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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Saturday, October 25, 2008

David Letterman's Historical Footnote

I almost missed it, but John Brown's own great-great-great-granddaughter sent out an email mentioning that she had heard David Letterman mention her famous ancestor during his monologue. As it turns out, not only was she correct, but it happened that Mr. Letterman referred to John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry on the 149th anniversary of that epic event, October 16. During the monologue of his popular Late Show, Mr. Letterman made this joke:
It was interesting last night during the debate at one point, John McCain brings up Barack Obama's relationship with '60s radical William Ayres; and then, Barack Obama brings up McCain's relationship with John Brown at Harper's Ferry. . . I thought, 'wow!'" [mild applause]
Obviously the joke was intended to target Sen. McCain's advanced age as a presidential candidate. Nor is the Brown-Ayres comparison sound in historical and political terms. (Although I am always hesitant to accept what the media or politicians tell me about a "radical.") We will never know what Brown would think of Prof. Ayres, given the differences between them in time, presupposition, and political context. It has always been the inclination of "radicals" to identify themselves with Brown when they take unpopular and extreme measures, undoubtedly because his strong integrity and moral heroism remain undeniable in our national memory despite the empty rhetoric of prejudiced critics. As for Prof. Ayres, I would not use this blog either to condemn or praise him in the context of John Brown. He must answer for his actions before history and ultimately before the Judge of all the earth, Who is certainly neither "radical," conservative, nor liberal.

Regardless, Mr. Letterman's monologue joke had a certain historical resonance that most of his viewers probably missed. Whether intentionally or not, the joke marked the event--reminding us that even in jest, John Brown's action in opposition to tyranny and injustice cannot be forgotten by this nation. Even when overlooked by "serious" thinkers amidst a presidential race, Brown's work inevitably wafted up with the stirring breeze of a yet another cool October evening. What Mr. Letterman himself knows or thinks of Brown is unclear, but his humorous little footnote about Harper's Ferry was not missed--at least by Brown's direct descendant. Without obvious intention, the Late Show host invoked this nation's most controversial "good guy" on the very anniversary of his effort to overthrow slavery.

Whether or not you believe it, John Brown's soul is marching on.

Update on John Hendrix's forthcoming JOHN BROWN: THE OATH OF FREEDOM

I met John and Andrea Hendrix in the early 2000's while they were living in the New York City area. To my great blessing as a pastor, the Hendrixes joined my congregation in Jersey City, N.J. When I heard that they had lived in Lawrence, Kansas, I raised the subject of John Brown, only to discover that John had some interest in the abolitionist and had done illustration work on Brown-related matter. Perhaps I can take some small credit for "watering" John's growing interest in Brown during those years of happy association, but his own independent and inquiring approach to the subject was immediately evident--reading expansively on Brown and developing his own ideas as a student of history. Apart from the fact that John and Andrea were the kind of parishioners that every pastor would hope to have in his congregation, I was excited to see John pursue this interest through the amazing medium of his illustration work (he also produced some amazing sketches during my sermons, as I recall, something I prefer to take as a great compliment). There are a number of illustrated young people's books on Brown in publication, but I am certain that the forthcoming John Brown: The Oath of Freedom is going to be the best, both in narrative and certainly in illustration.

John has recently provided an update on the forthcoming work in progress on his blog, "Drawing on Deadline," and the reader is encouraged to visit both his blog and website (his website is included in the right column under recommended sites). On October 15, he wrote:
Part of my absence from regular blog entries over the last three months has been due to my current labor of love, the children's book, John Brown: The Oath of Freedom. In celebration of the 149th anniversary of Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry (tomorrow actually), here's a preview of two interior spreads. Now, back to work--today I'm drawing Frederick Douglass!
I have taken the liberty of copying the two images he has posted for his readers. By the way, no illustrator has done such extensive, excellent portrayals of the clean-shaven Brown, such as the excellent one above, showing Brown in the work of "smuggling" an enslaved person to freedom. Brown his siblings, his father and uncles were deeply involved with the underground railroad and aiding escaping victims of slavery throughout their lives. (One such reminiscence of Brown in action is that used a wagon loaded with furniture to disguise his liberation efforts.)

The second illustration posted is downright brilliant: a "living"map of the troubled Kansas territory of the 1850s, including an elevated Missouri, the pro-slavery state that played the primary role in creating havoc and bloodshed in the Kansas territory); images of invading terrorists and "Bleeding Kansas"; and a larger pen-in-hand sketching the border between the Kansas and Nebraska territories. We assume that this hand represents the federal government's determination to create two territories, presuming that one would serve the cause of slavery and the other the cause of free state citizens. Notwithstanding this assumption, the territories were open to "popular sovereignty," meaning that the standing of each territory was not pre-determined regarding slavery. Settlers were to decide according to the ballot. In fact, free state settlers from across the north far outnumbered the pro-slavery settlers in Kansas; but the militancy and lust of the pro-slavery leadership, their politicians, and racist "ruffians" poured fire upon Kansas that nearly consumed the territory. Free state settlers tended to respond passively and naively to terrorism, many of them believing that the federal government would stand behind the ballot system. In fact, the federal government was heavily infused with pro-slavery influence and did little or nothing to protect free state settlers. It was only when men like Brown and Montgomery fought fire with fire that the federal government rose to some level of leadership. Even then, pro-slavery forces did not easily relent despite the far greater number of free state settlers. It should be added that John Brown himself did not go to Kansas to settle. His adult children settled there, hoping to find lives of prosperity and success in the new territory. But Brown himself preferred working on his own liberation efforts in the east, and wanted to stay in his beloved Adirondack region of New York. It was only because of the outrageous terrorism and increasingly threatened his own family's well-being that he loaded up a wagon with guns in the and made his way to the territory, arriving there in the fall of 1855. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. The problem is that too few people are willing to look at the John Brown episode in Kansas in connection with that history. They simply want to call him a terrorist, as if things in Kansas were stable and fair when Brown drew the sword.

It may be that John Hendrix, as an illustrator and story-teller, will do far more to advance the integrity of Brown's story than many biographers and scholars have done. If we could have a filmmaker who is similarly as devoted to the facts and skilled in their work, we could overthrow the wicked legacy of Santa Fe Trail once and for all. Like Brown, who was himself a perpetual optimist, we look forward to more positive portrayals of his life and work. We all wish John Hendrix great success in the completion and publication of John Brown: The Oath of Freedom.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Abolition Hall to Honor 4

Commemoration weekend to remember John Brown, others who fought slavery

Today [October 16] marks the 149th anniversary of the raid on Harpers Ferry.

On that fateful day in 1859, abolitionist John Brown led a group of 22 men in an attack intended to initiate a slave uprising in the South. Though the uprising was quickly squelched and Brown hanged for treason, the event was a contributing factor to the start of the Civil War.

For Alice Keesey Mecoy, the story of Harpers Ferry isn't just some obscure piece of history. It's a part of family lore.

Mecoy, of Allen, Texas, is John Brown's great-great-great-granddaughter, and next week she will be in Central New York for the National Abolition Hall of Fame's second biennial induction commemoration.

The event takes place on Oct. 24, 25 and 26 in Morrisville and Peterboro.

Brown and abolitionists Lydia Maria Child, Wendell Phillips and Sojourner Truth were 2007 Hall of Fame inductees. They will be honored during the commemoration ceremony, which Mecoy wouldn't miss.

"It's important to me to have someone represent (Brown) there," Mecoy said. "It's very important to me that it be broadcast he wasn't a lunatic. There are people that thought he was. There are others that thought maybe his violence was an answer to the times. He truly thought all people should be created equal. He was quite ahead of his time."

Why should Madison County residents care about John Brown? Besides his role in the abolition movement, Brown also had some important local ties, including a powerful friend in Gerrit Smith.

Smith, a wealthy antislavery philanthropist who resided in Peterboro, was one of the so-
called "Secret Six," a team of men who bankrolled Brown's militant-style abolitionist efforts. Though Smith preferred peaceful nonresistance, he supported Brown's efforts, knowing that violence might ultimately be necessary in the fight against slavery.

Unfortunately, he was right.

"Harpers Ferry was a kind of inevitable evolution of the development of the abolition movement," said Milton Sernett, a member of the National Abolition Hall of Fame's governing body. "Change came not at the free will of the slaveholders but at the point of the sword. That was a kind of development born of the failure of all other means."

Sernett, a Syracuse University professor emeritus, will provide the commemoration's keynote address on Oct. 25. His presentation, "To Make the World Anew: The Transformation of Upstate New York's 'Burned-Over District' into 'North Star Country,' " is billed as "a program of projected images."

According to Dot Willsey, president of the Cabinet of Freedom the Hall of Fame's governing body all of the commemoration activities are designed with one primary purpose.

"To educate the public so they understand the importance Central New York had in the national reform movement in the early 19th century and understand that what the abolitionists began in the 19th century is not yet completed," Willsey said. "We still have racial discrimination and the abolitionist movement must continue."

Above all, Willsey said, she hopes the efforts of the National Abolition Hall of Fame and its future museum convey to people some sense of 19th century reality.

"Our forefathers were fighting for their liberty, risking their lives and incomes for the freedom of another group of people," she said. "Without it, these changes wouldn't have occurred. The Underground Railroad has been romanticized. We've been led to believe everyone helped. But people died, had their houses burned down with them in it. There are too many people who leave the history in the 19th century. They don't understand we're not there yet."

The National Abolition Hall of Fame's first round of inductees was announced in 2005 and the second was announced in 2007. According to Willsey, the two-year time span between selection and commemoration is intentional.

"We don't want to be a warehouse of abolitionist names," she said. "We want to educate the public about these overlooked people in our history."

Next weekend's full roster of activities, held at Morrisville College Oct. 24 and 25 and in Peterboro on Oct. 26, will allow Willsey, Sernett and the other members of the Cabinet of Freedom to do just that.

A concert featuring abolition songs and narrative will be held the evening of Oct. 24 and a symposia on the 2007 inductees will take place in the afternoon on Oct. 25, followed by the Hall of Fame's annual dinner.

The commemoration takes place that evening and features the unveiling of inductee banners, introduction of inductees' relatives, dramatic monologues, and abolition poetry reading.

"It's a moving piece of the weekend, probably the heart of the weekend when people come together," Willsey said. "There's a lot of emotional energy at that point."

Activities on Oct. 26 take place in Peterboro at the Smithfield Community Center, which is the future home of the National Abolition Hall of Fame Museum.

A catered lunch follows a morning tour of the Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark. In the afternoon, Sernett will present the first of "The Abolition Sunday Lyceums."

"This is one of our attempts to educate the public on this complicated and overwhelming era," Willsey said. "The lyceum will extend over five years. (Sernett) will present a lecture with many visuals he's collected over 30 years of teaching, and then there will be reading sessions to get ready for next year."

Mecoy will be there to soak it all in. After dinner on Oct. 25, she will unveil Brown's banner and say a few words, a moment for which she is undoubtedly ready.

"I'm really excited," she said. "I can talk about John Brown forever. The fight is still on."