"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, July 13, 2018

Out of the Blue: "Emperor," A Shield's Green/John Brown Movie in Production Now!

Green (1859 sketch)

For sometime we have been aware of potential John Brown projects for both cinema and television, but this one has taken us by surprise.  It appears that Mark Amin’s Sobini Films has beaten every proposed or planned production to the punch.  According to Deadline Hollywood (June 20), “Emperor,” the story of black Harper’s Ferry raider Shields Green, is now in production.  Green was one of several black men who joined John Brown at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, and joined Brown despite the low-key discouragement of Frederick Douglass, the preeminent black leader of that era.  

Douglass loved Brown and (probably) grudgingly brought Green to meet him in August 1859, months before the Harper's Ferry raid, in a secret meeting in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Green had escaped slavery and made his way North, where he came under the sway of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York.  After Douglass learned (early in 1859) that Brown intended to seize the Harper's Ferry armory, his relationship with Brown became strained.  Despite their decade-plus of friendship, Douglass deliberately and repeatedly opposed Brown's plan to invade the federal armory and seems to have communicated his disdain to African American leaders and potential recruits.  )I tend to believe it was this interference and not sickness that kept Harriet Tubman from following through.)   Indeed, Douglass probably did more to discourage free blacks from joining Brown has been reported in standard biographies.  (Note, my point is not to judge Douglass, only to suggest what seems the most likely narrative based on the evidence.  One might very well conclude that Douglass was right in his instincts, even if he overrated the security Brown faced at the armory.)

In this light, Douglass was neither proactive nor neutral in bringing Green to meet Brown, but probably did so as a kind of obligatory gesture.  When Green chose to "go wid de ol' man," as Douglass later reported, the abolitionist leader was probably surprised and dismayed.   Green was a stalwart among Brown's men and clearly was quite brave and principled as an antislavery man in his own right.  It  was reportedly a fearful experience for him to return to the South (he had to be smuggled south), but in the end Green's bravery far exceeded his fears.  He not only supported Brown in the crisis, but he remained with him down to the last desperate moments of the raid, and afterward was hanged with Brown's other captive men in December 1859, following the old man's own execution.   

Green is portrayed in this film by Dayo Okeniyi. Other cast members are Naturi Naughton, Bruce Dern, Paul Scheer, Harry Lennix, Mykelti Williamson, and Ben Robson. Interestingly, Brown will be played by veteran and Oscar-nominated actor, James Cromwell.  Cromwell’s father, John Cromwell, directed the 1940 bio-pic, “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” and chose to portray Brown in that film’s brief Harper’s Ferry scene.  Like his father, James Cromwell is sympathetic to Brown, although he has stated his disagreement with Brown’s methods—by which, we suppose, he means the Pottawatomie killings of 1856.  This is not surprising, since even some of our own friends in the John Brown community have been sufficiently miseducated to the point of being apologetic and squeamish about those Kansas killings. 

The screenplay for "Emperor" was written by Mark Amin and Pat Charles, and the film is in pre-production in Georgia.  It is produced by Cami Winikoff and Mark Amin for Sobini Pictures, and also by veteran black filmmaker Reginald Hudlin.  Sobini’s Tyler Boehm will serve as executive producer.  I hope to obtain more information to share with the John Brown community.--LD

Monday, July 02, 2018

Research: On Collections (and Collectors)

John Brown materials are scattered across the country in university libraries, historical societies, and other institutional collections.  Those in pursuit of John Brown's letters will find that they exist, one here, another there, in scores of archives from coast to coast in the United States.  Added to the long list of archives holding documents in Brown's hand are those holding related materials--from family letters to valuable primary and secondary collections.  The vigorous, untiring researcher would find it a task of years, if not decades, to pursue a fairly exhaustive course of research in regard to the broader category of John Brown-related materials.   

In the early-to-mid-20th century, when Boyd Stutler was collecting Brown's letters, he lamented that these primary documents found their way into institutional archives, out of reach to the private collector.   Nowadays, my lamentation runs quite opposite of Stutler's complaint, in that I would much prefer if Browniana found its way into university and historical society collections rather than private collections.  Since there is no way to track and record primary documents in private collections, we simply have no idea what or whether valuable information is simply out of reach because they are hoarded away by some privileged collector.   While I am grateful that Stutler and others in the early 20th century pursued collecting Brown's letters as a private endeavor, I am far more grateful that those private collections ended up in accessible state and institutional archives.  

Historical "Black Holes": Private Collectors

More than a decade ago, I wandered quite providentially into a New York City gallery on Manhattan's east side, only to discover that a rare letter from Brown to his half-sister Florella and her clergy husband, Samuel Adair (in Kansas) had recently been sold to a private collector.  I was able to retrieve a partial transcription from the dealer, but had to contact the wealthy doctor who had purchased it to request an image of the letter, or at least a complete transcription.  I received neither from him.  To my dismay, I found this collector to be miserly with the content of his John Brown letter.   Although I endeavored to explain to him that historians are mainly interested in the content of a historical document, he was unconcerned, unmoved by my appeal, and evidently quite selfish.

Of course, not all collectors are of this mindset.  The more generous (and honest) ones may acknowledge that their interest is in owning the original document, and that sharing an image or transcript of their property with scholars detracts nothing from the value of the original.   Not so with this accomplished collector who, it turned out, also held another rare John Brown letter in his collection.   In a desperate attempt to obtain transcriptions of both of his letters, I even called him on the phone, explaining my interest and making my request.  He remained disinterested although he was quick to boast about the many letters he held in his predominantly black history collection, which came off like rubbing salt into the wound. I learned afterwards from another scholar that this same collector was similarly greedy with other primary materials.   

While I can hardly blame a man of wealth for entertaining an enthusiasm for primary documents of historical interest, such collectors are no longer a benefit to the John Brown study as they were in the early 20th century, as the progenitors of some of today's most important collections.  Today, collectors holding John Brown materials are a problem, whether selfish or just oblivious to the pursuit of historical researchers.  Private collectors who amass John Brown letters today may be like historical "black holes" into which information is lost, sometimes for generations.  Only God knows how many important Brown letters and documents have disappeared into someone's library cabinet--held captive until either the collector dies and his family sells the collection, or until he decides to sell in pursuit of other desirable documents.   

Some years back, a rare letter inviting black leaders to Brown's 1858 Chatham convention surfaced on an auctioneer's website.  The letter, signed by Brown and a number of black leaders, had been owned and sold many times over the years, but a recent owner was the singer and actor, Harry Belafonte.  Fortunately, a digital image of this document was posted before it disappeared into another private collector's historical "black hole."   John Brown students and researchers may be comforted that after so many years that most of his materials have found their way into institutional collections and are not so restrained or withheld.  

Where the Letters Are

It may be noted that Brown researchers should be prepared to search across the country in small institutional collections (colleges, historical societies, and libraries) for singly-held letters in Brown's hand.  Some archives hold only one or two; others hold a handful of Brown's letters, like Oberlin College, which has correspondence relating to Brown's surveying assignment in 1840, or Cornell University, which has a few letters primary documents relating to Brown's legal affairs in the early 1850s.  Even the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library has a few of Brown's letters, showing that you almost never know where a Brown letter will turn up until you inquire.  

However, the good news for scholars and researchers is that overwhelmingly most of Brown's letters and related documents are accessible from a handful of major collections.  The bad news is that one will still have to travel coast-to-coast if one intends to visit these collections.  On the other hand, a good bit of research can be conducted by correspondence, and in some cases Brown's letters are even available for free from online digital collections. Still, the state and availability of John Brown resources is far better than it was in the 1930s and '40s, when private collectors still dominated the field.

The major repositories of John Brown's letters and related primary documents today are listed below.  To my knowledge, there is no significant archive or collection of Brown's letters outside of the United States; individual letters may be held abroad by collectors, although this is not so likely.  What follows are the major collections:

Boston Public Library Collection
Harvard University, Houghton Library
There are Brown letters in other collections in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but these two Boston repositories are major.  Most notably, Boston Public Library holds two of Brown's memorandum books and letters written to "Secret Six" member, Thomas W. Higginson, by Brown and Brown's associates.  This venerable library holds other Brown materials as well.  Harvard University not only has Brown documents, but also an extensive transcription collection of Brown's letters that belonged to "Secret Six" member, Franklin B. Sanborn, who also was Brown's second biographer.

Yale University Library and Yale Beinecke Library
A truly great and unsung John Brown collection, Yale has Brown and Brown family letters as well as the draft (in his hand) of Brown's Provisional Constitution.

Gilder-Lehrman Collection at the New York Historical Society
John Brown-Oswald G. Villard Papers, Columbia University Library
Two of the most important collections for Brown students is found in my home town, NYC.  An unsung Brown resource is the Gilder-Lehrman Collection, permanently housed at the New-York Historical Society (which, incidentally, also holds a handful of Brown's letters in its own right).  The Gilder Lehrman collection is a relatively young collection (est. 1994), but it is huge, with nearly 100,000 original documents of U.S. historical interest, including a rich collection of Browniana and related materials.   Perhaps the Villard Papers needs no introduction to Brown students.  Oswald Garrison Villard was Brown's prosperous biographer and the grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.  A newspaperman, Villard hired a staff journalist, Katherine Mayo, to scour the country in 1908-09, interviewing survivors of the Brown era and collecting materials.  Mayo was a better researcher than Villard was a writer, and the sum of his papers far exceeds the weightiness of his landmark 1910 biography.  Villard's collection was sold to Columbia University in the 1940s and has happily remained in the rare book and manuscript collection of this prestigious university.   There are not many original Brown letters, but Mayo's transcriptions--exact and comprehensive in most cases--makes this collection one of the most important letter holdings among the Brown collections.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania
I have included this archive although its John Brown holdings are not as extensive as others in this description.  However, those interested in Brown would be interested in this archive's holdings of the collector Ferdinand J. Dreer, particularly the materials pertaining to the Harper's Ferry raid--including letters to and from Brown and his men prior to the raid, and primary documents relating to Brown's trial.  The Dreer Collection is expansive in many respects, including Civil War and Pennsylvania history, but Brown researchers know this collection is of great importance to our study.

University of Atlanta, Robert Woodruff Library
Another Brown collection to be included despite its limited nature is found in--of all places--the heart of the South.  Atlanta University holds the letters of John Brown to his distant cousin and business partner, Seth Thompson, during his Pennsylvania years (1826-1835) and even afterward.  There are other Brown related materials, including materials from his biographer Franklin Sanborn.  A small collection compared to others on this list, nevertheless of great value to the biographer and scholar.

Clarence S. Gee Collection, Hudson Library and Historical Society
Clarence Gee (d. 1975) was a Congregational minister who became interested in the Brown theme when he pastored the Brown family's church in Hudson, Ohio, in the early 20th century.  Gee became an expert on Brown family genealogy and originally nurtured an interest in Owen Brown, father of the abolitionist, before focusing energetically on John Brown.  Gee's John Brown papers are indispensable for anyone who wants to understand Brown's family background and history.  The Gee Collection not only has notable John Brown letters, but important family correspondence and a substantial Brown collection in general thanks to Gee's efficient research and his rich correspondence with Boyd Stutler.

Ohio Historical Society
Once you've explored the wonders of the Gee Papers at Hudson, drive down to the state capital and spend some time at the Ohio Historical Society (OHS).  This is an extremely valuable resource for John Brown scholars.  Among its treasures, OHS holds the John Brown Junior papers, which has a good many letters from his father over decades.  OHS also has other John Brown Senior letters in its general archives, along with related materials.  Clearly, Ohio is the heartbeat for any study of Brown.  There are also archives in Cleveland and historical sites in this state--the tramping ground of the Old Man for many years.

Boyd Stutler-John Brown Collection, West Virginia Division of Culture and History
Boyd B. Stutler (d. 1970) is the seminal collector and student of John Brown of the 20th century, and I still believe him to be the "godfather" of John Brown scholars.  Mayor, soldier, journalist, and editor, Stutler was collecting John Brown materials in the first quarter of the 20th century when it was yet affordable as a past time.  He amassed many of Brown's letters and documents, family materials, and loads and loads of primary and secondary material.  At the peak of his collecting days, Stutler housed his private collection in three parts of the country, and in retirement (1950s-1970) consolidated his materials in his home in Charleston, West Va.  Advisor and correspondent, he aided biographers, writers, journalists, and artists of all stripes. Stutler was the quintessential researcher and there is rarely a sub-topic in Brown's life where he has not left his footprints.   Much of this collection is digitized on the West Virginia Memory project and is the most accessible and ready source for Brown students (a link for this archive is provided on this blog).

Chicago Historical Society
In the midwest, this archive is penultimate but extremely important, holding a good many letters of Brown and family, as well as related materials.  Chicago Historical Society obtained much of its Brown materials through an early collector, Frank Logan, including John Brown's jail Bible and the famous "prophecy" that the abolitionist wrote on the morning of his hanging in 1859.  Of interest in this collection also is a narrative by Anne Brown Adams of her father's activities in Virginia leading up to the Harper's Ferry raid.  

Kansas State Historical Society
John Brown is no more appreciated in any place than he is in Kansas, and happily one of the most important Brown collections is found here, not only Brown's letters and other Brown family materials donated to this historical society, but also materials from other Kansas figures and scholars relating to Brown and his activities in territorial Kansas.  The Brown letters, however, are a family treasure trove and cannot be overlooked by Brown students and would-be biographers.  This Kansas archive is large and extensive and is partly accessible online; the Brown papers are also available on microfilm, as are related papers, such as the Adair papers (Brown's half-sister and brother-in-law).

Henry Huntington Library Collection
The Browns were pioneers and perhaps it is no surprise that Mary Brown and some of the children of the abolitionist ended their days on the west coast.  This west coast collection is also important for its holding of Brown's letters and family correspondence.   

L. DeCaro, Jr.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Shades of Brown: The National Negro Congress, 1937

Source: Black Leadership Analysis
The second National Negro Congress convened in Philadelphia's Metropolitan Opera house on October 15-17, 1937.  The culminating events of the program on October 17 were broadcast on NBC radio nationwide, and the leading black voice was Asa Philip Randolph, then serving as the President of the National Negro Congress.  Randolph was reelected as President of the Congress during this convention.  A special feature of the broadcasted program was a two hundred-voice chorus that performed spirituals, including "Oh, Mary Don't You Weep" and "Every Time I Feel the Spirit," and Mozart's "Gloria in Excelsis." According to the African American publication, The New York Age, the National Negro Congress of 1937 was attended by four thousand delegates.

White Rhetoric. . .

An opening meeting was held at Independence Hall on Oct. 15, and Mayor Samuel Davis Wilson of Philadelphia gave thirteen taps on the Liberty Bell to commemorate the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished chattel slavery in the United States in 1865. However, the episode of the tapping of the Liberty Bell by Mayor Wilson is suggestive of the very racism that the National Negro Congress was concerned to oppose.  Wilson  had “tapped” the Liberty Bell before, in 1936 and more recently, on September 17, 1937, when he did so to represent the states that had ratified the Constitution between 1787-1790.  Although Wilson presented a wooden mallet to the Congress afterward, his speech was less than satisfying, tainted as it was by a tone of racial condescension.  This was particularly clear in his "you people" kind of approach, and his stated expectation that the primary duty of the black Congress was foremost their devotion to the United States Constitution.  The Philadelphia Inquirer thus described the episode:
Mayor Wilson and the Liberty Bell, 1937
(Getty Images)
"The one animating motive which brings you to this shrine of independence," Mayor Wilson said to the 400 assembled delegates, "is your devotion to our Constitution.  For your race, as representatives of the 15,000,000 colored people in America, you are affirming again your unswerving support of the Constitution and your loyalty to it.”
Not only was this political rhetoric, but more so the expressed presumptuousness of the racist society that Mayor Wilson primarily represented.  Certainly, the assembled delegates of the National Negro Congress needed no lecture on devotion to the Constitution.  For black people in the United States, reliance upon the Constitution was their last stand against an ever encroaching white supremacy that had come for their rights and freedoms time and again.  After all, the delegates and attenders of this event were present because of what was at stake for black freedom in 1937, not the survival of the Constitution of the United States.  

. . .And Black Reality

To no surprise, the real concerns that were expressed in the Congress were echoed in A. Philip Randolph's opening remarks, which reportedly were “militantly aggressive” in his “clarion call to Negroes everywhere to unite.” Indeed, the New York Age reported, a “[s]hadow fell over the deliberations of the Congress when Mrs. Ada Wright, mother of Andy Wright of the five imprisoned Scottsboro boys, described her own son's predicament in prison.  Also present was Ruby Bates, “star Scottsboro defense witness” and activists working on behalf of the unjustly imprisoned black youths. The arrest and convictions of these five Alabama youths was a travesty of injustice and racism in the South and became one of the crisis episodes leading to the Civil Rights movement.

Other speakers at the Congress included representatives of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Most memorable, however, are the presence of Alaine Locke, then head of the Philosophy Department at Howard University and Sterling Brown, renowned in 1937 as a young poet and author.  Walter White, the notable NAACP secretary from New York City, was also present.

Shades of Brown

In the newspaper coverage surveyed, there is no mention of John Brown's legacy, although his picture was one of four images suspended before the audience, along with those of Abraham Lincoln, Richard Allen, and Frederick Douglass.   The Congress meeting date, October 15-17, resonated with a sense of John Brown, given this was the date of the Harper's Ferry raid some seventy-eight years before.  Philadelphia was a major center of black life and antislavery struggle in the 19th century, and the black community in the City of Brotherly Love had always held Brown in cherished memory.  Max Barber, of Philadelphia, was the head of the John Brown Memorial Association, a black organization based in that city, and was present at the Congress.  Barber was long involved in uplifting Brown's memory.  However, as far as the available record is concerned, honoring John Brown in the 1937 National Negro Congress largely was assumed, not spoken.  This was well, given the movement of history going forward.  Up in Harlem, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. had just assumed the pastorate of The Abyssinian Baptist Church, and the Civil Rights struggle of the mid-century was taking on its modern form.  John Brown, even in memory, had long served the black community.  But the 20th century was a new era, of rising black leaders and voices of reason and militancy that would finally render John Brown a revered relic more than a useful political icon.  The times were changing.

Happily, however, the Congress did entail a historical retrospective.  In the closing exercise on October 17, a program was held to honor the memory of Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.  Allen's image linked the National Negro Congress to Philadelphia history and the black struggle.  Honoring this black Christian leader signified the great problem of the United States--the same problem that John Brown also pushed against in his struggle against slavery: the pervasive racism of the white Christian church.--LD

Articles Consulted

"National Negro Congress Will Broadcast Program Over Nation-wide Hook-up," Pittsburgh  Courier,  Oct. 9, 1937, p. 24.

"Rev. C. Mills Tells of Negro Congress," New Castle [Pa.] News, Oct. 23, 1937, p. 2.

"Today," Rochester [NY] Democrat and Chronicle, Oct. 17, 1937, p. 53.

“4,000 Pack Phlia. Opera House At Opening Session Friday Of National Negro Congress,” The New York Age, Oct. 23, 1937, p. 1.

“Liberty Bell Rung for Negro Session,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 16, 1937, p. 2 

“Negroes Pay Honor to Church Founder,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 18, 1937, p. 2

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Return of a Kansas Classic

In 1900, William Elsey Connelley’s John Brown was issued by the Kansas publisher, Crane & Company, first in a two-part edition without notes (as part of an educational series), and then in one volume with notes.  Connelley is known as one of the leading researchers and authorities on Kansas history, an author of many books and articles covering a wide range of historical and cultural themes. 

William Elsey Connelley
The genius of Connelley’s biography was its Kansas core—his understanding of Kansas territorial history and how John Brown became a legendary figure in the dramatic conflict between proslavery and free state forces.  As a biography, Connelley’s John Brown made no great impact despite receiving some appreciative reviews.  Yet the book’s value as a source on Brown’s Kansas role is invaluable.  Notwithstanding Oswald G. Villard’s celebrated portrayal of John Brown a decade later (1910), no biographer of Brown has understood the abolitionist’s Kansas story as well as Connelley.  Indeed, it is Connelley’s reading of the evidence in context that presents a truer sense of John Brown’s significance in territorial Kansas than has been typically presented.  While Villard surveyed evidence and used interviews with survivors, it is clear that his pacifism and familial Garrisonian bias heavily influenced his interpretation, especially in regard to the controversial Pottawatomie episode.  Unfortunately, it was Villard’s claims that shaped subsequent 20th century writing about Brown rather than Connelley’s fair and studied analysis.

As a lifetime John Brown scholar, it has been my privilege to revisit William Elsey Connelley’s work in a new excerpted, edited, and reintroduced version, John Brown in Kansas.  This is not the entire Connelley biography, but its Kansas core--the central chapters of his book that frame the real history of Brown in territorial Kansas. 

Apart from Connelley’s background material on slavery, this version brings the reader into the territory with Brown in 1855, providing the author’s expert analysis of the territorial conflict, the Pottawatomie episode and its aftermath, and Brown’s overall place in the history of territorial Kansas.

What features are offered in this version?  In style, it is a thoroughly edited and rewritten narrative that preserves Connelley’s work but improves the writing and renders it in a more readable and contemporary format.  

Other features include:

·       Biographical sketch of William Elsey Connelley

·       Introductory essay (with citations) providing background to Connelley’s writing of John Brown

·       Original citations are improved and rendered in a uniform style with additional editorial  notes

·       Bibliography of Connelley’s most important sources

·       Combined acknowledgments from both versions of Connelley’s John Brown

·       Index to the new version

John Brown in Kansas is a privately produced effort, copyrighted with an ISBN number.

It is available through Lulu Publishers (https://goo.gl/MfbWqh), and shortly through Amazon.com and other online sources. –Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., Ph.D.