatched. She mentioned her parents being "share croppers" and you could tell she had a good idea what it was to be a child of a slave, but did not want to talk about it. And so we moved on.

We then visited Karen Hughs and Jane Butler down the road. They had created a museum in tribute of the Afro-American history in Faquier Country. From Africa to Obama the whole black experience was captured in their little museum with photographs, model recreations and framed artifacts. They had also assembled genealogical data on slave families and were successful in tracing their own roots back to some of the families that lived and worked in the area. Interviewing them in front of an actual cage that was used to transport slaves on ships from Africa was eyeopening. For them the emotions of what was done to their ancestors centuries ago was raw and very present.

We drove north along the Susquehanna river on route 15, which in the old days was known as the "Old Carolina Road". Slaves and others traveling north from Virginia took that road touching small towns, jumping on and off barges and trains leading them north where opportunity lay. The drive was picturesque with the river on the left and thick forests covering the landscape far and wide. Meandering through small towns and meeting town historians who all had something special to add to our quest, we arrived in Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania.

Not having a plan, we decided to walk down a street in a predominantly black neighbor hood and speak to residents lounging on stoops. We met a grand old lady reading a book on her porch. She was initially hesitant to speak to us, as we had caught her at a time when her hair was undone, but after some persuasion and listening to the John W. Jones story she opened up. Moments later her daughter entered the scene and enquired if she had told us the story of "George?". We wondered who this George was. We later found it was none other than the first president George Washington. She claimed he had fathered children in her ancestry. She certainly had some albumin in her pigment.

Next we arrived at a church down the road. It was seven in the evening and some parishioners were hobbling into the basement in time for bible reading. It was a mixed crowd, but the flavor was certainly black. A poster of President Obama in a cowboy hat hung on the bulletin board with the words "There's a New Sheriff in Town". When the sermon began you realized Jesus was certainly the only sheriff in this town and salvation was only guaranteed if you lead him into your heart. After bible business we gathered around for a tête-à-tête. No one had heard of John W. Jones but his story did strike a chord and the debate heated up when we posed the question "Have we come a long way from Africa to Obama?". The responses were as varied as the crowd. But there was a unified voice that said yes we had come a long way, but the culture of hate and racism had not gone far.

Through out our journey we posed the "Africa to Obama" question and we got some surprising answers. As John W. Jones in his way had conquered a frontier to freedom, there is no question that the election of Obama was a trailblazing moment not to be taken lightly. But what we have seen since his election is a meteoric rise in the divisive rhetoric of fear and hate. The forces of intolerance that dogged John W. Jones seem to be alive today in a different shade waiting for a moment to engulf us again. From the recent push to abolish the fourteenth amendment and the lynch mob pandemonium against the proposed construction of an Islamic center in lower Manhattan, it seems like the bullhorn is again in the hands of some lunatics who insist on leading the blind.

Our journey for the time being ended in Elmira at the final resting place of John W. Jones at the Woodlawn Cemetary. He and his family lie under a shady dogwood tree a few feet from Mark Twain and the three thousand soldiers he buried with kindness, civility and humanity. To appreciate the life of John W. Jones and draw inspiration, one only has to look within and question what it means "to do the right thing" when all that is expected of you is to only exist. It is what it is.