"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Abolition Hall to Honor 4

Commemoration weekend to remember John Brown, others who fought slavery

Today [October 16] marks the 149th anniversary of the raid on Harpers Ferry.

On that fateful day in 1859, abolitionist John Brown led a group of 22 men in an attack intended to initiate a slave uprising in the South. Though the uprising was quickly squelched and Brown hanged for treason, the event was a contributing factor to the start of the Civil War.

For Alice Keesey Mecoy, the story of Harpers Ferry isn't just some obscure piece of history. It's a part of family lore.

Mecoy, of Allen, Texas, is John Brown's great-great-great-granddaughter, and next week she will be in Central New York for the National Abolition Hall of Fame's second biennial induction commemoration.

The event takes place on Oct. 24, 25 and 26 in Morrisville and Peterboro.

Brown and abolitionists Lydia Maria Child, Wendell Phillips and Sojourner Truth were 2007 Hall of Fame inductees. They will be honored during the commemoration ceremony, which Mecoy wouldn't miss.

"It's important to me to have someone represent (Brown) there," Mecoy said. "It's very important to me that it be broadcast he wasn't a lunatic. There are people that thought he was. There are others that thought maybe his violence was an answer to the times. He truly thought all people should be created equal. He was quite ahead of his time."

Why should Madison County residents care about John Brown? Besides his role in the abolition movement, Brown also had some important local ties, including a powerful friend in Gerrit Smith.

Smith, a wealthy antislavery philanthropist who resided in Peterboro, was one of the so-
called "Secret Six," a team of men who bankrolled Brown's militant-style abolitionist efforts. Though Smith preferred peaceful nonresistance, he supported Brown's efforts, knowing that violence might ultimately be necessary in the fight against slavery.

Unfortunately, he was right.

"Harpers Ferry was a kind of inevitable evolution of the development of the abolition movement," said Milton Sernett, a member of the National Abolition Hall of Fame's governing body. "Change came not at the free will of the slaveholders but at the point of the sword. That was a kind of development born of the failure of all other means."

Sernett, a Syracuse University professor emeritus, will provide the commemoration's keynote address on Oct. 25. His presentation, "To Make the World Anew: The Transformation of Upstate New York's 'Burned-Over District' into 'North Star Country,' " is billed as "a program of projected images."

According to Dot Willsey, president of the Cabinet of Freedom the Hall of Fame's governing body all of the commemoration activities are designed with one primary purpose.

"To educate the public so they understand the importance Central New York had in the national reform movement in the early 19th century and understand that what the abolitionists began in the 19th century is not yet completed," Willsey said. "We still have racial discrimination and the abolitionist movement must continue."

Above all, Willsey said, she hopes the efforts of the National Abolition Hall of Fame and its future museum convey to people some sense of 19th century reality.

"Our forefathers were fighting for their liberty, risking their lives and incomes for the freedom of another group of people," she said. "Without it, these changes wouldn't have occurred. The Underground Railroad has been romanticized. We've been led to believe everyone helped. But people died, had their houses burned down with them in it. There are too many people who leave the history in the 19th century. They don't understand we're not there yet."

The National Abolition Hall of Fame's first round of inductees was announced in 2005 and the second was announced in 2007. According to Willsey, the two-year time span between selection and commemoration is intentional.

"We don't want to be a warehouse of abolitionist names," she said. "We want to educate the public about these overlooked people in our history."

Next weekend's full roster of activities, held at Morrisville College Oct. 24 and 25 and in Peterboro on Oct. 26, will allow Willsey, Sernett and the other members of the Cabinet of Freedom to do just that.

A concert featuring abolition songs and narrative will be held the evening of Oct. 24 and a symposia on the 2007 inductees will take place in the afternoon on Oct. 25, followed by the Hall of Fame's annual dinner.

The commemoration takes place that evening and features the unveiling of inductee banners, introduction of inductees' relatives, dramatic monologues, and abolition poetry reading.

"It's a moving piece of the weekend, probably the heart of the weekend when people come together," Willsey said. "There's a lot of emotional energy at that point."

Activities on Oct. 26 take place in Peterboro at the Smithfield Community Center, which is the future home of the National Abolition Hall of Fame Museum.

A catered lunch follows a morning tour of the Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark. In the afternoon, Sernett will present the first of "The Abolition Sunday Lyceums."

"This is one of our attempts to educate the public on this complicated and overwhelming era," Willsey said. "The lyceum will extend over five years. (Sernett) will present a lecture with many visuals he's collected over 30 years of teaching, and then there will be reading sessions to get ready for next year."

Mecoy will be there to soak it all in. After dinner on Oct. 25, she will unveil Brown's banner and say a few words, a moment for which she is undoubtedly ready.

"I'm really excited," she said. "I can talk about John Brown forever. The fight is still on."

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