Over a Decade of History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Sunday, January 20, 2019

From the Files: Controversial John Brown

        Of all the antislavery figures of the antebellum era in the United States, John Brown perhaps is both the least known and yet the most controversial.  This is particularly true within the collective memory of white society, a memory entangled with dubious notions of his alleged terrorism and mental instability.  Quite in contrast, African American memory holds the blue-eyed freedom fighter in high regard, from the warmly appreciative narratives of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the contemporary fiction of novelist James McBride in The Good Lord Bird.   Certainly in the more urgent reflections of black activists over 150 years, Brown has been considered an ally and hero, even if flawed.

 While even sympathetic white historians seem compelled to speak with a certain apprehension about Brown, African Americans have typically remembered him in a warmer light—the difference between these two perspectives being somewhat like the argument between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.”  Indeed, John Brown and “Black Lives Matter” may be inseparable, since it was the former who fervently argued for the latter.   He was quite visibly out of place in an era when the official and cultural opinion of whites in the USA was, in the summary words of Chief Justice Roger Taney in 1857, that black people were “unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

In many respects, John Brown was a typical man of the antebellum United States: he struggled as a businessman amidst a problematic economy; he buried a good many children due to yet untreatable infections that raged through his agrarian society; and he embraced a traditional form of Protestant Christianity, upholding the Bible as God’s inspired and infallible word.  In short, his first fifty years are largely interwoven into the times of a growing nation, a country for whom rebellion and revolution were still a recent memory, and whose rising future seemed increasingly bound up with black chattel enslavement. 

As he grew from youth to manhood, his ideas evolved about remedying slavery, even as slaveholders grew steadily more powerful and hungry for expansion.  In the 1820s and 1830s, Brown hoped to achieve the rank of an antislavery magnate who might support education for free blacks while financing peaceful means of discouraging slavery.   However, by the later 1840s and throughout the 1850s, he was among a small number of people who had changed their views.  In light of the growing audacity of proslavery leaders, it now seemed that some sort of militant interference would be necessary to prevent slavery’s territorial acquisition and demand for passivity from the free states.

For many whites, the first and last words about Brown typically are associated with killing, although invariably these killings have been as negatively misrepresented to his disadvantage as the career of the racist criminal Jesse James has been positively misrepresented to his benefit.  Indeed, that a proslavery terrorist, robber, and murderer like Jesse James has emerged in popular legend as a kind of Robin Hood, while Brown is regarded by the same nation as a “terrorist” actually says far more about how racism has shaped our national narrative.

The facts are that John Brown believed in arming free blacks against kidnapping and enslavement, travesties recently dramatized in the film version of Twelve Years a Slave.  In 1850, he founded an all-black organization in Springfield, Massachusetts that was devoted to defending blacks from forceful seizure by slave hunters.  His approach was not paternalistic, but informed by frequent associations with black people—both the humble and the most renown of the day.   Indeed, it was his personal experience among blacks that caused him to realize that their lives mattered so much that they should fight for themselves and be aided in their fight. 

John Brown is commonly remembered for his proposed guerrilla warfare strategy in the mountains, and certainly for the killing of proslavery thugs in the bloody Kansas territorial conflicts of the 1850s.  It was in this season that he was forced to extremes of violence—though this often is the only thing recalled by white society.  Yet in fact these extremes were undertaken against proslavery terrorists and in defense of family and community.  Likewise, in 1859, Brown implemented a long-considered plan, a kind of “grand rescue” that he wanted to launch in the South.  His famous raid on the armory and town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia marked the only strategic plan ever undertaken by humanitarians in order to undermine slavery.  At Harper’s Ferry, he hoped to lead off enslaved people, gradually building a movement of armed runaways who would destabilize slavery throughout the South without engaging in full-scale insurrection.   His failure to launch the movement at Harper’s Ferry left him a prisoner of Virginia, likewise leaving his legacy to be reinterpreted to the advantage of the powerful proslavery element that reigned before the Civil War.

Given over to slaveholders when he ought to have been tried by a federal court, Brown inadvertently became the most famous antislavery martyr by capping off the antebellum era with his death on a Virginia gallows.  His life, his legacy, and his commitment to ending slavery not only prevailed throughout the Civil War, but also permeated the national psyche for many decades, well into the 20th century.  The controversial abolitionist quietly haunted even the backdrop of the Civil Rights era, being remembered by the most strident critics of white racism.  John Brown “was right then, and he’s right now,” James Baldwin told an interviewer in 1972.  “I think he was a great American prophet.”--LD

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Shields Green: The Movie That Made It, and the Movie That Didn't

This past summer, I made note of news of a new movie under production about Shields Green the Harper's Ferry raider (see "Out of the Blue: 'Emperor'. . .July 13, 2018).  To my knowledge, "Emperor" is in post-production, but will not be  released until October 2019, the 160th anniversary of the Harper's Ferry raid.

Last summer, the website, If Only, a "marketplace for incredible experiences," auctioned an opportunity for people to get "an early sneak peak of the highly-anticipated film." Apparently, this "sneak peak" took place in July 2018, which included a set visit and an opportunity to meet the CEO of Sobini films, Mark Amin, along with producer Reginald Hudlin.  The beneficiary of the auction was the ACLU of Southern California.
The description provided by If Only notes that the screenplay for "Emperor" was written by Amin, along with Pat Charles, a noted screenplay writer.  The site also provides a partial synopsis of the screenplay:
Set Scene: Dayo Okeniyi (center, Shields Green) flanked
by Kat Graham (left, Delores) and
Mykelti Williamson (right, Truesdale)
After his new owners whip his young son, Shields Green kills the perpetrators and goes on the run. Shields must outwit and out-fight veteran slave catchers and the world-class bounty hunter Catch ‘Em Luke as he flees north to freedom. With Catch ‘Em Luke in hot pursuit Shields joins John Brown’s militia to raid Harper’s Ferry. Enemy combatants who would have whipped him as a slave now take cover from his bullets. Emperor is a two-hander historical action thriller about one man’s fight to win the rights all men deserve.
Of course, most of the description is the writers' fiction.  There is no record that Green's young son was whipped or that Green killed the perpetrators.  Green fled the South as a stowaway on a New York-bound sailing ship and his time in the North before meeting Brown was a matter of years.  Typically, screenplay writers do not bind themselves to the historical record, given their goal is to intensify the drama.  Fortunately for Amin and Charles, however, they have a significant amount of liberty, given the scarcity of information on Shields Green's former life in the South.  It is not clear how faithfully the writers have stayed to the record of Green's role at Harper's Ferry.  Of course, even historians are amazingly diverse in how the raid is recounted at times, so one should not be surprised by innovations in a Hollywood screenplay.

The full cast of "Emperor" is available on IMDb.


Source: New York Daily News, July 1996 (p. 14)
I know little about the film industry, but from what I have gathered, there is no lack of screenplays and no lack of actors, but what ultimately determines if a movie is made is purely a matter of business.  Many a movie has never been brought to production because of the business essentials about which most movie-goers have no clue.  Just in terms of John Brown, there are both good and bad scripts out there, but only a small number (if any!) will ever be purchased, and of those that are purchased by a hopeful director, there is no guarantee they will ever be produced.

Denzel as Green in '96?
I'm Afraid Not

I suspect, although it is only a bias on my part, that the better Shields Green movie is the one that never made it to production.  It is hard to write about that which never came about, but I recently stumbled upon an old newspaper article from 1996, which I post above.

Imagine, a movie about Shields Green starring Denzel Washington and Harrison Ford?  Well, all we can do is imagine because it never happened and never will.  The film, "Shields Green and the Gospel of John Brown" probably would have been a superb film, but not just because of the actors that DreamWorks wanted to cast.  The screenplay for this project was written by Kevin Wilmott, a brilliant and historically diligent interpreter of US history.  When I reached out to Mr. Wilmott, he told me that the screenplay was purchased by the successful filmmaker Chris Columbus of "Home Alone" fame (according to one internet source, for $500K!).  Apparently, Columbus was working with Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks Production Company. Precisely why the film never went into production is not readily known, but evidently it fell along the roadside like many other hopeful seeds cast by visionary writers in Hollywood. 

As John Brown would put it, "So we go."

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Rich Smyths's Where Are They Now? "BLEEDING KANSAS"

The wind sowed in Kansas, reaped a whirlwind in Virginia.1

Ironically, the issue of slavery began with the birth of freedom in this country. In the eyes of many, the proclamation in The Declaration of Independence that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” was a lie.

Slavery, which ate away at the union until it split apart and was almost destroyed, was not simply abolished by a president’s stroke of a pen, but after decades of struggle with bloodshed on both sides.

In the late 17th century, the people speaking out against slavery were derisively termed Abolitionists by southern slave holders. The label stuck and was worn as a badge of honor by those opposed to the “peculiar institution.”

But the degree of opposition was varied, with some hoping that the issue would eventually just fade away over time and others with more militant feelings, that it had to be done away with immediately, regardless of how that end was achieved.

By the 1840’s, hundreds of slaves each year were escaping their oppression by traveling north to freedom using a loosely formed but highly effective and motivated Underground Railroad system.

In 1850 the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law or Fugitive Slave Act which required that all escaped slaves were, upon capture, to be returned to their masters and those officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate in this law or face arrest.

This act galvanized the Abolitionists who faced the prospect of violating their religious or personal beliefs by returning fugitive slaves to their masters. When northern states announced their intention to violate the law, President Millard Fillmore retaliated by threatening to use federal troops to uphold the ruling.

Although troops were never used, the warning had an unintended effect. Abolitionists believed that the government was firmly in support of the southern states and slave holders and that they would have to act on their own to accomplish their goal.

In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska act was passed that placed the country on a course of civil war. This law, which organized these two territories for settlement, proposed that the residents would vote on whether or not to allow slavery when the territory became a state in what was termed “popular sovereignty.”

Kansas Territory would become the early battleground for those with strong opinions on both sides of the slavery question - soon to be called “Bleeding Kansas.”2

The time was fast approaching when more decisive action would be taken.

Proslavery forces versus both Free-staters and Abolitionists organized efforts to rally support for the impending elections which would decide the fate of the state. These efforts turned to threats and then violence on both sides when Missouri “border ruffians” streamed across the state line illegally claiming land for voter’s rights and in retaliation Northern Abolitionists organized groups of immigrants to settle in Kansas.

The largest of the aid groups was the New England Emigrant Aid Company originally incorporated as the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company until the name was changed in February, 1855. Supported by New England abolitionists, the company negotiated reduced transportation costs for the future Free-state settlers as well as temporary housing upon arrival. Although the New England Emigrant Aid Company was the most well known, other smaller emigrant aid companies organized to assist antislavery supporters in settling Kansas.

The first group of immigrants arrived in Kansas on August 1st 1854, at an area that would become the city of Lawrence.  Thirteen additional parties would follow establishing Lawrence as a Free-state city along with the newspaper Herald of Freedom becoming their voice.

By late 1855 the two opposing groups had set up rival governments. Presidents Pierce and Buchanan would each recognize the proslavery group in their administrations.

Violence occurred on both sides but mostly and including murder being inflicted by pro-slavery forces who wished to continue the subjugation of Black people… upon the Free-staters, Free-soilers, Abolitionists and jayhawkers.

Into this dispute entered John Brown.

With funding and weaponry from antislavery supporters in New York and Ohio, John Brown headed for Kansas where he would first take up arms during the pro-slavery versus Free-state struggle in 1856 (the larger time frame of the struggle in the Kansas Territory was 1854-1861). Five of Brown’s sons had previously migrated to Kansas to settle and assist in the effort to prevent the state from becoming a slave state. After his sons sent word concerning fear of being attacked by proslavery thugs, Brown went to Kansas, arriving in the fall of 1855 with a wagon load of weapons.3

Prior to 1856, the struggle was one-sided, with the Free-state side doing all the bleeding.  Notably, a Free-stater named Charles W. Dow was shot and killed by pro-slavery settler Franklin N. Coleman on November 21, 1855 as a result of a land dispute. Just as Dow had passed Coleman’s claim, Coleman fired at him. His gun misfired and Dow begged for mercy, but he was finally shot dead in the road.

Jacob Branson, who lived with Dow, made threats against Coleman and was arrested by Sheriff Samuel J. Jones, a proslavery official.  However, Branson was quickly rescued by a group of Free-staters led by James Burnett Abbott and taken to safety in the Free-state town of Lawrence.

Franklin Coleman could never have realized that his actions on that November day were part of a chain of events of local and national significance (The Wakarusa War, The sack of Lawrence, Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry and subsequent hanging) that culminated in the firing on Fort Sumter and the ensuing Civil War. Along with the ballots of the majority Free-state settlers, these actions would result in Kansas being admitted into the Union, and later the eventual end of chattel slavery in the United States.

In 1855, things had escalated quickly as well over a thousand pro-slavery Missourians under the command of Sheriff Jones crossed the border to menace the town of Lawrence under the pretext of arresting Branson a second time. In fact, Jones had just been waiting for an excuse to attack the town. John Brown had lived peacefully in the territory from the fall of 1855 until the pro-slavery invasion in the spring of 1856.  Along with four of his sons and James Lane, he mustered the citizens and erected barricades in defense of Lawrence. This episode became known as the Wakarusa War. Prior to Jones arriving at Lawrence, Branson and a few friends quietly left town.4

One of the newly arrived Free-state immigrants, Thomas Barber, had taken a land claim north of the Wakarusa River. On December 6, 1855 he received word that pro-slavery forces were headed towards Lawrence.

In the company of his brother, Robert F. Barber and Thomas M. Pierson, Thomas Barber rode towards the town. About four miles southeast of town they met a pro-slavery party which reportedly included George Washington Clark, the Indian agent in the area who then shot and killed Barber. Clark bragged that he had "sent another of these d----d abolitionists to his winter quarters.”5

When Thomas said that he had been shot, his brother Robert responded, “It is not possible, Thomas?” To this he replied, “It is,” at the same time smiling again. I do not think that he realized how badly he was hurt. After uttering these--his last words--he dropped his reins and reeled in his saddle; seeing that he was about to fall, his brother recalled, "I caught hold of him by the left shoulder, grasping the loose overcoat which he wore. I held him thus for nearly a hundred yards; I could then hold him no longer, and he fell to the ground; as he did so, I slipped from my horse, at the same time calling out 'Whoa!' Both horses stopped immediately; I bent over my brother, and found that he was dead, and felt that we could do nothing for him."

The city of Lawrence was barricaded against the invading forces. The two sides were at a standoff for a week when a peace treaty of sorts was enacted by the governor of Missouri. Sheriff Jones would have to wait four months to attack the abolitionist town. Thomas Barber’s body was then taken to Lawrence where he was instantly recognized as a martyr to the cause of freedom. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier penned the verse, “Burial of Barber,” which received national attention and further stirred antislavery sentiments in the North.

Thomas Barber was buried in Oread Cemetery in Lawrence and his plot was marked by a large obelisk until toppled, separated into three pieces and covered over by grass and weeds. The cemetery became known as “Pioneer Cemetery” but fell into disrepair and finally abandoned until the 1990’s, when a local group sought to clean up the burial ground. Barber’s nine-foot monument was restored in 1997 with Whittier’s poem engraved and placed next to the marker.

Thomas Barber is buried in Pioneer Cemetery – Lawrence, Kansas
(Image courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society)

The cemetery is located at the intersection of Constant Avenue and Irving Hill Road, Lawrence, Kansas. The cemetery also contains the remains of four of the 200 victims killed by Confederate William Clarke Quantrill and his raiders on August 21, 1863 which was considered one of the bloodiest events of the entire Civil War.

George Washington Clarke was born in Washington D.C. on February 22, 1812. On June 22, 1844 he married Malvina Deluren Doak and they had six children; Joseph Mastella (1847-1899), Elizabeth Renetta (about 1849-?), William (about 1852-?), Perkins (about 1854-?), Georgie (1858-1943) and Cora Anne “Dixie” (1862-1928).6

George had been a newspaper editor in Arkansas and Texas until his appointment in 1853 as Indian Agent for the Pottowatomie Indians in the Kansas Territory.7

He joined the Confederate army at the beginning of the war and at its close immigrated to Mexico where he resumed his newspaper career as editor and proprietor of the Two Republics (Dos Republicas), an American newspaper published in the city of Mexico.8

His wife Malvina died about 1864 in Bexar County, Texas. She had been born circa 1827 in Mississippi.

Clarke died in Mexico on December 19th 1888 of heart disease and was buried in Mexico City’s National Cemetery, location: Plot 4, row 4, wall W, crypt 5.

This image shows the west wall where Clarke is buried
(Image courtesy of Find A Grave contributor student of the world, I.D. 47980946)

--> The cemetery which was established in 1851 by the United States Congress to gather the American dead of the Mexican-American War that lay in the nearby fields and to provide burial space for Americans who died in the vicinity is located at 31 Virginia Fabregas, Colonia San Rafael about 2 miles (3.2 km) west of the Metropolitan Cathedral and about 1-mile (1.6 km) north of the U.S. Embassy.--Rich Smyth

NEXT MONTH: the Charles W. Dow murder, where are they now?


     1 Quoted by Abolitionist Lydia Maria Child in regards to abolitionist and Free-state activities in Kansas.

     2 The term "Bleeding Kansas" was coined by Republican Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune.

     3 The wagon also contained the body of 4-year-old Austin Brown, son of Jason Brown. The young boy had died of cholera during the trip west and was hurriedly interred in Missouri. He was reburied near the Brown land claims in Osawatomie. Pro-slavery forces seeking revenge on John Brown would burn their homes and torch the wooden cross marking young Austin’s grave. Information taken from The Secret Six by Edward J. Renehan, Jr. (University of South Carolina Press), pg. 88.

     4 Some accounts suggest that John Brown and his sons only arrived in Lawrence a few days prior to the treaty being signed.

     5 In addition to Clarke, another in the party claimed responsibility for the murder. James Burnes, known as Col. Burnes, a merchant of Westport, Missouri said he shot Barber. Neither of them ever knew who fired the fatal shot. Clark said to an acquaintance three days after, "I tried to kill him and if it was not me I wish it had been."  The man who fired the fatal shot rode a gray horse, had on a cap and a light-colored overcoat. He was a short, stout man. Neither Clark nor Burnes in years after, sought to solve the uncertainty or claimed the honor attached to "shooting an Abolitionist." - William G. Cutler's History of the State of Kansas, TERRITORIAL HISTORY, Part 26 - THE WAKARUSA WAR, PART 2 - (https://bit.ly/2Gzwq2Z)

  Image courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

     6 See the website, Laura's Lineal and Collateral Ascent, "George W. Clarke." (https://bit.ly/2BDcarm)

     7 Ibid.

     8 Ibid.