In May of 1858 the abolitionary [sic] advocate John Brown came to Chatham to meet with 46 blacks and whites from as far away as Ohio and Pennsylvania. The meetings held at various spots in the King Street East district of town were designed to establish a constitution that would oversee the freeing of all black slaves in southern U.S. plantations and the end of slavery in the United States forever.
Although the intention of Brown's scheme was immensely admirable, the sad reality of his dream was that it was hopelessly wrong-headed and doomed. The unreality of Brown's reality was obvious, right from the onset of the meetings convened on May 8 in Chatham's First Baptist Church.
At 10 a.m., on this Saturday morning in May, 34 blacks and 12 whites sat down as the first official delegates to the convention that Brown hoped would be the initial step in establishing a revolutionary government for the black state he hoped to establish in the southern Appalachians. The first action taken that morning was a motion made by Dr. Martin Delany, an influential black physician living in Chatham, to have Brown address the convention.
Brown took the podium and with eyes flashing and evoking the inspired tone of a religious zealot, he outlined his plans for removing the shackles from all black slaves in the southern U.S. Assuring the delegates that he had "devoted his whole being, mental, moral and physical to the extinction of slavery" he outlined, in minute detail, his plan of attack.
Brown said that he planned to invade Virginia, in the area of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and march into Tennessee and northern Alabama. Here Brown felt confident that the majority of slaves would cast off their chains of slavery and become active warriors in a concerted war upon the plantations on the plains east and west of the Appalachians Mountains.
Once this area had been established as a free area, the army of ex-slaves would be free to expand their base of operations southward.
If these plans were not outrageous enough, Brown further stated that he felt his plan of action would result in very little bloodshed as any slaveholders who resisted would be taken back to their mountain stronghold as hostages. Brown also went on to say that this new state of liberated slaves would be organized under a Provisional Constitution and that blacks would labour on farms and workshops, build churches, and organize schools.
Brown was confident that his state could support and govern itself and be capable of defying any enemy. Ultimately Brown felt that all slave states would be forced to emancipate their blacks, and human slavery would at last be destroyed. When this occurred, Brown vowed to reorganize his mountain commonwealth on a permanent basis and new elections would be held.
It is likely that Brown was attempting to conjure up, in the minds of the delegates, a southern version of the successful Buxton settlement created by Reverend King in nearby Raleigh Township.
By the time the morning session ended, all 48 articles of Brown's constitutional document had been read aloud and delegates sworn to secrecy. In the afternoon, delegates unanimously approved and signed the constitution. By evening, the delegates were ready to elect the president and cabinet of this new government.
John Brown was chosen as Commander-In-Chief while black delegates filled the positions of Secretary of War, Treasury and State.
Two black men were offered the presidency but both refused. As a result, it was decided that a committee of 15, headed by Brown, would temporarily fill this position until a later date.
It was this reluctance, on the part of most of the blacks that attended the Chatham Convention, to take an active and visible part in Brown's plans that should have been his cue to seriously rethink his plans. However, a man who firmly believed that he was an agent of God put on this earth to punish evil and right wrongs, was neither ready nor willing to listen to the subtle hints of mere mortals.
On May 3 and 4 the 150th Anniversary of John Brown's Chatham Convention will be commemorated. Speakers at that seminar will include David Reynolds who is author of the fascinating book on Brown entitled "John Brown: Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery" (Knopf, 2005), and John Brown researcher Edna Medford from Howard University.
In addition, there will be numerous other activities to celebrate this important time in not only North American and world history but local history as well. For further information on this exciting weekend, phone 519-352-3565.