Jean Libby on Dennis Frye; An Apology from Me
Along with her response to yesterday's blog entry, "Gods, Generals, and Park Historians,"my dear friend Jean Libby has also sent me an informative and helpful criticism, which I post below. For the record, where I stand to be corrected, or if I have been unfair, I would not hesitate to either admit my error or apologize. It is fundamentally a contradiction to use this John Brown blog in a manner unfair or unjust, given the character and conduct of the Old Man himself.
Response from Jean Libby via email, 31 May 2011
Dear Lou -- here are the basic points of my comments for your article about Dennis Frye.
1. Dennis was born and raised in western Maryland, in Washington County, near the Kennedy Farm. He and his family are members of the Church of the Brethren, called Dunkers, an antislavery and pacifist people who often face prejudice because they retain their beliefs and culture of independence. John Brown was welcomed by the Brethren and invited to speak at their church.
2. Although I agree with Brown's motives for the raid, these motives transcended his actions and his failure. He could not control his men, who went against orders and shot two men running away in fright when confronted. The first man to die by the hand of Brown's raiders was Hayward Shepherd, a free black man. He suffered terribly all night from the gunshot wound in his back.
3. I believe the failure of Brown's raid and arming the local slaves with Harpers Ferry rifles was caused by his indecision after the murder of Hayward Shepherd and the lack of expected support by abolitionists. These are the same abolitionists that the white southerners expected would soon follow. According to Boyd Stutler, the local blacks also expected their arrival and were setting signal fires on the farms and escaping in substantial numbers. They did not believe that John Brown would start a liberation movement without backup.
4. It is truly unfair to call Dennis Frye unqualified as a John Brown scholar. For as long as I have known him (which is since 1978, when he was a history student) he has filled a part-time position at the Western Maryland room at the Washington County Free Library which has an extensive primary and published resource collection on the John Brown raid. His father, John Frye, developed that collection. John Frye is still active at the library and giving tours about the locations of the events at nearly age eighty. I consider John Frye my greatest teacher, and mentor. We do not share the same viewpoint about John Brown. We do have the same viewpoint about how history should be done, the importance of the understanding of the terrain and the inclusion of what everyone is doing.
5. You are correct that the National Park Service is anti-Brown. This can be seen in their new handbook of the raid, which may have been what you were reading in the bookshop in 2009. This perspective goes much higher in NPS than Dennis Frye. If you look at that book, you will not find any named editors or authors. I believe that many of the interpreters at Harpers Ferry do not have this perspective. Some have it worse. I also believe that my regular presence doing research has changed this anti-Brown perspective somewhat through the years. We respect each other.
6. Helping the documentary film company Kenner Films make "John Brown's Holy War" is not evidence of sharing their perspective. I helped them too, a conservative estimate of my contribution is 80 to 100 hours, mostly telephone calls when I was on break at my evening history classes. They expected me to answer detailed questions without consulting any files, and they did not want to read anything themselves. They asked for my help as someone who understood the raid, and John Brown. They said they were representing PBS and American Experience. That is surely a good reputation for documentary presentation. I was told that I couldn't see the final product until release because of academic freedom. Nevertheless if you are going to blame Dennis Frye for the final product then you had better blame me too.
First, Jean, thank you for intervening with insight and correction. However, I'm afraid that my approach is perhaps worse than I realized due to confusion and failure to check my facts, which is sometimes the outcome of hastily done efforts and work done out of frustration.
Let me be clear that not only was I wrong about Mr. Frye, but I was mistaken as to his character and work, certainly in the greater part of what I wrote. I am very regretful of this error.
As you have written, we agree that the National Park Service people are anti-Brown. Another knowledgeable reader has also written: "I too have overheard tourist-directed orations at Harpers Ferry NHP...and, for me, the "unstudied prejudice and bias" is a perpetual given."
However, much of my focus on Mr. Frye was unjust and erroneous, not only because of the points you bring to light in his favor, but also because he is NOT the National Park Service person who aided Kenneth Carroll in his infamous psychological postmortem on the Old Man. That man happened to be one Bruce Noble, a NPS "historian." Although, as you say, you--and probably I--do not agree with Mr. Frye regarding John Brown, he has been unfairly characterized by me in this blog and I both regret it and apologize for it. I am especially regretful because Mr. Frye is from the Brethren movement, which is a tradition related to the congregation and church which I pastor (Brethren in Christ).
Having owned up to my error, let me therefore make the following statement:
1. I apologize to Mr. Frye and my readers for the inaccurate and unfair characterization of Mr. Frye found on this blog. I will pull the article and edit it and keep an admission of error and an apology for the original version. This is only fair.
2. I sustain my fairly harsh judgment of the National Park Service at Harper's Ferry. I do not think they deal justly or truthfully with the Old Man and I regret that such people are in control of information to the extent that they have poisoned the thinking of many visitors, tourists, and students over many years so that a warped and prejudiced anti-Brown sentiment continues to be advocated by so-called experts.
3. While I do not doubt that the response of Virginians toward the raid is historically important and indicative of the heightened paranoia of slave masters in the South, I do not agree with Mr. Frye that the Harper's Ferry raid initiated the Southern "reaction" in light of Kansas. Historians have wrongly marked the "beginning" of the Civil War as a result of the Harper's Ferry raid, and Southerners have historically benefited from this by pointing to the raid as a justification for opposing "northern aggression." In fact, the South was always the aggressor, and Kansas proves this point. John Brown was, in fact, responding to Southern aggression and the South's reaction to the raid cannot be properly assessed without also taking into consideration the militancy and preparations for war that preceded the Southern response to Harper's Ferry.
4. You're absolutely correct that neither you nor Mr. Frye (nor Margaret Washington, for that matter) should be held accountable for that dreadful production, "John Brown's Holy War." When we consult for films, etc., we really do not know how our input will be used. However, we should review what you said and what Mr. Frye said in that documentary.