Davin White, Sunday Gazette-Mail [Charleston, West Va.], Apr. 26, 2009
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Abolitionist John Brown has been labeled as "crazy," "nuts" and a "traitor" for leading the 1859 raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry. Brown, however, carefully and secretly crafted his revolution with help from top black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and free blacks from Detroit to Baltimore, according to Hannah Geffert, a history professor at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown. Geffert presented "John Brown and His Secret Alliance" Sunday as part of the West Virginia Humanities Council's Little Lecture Series. "We have a very different view that has been picked up by a lot of historians," Geffert said.
In the late 1850s, Brown was trying to revive activity in the Underground Railroad movement, "which was really fading," Geffert said. While he sought whites to bankroll his endeavors, Brown sought alliances with free blacks and their acceptance of his revolution, she said.
In Pennsylvania, Brown met up with abolitionist Martin Delaney, a Charleston native and early advocate of black nationalism. Douglass sent Brown to meet with Delaney, Geffert said. Delaney later served in a black unit during the Civil War and rose to the rank of major in the U.S. Army.
In Detroit, historians found a document in a time capsule where blacks wrote, "we were on our way" to Harpers Ferry, but the raid happened earlier than expected, Geffert said.
Geffert said the local black community in Harpers Ferry had some sense that Brown's raid would occur before it did. In 1859, there were 540 freed blacks in Jefferson County, the most of any county in Virginia at that time, she said. Also, many African Methodist Episcopal churches could be found in Jefferson County.
In the post-raid period, many of Brown's suspected cohorts ended up fighting in all-black brigades for the Union army. After Brown and his fellow raiders were convicted (Brown was hanged shortly after), "specific" fires were set at the houses and farms of the jurors who voted for convictions, Geffert said.
Geffert went into detail about one story of an old weapons cache found at a home near Baltimore, Md. A family met with Geffert at Shepherd and mentioned several 19th-century weapons they discovered. The cache included a government-issued revolver, a double-barreled shotgun, a rifle issued to black soldiers and a very expensive foreign-made rifle, all in the house of a man involved in the Prince Hall Masons, a black organization, and an African Methodist Episcopal Church, an institution connected to the masons.
The old Woodland family home was located right next to an AME church, and the home welcomed black ministers who were sympathetic to Brown's movement, she said. "All of this may be coincidence," Geffert said. "I don't think so."
In effect, historians now view the raid in new ways, she said. "Black people were crucial to the raid," she said. "They participated in the raid -- and they did fight for their freedom."