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

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

John Brown's legacy hasn't changed; America has *

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. (AP) — A century and a half later, we still don’t know quite what to think of John Brown.

Certainly, he aimed to be a hero. He believed his plan was the necessary means to a righteous end: Storm a federal arsenal, seize thousands of weapons, arm a gathering guerrilla force and start the revolution that would end the morally reprehensible and perfectly legal institution of slavery.

Yet the first casualty of his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry was a free black man, a baggage handler who bled to death on the street while Brown’s raiders grabbed hostages and holed up at a fire engine house. Within 48 hours, Brown’s rebellion was dead, along with at least four civilians, 10 raiders and a U.S. Marine who helped retake the building.

Brown’s methods have been debated ever since, the grandiosity of his plot and his willingness to kill or be killed a timeless fascination. This year, the National Park Service has declared that his raid was the opening salvo in the War Between the States, with sesquicentennial commemorations beginning in West Virginia. But in 1959, as America began to contemplate the centennial of the Civil War, Brown was largely left out of the discussion.

Segregation of schools and public lynchings still made headlines, and many white Southerners feared civil rights activists would use retold tales of the raid to agitate. Blacks feared being marginalized, or worse. And so John Brown was pushed aside, and the centennial began in 1961, with the anniversary if the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter.

“John Brown was, in effect, a terrorist. Whether you agree that what he was doing was right or not,” says Gerry Gaumer, spokesman for the Park Service in Washington, D.C. “There are people in the Taliban who believe what they’re doing is right. Can you separate John Brown from what’s going on in Iraq or Iran or Pakistan or Afghanistan?

“They fervently believe what they’re doing is right,” he says. “But is there a better way?” This month, the Park Service is offering two-mile walking tours that retrace Brown’s footsteps through the picturesque town at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. Descendants of raiders, soldiers and townspeople will gather in August, then return for the Oct. 16 anniversary to explain their ancestors’ roles.

Had his own been among the bodies in 1859, Brown might have remained a bit player in the larger drama of the war. But that was not his fate. On trial for treason, murder and inciting a rebellion, he refused to apologize and declared the fight for freedom sanctioned by God and the Bible.

Swiftly convicted and executed, he became a potent and enduring symbol — to the North, a heroic martyr willing to die for equality; to the South, a lunatic killer attacking a way of life. And so he remained for a century or more, a complicated man often dismissed with simplistic labels.

Later, people began to talk more openly about slavery and the roles that blacks and other racial and social groups had played in the nation’s defining conflict. Slowly, says historian Jean Libby of Palo Alto, Calif., historians stopped dismissing Brown as a madman and began to put him in the context of his times, times when — to the undying outrage of Brown and his wealthy supporters — courts ruled that black people were not citizens but property of whites.

Textbook writers, Libby says, gradually began to acknowledge that slaves had come from Africa with culture and history of their own, in need of neither handlers nor teachers.

“Now slavery is portrayed differently,” she says, “and so is John Brown.”

Brown, a Connecticut native, had despised slavery since he was a boy and witnessed a slave being beaten. He spent months plotting to seize 100,000 weapons in what was then Virginia, retreat into the mountains and begin a guerrilla war with slaves who would join him, emboldened by his success.

“He was so ahead of his time,” says Alice Keesey Mecoy, who discovered she was Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter in 1976.

Libby had come to Mecoy’s grandmother, asking to photograph the family. Mecoy found the story “kind of cool,” but she was 16. Only after her own children had left home did she grow so interested as to make her ancestor’s life her full-time research project. This fall, the 49-year-old former accountant and office manager from Allen, Texas, is presenting a paper in Harpers Ferry on the women surrounding Brown. A book is in the works.

“He wasn’t only against slavery. He was for equality of all people, men and women, any color, any religion. He firmly felt everyone was equal,” she says. “And that was such a radical thought for the time.”

Mecoy, whose great-great grandmother Annie Brown stayed with her father at a farmhouse near Sharpsburg, Md., as he planned the raid, is proud of her ancestor. She’s pleased that “he’s no longer looked at as the crazy guy standing on a hill ringing a bell saying, ’Come to me!”’

“You may have grown up being taught that he was this awful, terrible person who killed without provocation and stormed this armory and caused death, and the person in the next state may have learned a very different thing,” Mecoy says. “John Brown was taught regionally, based on what your region believed of him, and that caused differences of opinion. Now, I think we’re getting to where this is really the core of what happened.”

Harpers Ferry park ranger John Powell has talked with descendants of Brown who, like Mecoy, are quick to disavow the violence but who also admire that their ancestor “tried to right what he perceived as a terrible wrong.”

“To this day, when people speak of John Brown, the veins bulge in their foreheads,” he says. Those raised north of the Mason-Dixon line tend to see him favorably, while to many Southerners, “John Brown’s the bogeyman.

“There’s an expression in the South: ‘I’ll be John Brown,”’ Powell says. “It means I’ll be damned. Or I’ll be hanged.”

Brown became part of the popular culture of his times, and that legacy endures: An American reggae band uses the song as its name and Brown’s likeness on its album covers. In 2007, a rare daguerreotype of Brown sold for $97,750 at a Cincinnati auction.

Still, many people will discover Brown only this year. And as they do, they may wrestle with how to categorize him. History often presents people as one-dimensional characters, known only for good or evil deeds. Brown confounds because he committed both.

“People don’t know what to do with John Brown. They don’t know what color he is. They don’t know if he was a good guy or a bad guy. They don’t know whether they should teach their kids about him. They just don’t know,” says Bob O’Connor of Charles Town, a local college instructor and author of The Perfect Steel Trap: Harpers Ferry 1859.

“To me, he was a person that was single-focused on a cause that he was willing to die for,” says O’Connor. “I often ask my students, ’What cause are you willing to die for?’ They have trouble coming up with the answer to that.”

While many defend Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry, few label the slaughter of five pro-slavery leaders in Kansas three years before as anything but premeditated murder. Brown’s raiding party on Pottawatomie Creek hacked the men to death with swords in an execution that University of Maryland professor Martin Gordon calls “probably the most misunderstood event of his career.”

“Why did he use swords? Not because he’s a barbarian, but because he didn’t want anyone to hear what he was doing. Rifle fire would wake up the town” says Gordon, president of the Council of America’s Military Past.

“This was a very selective act of terrorism, moral justice, take your pick. Criminal action, take your pick,” Gordon says. “But he wanted to teach the pro-slavery element in Kansas a lesson, so he picked five of their leaders, pulled them out of their house and killed them as silently as he could.”

In his own death, Brown became what the pro-slavery New York Journal of Commerce predicted when it published an editorial urging that he be imprisoned rather than hanged for his crimes.

“Monsters are hydra-headed, and decapitation only quickens vitality, and power of reproduction,” the newspaper warned.

Escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had tried to talk Brown out of his doomed raid, acknowledged its importance decades later, in an 1881 speech in Harpers Ferry.

“Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises,” he said. “When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone — the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union — and the clash of arms was at hand.”

Even so, Dennis Frye, chief historian of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, says Brown will remain “a perpetual enigma.”

“People emote when they think of John Brown. They’re not using their mind as much as their heart. They’re not using their brain as much as their soul,” Frye says. “They feel about John Brown. They either feel for him or they feel against him, but the key is they feel.

“I don’t see him passing away in the American experience or the American soul.”

*Source: The News-Messenger.com [Fremont, Oh.] (June 9, 2009)

Friday, June 05, 2009

"John Brown, Abortion, And The Limits Of Historical Analogy"
by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I just was sitting in a cafe with my son (Sette Panni for the Harlemites) reading through the McPherson joint. I'm at the chapter where he's about to deal with John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. One thing that this book makes clear is that analogies between John Brown and anti-abortion terrorists don't really tell you much.

analogies between John Brown and anti-abortion terrorists don't really tell you much.
I don't have my head totally wrapped around this yet, but it seems that political violence in 19th Century America was much more common than it is today. Perhaps, that's the wrong way to put it. I'm not sure. But I just got done reading a section where Congressmen were coming to the House floor armed for a shoot-out. Why? Because of a book that slandered the South. A book. fool!

And it didn't even seem that unusual. Fist-fight were common. And what about the caning of Charles Sumner. It's hard to imagine, say, Lindsey Graham beating the hell out of Patrick Leahy with a cane--and then his constituents not only keeping him in office, but sending him canes engraved with things like "Hit him again!"

Mob violence seems to predominate--on both sides. In Boston, gangs routinely formed to flout the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. John Brown was off the hook in Kansas--but it wasn't just him. I'm talking about pro-slavery forces laying siege to whole towns with cannon-fire. it. I'm talking about politicians in New Orleans forming pirate armies--in open defiance of the feds--to go conquer Cuba.

I hesitate to call it a more violent society. But political violence seems endemic in that period, in a way that it just isn't today. I don't say this to minimize Tiller, but by 19th century standards, I'm not even sure his murder qualifies as terrorism. Fools were bucking each other all over the place.

And of course this says nothing of the fact that slavery, itself, was violent act. More, later...

Source: The blog of Ta-Nehisi Coates, a contributor to The Atlantic, June 5, 2009
Pete Chiodo. "Spirit of Freedom Weekend in Crawford County, Pa., Celebrates Brown's Legacy." The Meadville Tribune (June 4, 2009)

“‘His soul is marching on,’ like they say in the song.”

That’s Donna Coburn who, along with her husband, Gary, owns the Crawford County farm where abolitionist hero John Brown once lived and worked.

She’s quoting the old battle hymn, “John Brown’s Body.” And while the tune has the contentious historical figure “a-moldering in his grave,” the ideals that Brown fought and died for, and the era that witnessed it, will once again come to life during the John Brown Spirit of Freedom Weekend.

The event is Saturday and Sunday at the John Brown Farm and Museum on Route 77 in New Richmond, beginning around 10 a.m. both days and running until sundown on Saturday and approximately 5 p.m. on Sunday.

The John Brown Museum [left], a delightful alcove of memory and history presented by Donna and Gary Coburn [right]. Photos by L. DeCaro Jr., Nov. 2003.

“It’s a celebration of his life and his spirit,” said Coburn. “Actually, (Brown’s) great-great-granddaughter, Eleanor Blangstead, named it. She lives in California and I got to fly out and meet her in 2002 and she came up with the name.”

Coburn and her husband have been hosting an annual event in Brown’s honor since 2001. It was formerly called the John Brown Picnic, but they recently gave it a new title.

“People thought they had to bring food,” Coburn said. “So we called it the Spirit of Freedom Weekend.”

New Richmond Methodist Church will once again be selling food at the event — so, no need to bring the picnic baskets.

The event will also feature the 150th Bucktails Regiment, the Civil War re-enactors named in honor of the actual Pennsylvania regiment that fought in the war. They’ll be setting up camp and running drills all weekend long at the farm.

The 150th will be joined by Cushing’s/Taylor’s Battery, an artillery unit out of Union City that will bring down their cannon, adding a little thunder to the event.

Meanwhile, the women of the 150th will get those in attendance into the spirit of the 1860s .

“The guys will be doing drills throughout the days,” said 150th member Penny Dallas. “But we’ll be doing different stuff in camp; a fashion show, music, a church service on Sunday morning. We’ll dress somebody up, show people all the different layers. Do toys and games with the kids, and the adults too.”

Live music will also be on the itinerary.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

John Brown's Civil War: An Illustrated Talk
by Dr. Milton C. Sernett, professor emeritus Syracuse University

12 o'clock noon, June 13, 2009
Free and Open to the Public

Open House
12 - 4 p.m.
Exhibits, displays, information, and refreshments
Free and Open to the Public

Smithfield Community Center
5255 Pleasant Valley Road
Peterboro NY 13134

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Akron to Commemorate John Brown Sesquicentennial

(06/01/09) - Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic today announced a series of events that will commemorate events surrounding the 150th anniversary of the raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) by Akron’s most famous historic resident, John Brown.

Civil War historians have long identified the raid on October 16, 1859 by John Brown as a pivotal event in igniting the War Between the States.

For the most part, Akron’s founding families - mostly New Englanders - favored the abolition of slavery, but few held Brown’s extreme views on the eradication of this "peculiar institution."

John Brown called Akron "home" for the better part of the decade preceding the Civil War - not that he ever stayed in one place for long. Born in Connecticut, raised in Hudson, apprenticed in Kent (then Franklin Mills,) Brown accepted the offer of Col. Simon Perkins - the son of Akron’s founder - to reside in the cottage that sits today on Diagonal Road. With his second wife Mary and nine of his twenty children, Brown resided in Akron at various times between 1843 and 1854.

"John Brown is Akron’s nationally-known link to the movement to end slavery," said Mayor Plusquellic. "He is memorialized at several places locally, and this is an opportunity for us to remember the role that Akron played in the greatest civil confrontation in our national history."

John Brown House Open on June 23

After leaving Akron in 1855, Brown was constantly on the move for his cause. On June 23, 1859 he returned to Akron with sons Oliver and Owen to visit the younger son Jason who had settled-down in Akron and who was left out of the events at Harpers Ferry. (Jason and six other family members are buried at Akron’s Glendale cemetery.)

On June 23, 2009, the City and the Summit County Historical Society will host an opening at the John Brown House on Diagonal Road at Copley Road to remember John Brown’s last trip to Akron before the Harpers Ferry Raid. The house will be open to visitors from 11:00am to 7:00pm on Tuesday, June 23.

While there is little documentation of the visit that day, when Brown stopped in Akron a few years earlier, in 1856 - according to the newspapers of the day - "he gave such a graphic account of his struggle in Kansas that a committee was appointed to help him raise money and weapons." The people of Akron gathered rifles, shotguns, knives, pistols, swords, powder, lead, and even a case of weapons stored in the county jail.

John Brown Memorial and Monument Open For Guided Tours

This summer, the City of Akron, in cooperation with the Akron Zoo, will host guided tours of the permanent monument to Brown that was created on the 76 acres along the high wooded ridge donated to the City by Col. George Tod Perkins, a Union Army veteran.

The memorial was erected by the German-American Alliance in 1910 from a sandstone pillar that was part of Summit County's first courthouse, razed in 1905. In 1938, the monument was enlarged by the "Negro 25 year Club" to include a circular stone seating area and plaza.

Today, the monument rests on property that is maintained by the Zoo, and reserved for future Zoo expansion. The area is not open to the public, and is difficult to access.

"We will be conducting guided tours of the area this summer and fall," said Akron Deputy Mayor Dave Lieberth, the coordinator sesquicentennial events. "This will provide an opportunity for people who have never visited the monument to see it up-close."

Free tours of the monument and grounds will begin from the western end of the Zoo parking lot on the following dates:

* Saturday, July 4, 9:00am. (Zoo gates open at 8:30am)
* Sunday, July 5, 4:00pm
* Saturday, August 15, 9:00am
* Sunday, August 16, 4:00pm
* Saturday, September 5, 9:00am
* Sunday, September 6, 4:00pm

Lieberth says each tour will require about one hour. He cautions that the area may not be accessible to persons with physical limitations. The terrain is rough and uneven, and involves walking up an elevation that is moderately difficult.

On Friday, October 16, the actual 150th anniversary of the Harpers Ferry Raid, a commemorative event will be held at the zoo grounds and memorial.

In 2002, Mayor Plusquellic appointed a special task force to determine the future of the monument, a work that remains in progress with the collaboration of the Akron Zoo.

John Brown in Akron

Having gone bankrupt [by] 1842, being in partnership with Akron’s most prominent citizen was a step-up to respectability for Brown. By 1845, he was one of the most successful breeders of sheep and respected authorities on the cleaning and grading of wool in the United States, winning gold medals in New York and Boston for the Perkins-Brown partnership.

[Although establishing a wool commission operation in Springfield, Mass.], Brown badly miscalculated [his ability to take on the powerful manufacturing interests behind] the wool market. [Nor was he adequately supported by the wool growers that he and Perkins intended to represent in eastern Ohio, western Virginia, and western Pennsylvania. Their demands for quick payments plus the manipulation of the market by manufacturers brought the Perkins and Brown operation to demise. No great businessman in his own right, Perkins later ruined his own fortune by involving himself in a ruinous railroad project.] By 1850, [Brown] was [left to face the firm's legal problems involving monies owed to farmers as well as claims of the firm against the farmers.]

In 1851, Brown returned to Akron, after Perkins personally requested that he resume management of his flock. Mrs. Perkins complained of the constant presence of smuggled Negroes in the neighborhood. "He was always concerning himself with Negroes, often having several hidden at once about his place." As Brown traveled throughout the East, he was often in company of fugitive slaves.

In 1855, two Brown sons moved to the Territory of Kansas, whose fate as a slave state or free state hung in the balance while settlers determined its future. Brown became nationally notorious after the bloody raid at Osawatomie Creek undertaken by him and his sons.

Arts Organizations Commemorate the Harpers Ferry Raid

The raid that was felt around the world occurred on October 16, 1859. Brown was severely wounded by bayonets, and imprisoned for 46 days, during which time, he became an international celebrity.

In Akron in 2009, there will be several exhibits and performances to remember the sesquicentennial:

On October 16, the Akron Art Museum will open an exhibit, "The Legend of John Brown," presenting selections from Jacob Lawrence’s celebrated print series. Lawrence was the first African-American artist to depict the story of the white abolitionist. www.akronartmuseum.org

On October 17, the Akron Symphony will perform a new work, commissioned for the Akron sesquicentennial commemoration, "The Passion of John Brown," by Malone College professor Jesse Ayers, in a concert remembering the heroic works of historic figures. The concert is at 8:00pm at E. J. Thomas Hall. www.akronsymphony.org

An exhibit of historical artifacts from Akron during the era will be displayed at the Special Collections Division of the Akron-Summit County Public Library downtown, dates to be announced. http://www.ascpl.lib.oh.us

Execution of John Brown also To Be Remembered

On December 2, 1859, John Brown was hanged at Charlestown, Virginia (now West Virginia,) and he is buried at North Elba, NY.

In Akron, on the day of his execution, flags flew at half mast. Church bells tolled, the courts adjourned, and stores closed. That night, "a great indignation meeting" was held in Empire Hall and speeches were made by Akron’s leading citizens.

To commemorate the day of the execution of John Brown, on December 2, 2009, the City of Akron and Summit County Historical Society, will hold a memorial event in collaboration with the First Presbyterian Church on East Market Street in Akron. The church, organized in 1831, was divided by the issue of slavery in 1859, and the present day congregation descends from the anti-slavery faction of the church.

"All of these events, performances, and exhibits recall a rich era in our history," said Mayor Plusquellic. "I hope many families will use this opportunity to enrich their children’s knowledge of Akron’s role in the great cause against African slavery, and to learn more about a man who even today remains controversial."

Contact: Dave Lieberth, 330.375.2345

SOURCE: Mark Williams, City of Akron News
Grady Atwater. "Brown Did Not Seek Revenge Against Foe." Osawatomie [Kan.] Graphic (Jun. 3, 2009).

The Rev. Martin White was a proslavery minister who lived near Osawatomie. He was also John Brown’s and any abolitionist’s nemesis in Kansas Territory. White fought for the proslavery cause with the same ferocity that John Brown fought for the free state cause, and White’s conflict with Brown would lead to a dramatic scene in 1858.

Oswald Garrison Villard records in John Brown A Biography Fifty Years After that on April 16, 1855, a meeting was held in Osawatomie to decide whether the communities’ citizens would obey or defy the laws of the Proslavery government that had recently been chosen via proslavery voter fraud. White, who lived near Osawatomie, stood to defend the proslavery government, and John Brown pointedly rebutted White’s proslavery position. Osawatomie’s citizens voted to defy the proslavery government, and his adversarial relationship with Brown was firmly established.

On August 30, 1856, White was one of three scouts who rode ahead of John Reid’s force as they approached the town to fight the Battle of Osawatomie. White rode up on John Brown’s son, Frederick, and after the two men recognized each other, both men went for their weapons, and Reverend White drew his pistol first and shot Frederick through the heart. White killed John Brown’s son, Frederick, and Brown, in the eyes of the world, had good reason to seek revenge.

Eli Snyder fought beside John Brown and reported that in 1858, he was raiding into Pattenville, Missouri, and that John Brown and his guerilla band rode to White’s home. Brown observed White sitting in a chair reading a book under a tree. Eli Snyder was ready to dispense some frontier justice and said to Brown, “Suppose you and I go down and see the old man and have a talk with him.”

Brown refused to do so, and said “No, no, I can’t do that.” John Kagi, one of Brown’s followers, proposed that Kagi and Snyder should go down to White’s house and pay him a visit. Brown further refused to have any harm come to White and then stated, “Go, if you wish to, but don’t you hurt a hair of his head, but if he has any slaves take the last one of them.”

John Brown had the man who had persecuted his family, and killed his son, in his power, and refused to harm him. Brown clearly stated the reason why when he said, “People mistake my objects. I would not hurt one hair of his [White’s] head. I would not go one inch to take his life; I do not harbour the feelings of revenge. I act from a principle. My aim and object is to restore human rights.”
“People mistake my objects. I would not hurt one hair of his head. I would not go one inch to take his life; I do not harbour the feelings of revenge. I act from a principle. My aim and object is to restore human rights.”
John Brown believed that all people were equal in the eyes of God and fought to abolish racism and slavery. His methods were sometimes extreme, but Brown was motivated by the belief that all people were equal in the eyes of God, and that racism, inequality, and slavery were sins against God, and that he was fighting for the equality of all in American society.

— Grady Atwater is site administrator at the John Brown State Historic Site in Osawatomie, Kansas.