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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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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Some Notable John Brown/Harper's Ferry Raid Commemorative Programs in October

Friday, October 16th: A Commemorative Event At John Brown's Birthplace (Co-sponsored with the University of Connecticut, Torrington.)

Friday, October 16th @ 4:30pm at the John Brown birthplace on John Brown Road. (Rain or shine)

The schedule is as follows:

Introduction by Mark McEachern, Torrington Historical Society
Dramatic reading from John Brown's Body, a poem by Stephen Vincent Benet
Music from the John Brown Suite by Peter McEachern with Russ Johnson and George Sovak
Remarks on John Brown by Robert P. Forbes, Assistant Professor of History and American Studies, University of Connecticut
Musical selections by the Workman Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church Choir, Torrington. Pastor: Rev. Sowatei K. Lomotey
Musket salute by civil war re-enactors from the CT Civil War Round Table
Music from the John Brown Suite by Peter McEachern with Russ Johnson and George Sovak

At 5:30 pm, there will be a reception in the Litchfield Room, Litchfield County Extension Center, University of Connecticut, Torrington.

Sunday, October 18th: Lecture and Book Signing by Brian McGinty (co-sponsored by University of Connecticut, Torrington.)
Sunday, October 18th @ 5:15 pm at University of Connecticut, Torrington Branch, 855 University Drive.
The final day of the John Brown events includes a lecture and book signing by Brian McGinty, author of John Brown's Trial (Harvard University Press, Oct. 2009).
The book will be available at the University of Connecticut, Torrington bookstore, and the author will sign books after the lecture. McGinty provides the first comprehensive account of John Brown's trial, which raised important questions about jurisdiction, judicial fairness and the nature of treason. McGinty sees the trial, rather than the raid, as the real turning point in the struggle between north and south.
"Recommended for all readers interested in the Civil War..." -- Stephen L. Hupp, West Virginia University Library, Parkersburg.
"The author's legal knowledge illuminates the proceedings' intricacies and shortcomings, and reveals how Brown's brief closing statement, considered among the most eloquent words in the nation's history, had a more lasting impact than his armed raid. Brown's statement, writes McGinty, 'transformed his public image from that of a violent fanatic to one of a public hero'. McGinty makes a strong and plausible case." -- Publishers Weekly

The Torrington Historical Society
192 Main Street, Torrington, CT 06790

The Summit County Historical Society will open the freedom fighter's former home, the John Brown House, from 3 to 6 p.m. on three upcoming Tuesdays: Sept. 22, Oct. 27 and Nov. 24. The house is at Diagonal and Copley roads in Akron. To learn more or book group tours at other times, call 330-535-1120.

Brown will be this year's star of the annual Ohio Underground Railroad Summit, a gathering for $75 per person on Friday, Oct. 16, and Saturday, Oct. 17, at the Hudson Library and Historical Society. The library owns a leading trove of Brown materials, which visitors can see for free whenever the building is open. The library is at 96 Library St., 330-653-6658,

On Friday, Oct. 16, officials will commemorate the anniversary of the raid at 11 a.m. at the John Brown Monument, which stands in a normally closed part of the Akron Zoo. The monument was built in 1910 by the German-American Alliance and improved in 1938 by the Negro 25 Year Club.

During the event, Brown will be portrayed by Neil Thackaberry, who runs Actors' Summit on Hudson's Owen Brown Street, named for John Brown's father. Visitors to the commemoration may park at the zoo for free. After the commemoration, the John Brown House will be open until 2 p.m.

From Oct. 16 through Feb. 14, the Akron Art Museum will display "The Legend of John Brown," featuring celebrated prints by Jacob Lawrence in the museum's collection, at normal hours and admission prices, 330-376-9185, akronartmuseum.org.

On Saturday, Oct. 17, Leon Bibb of WEWS Channel 5 will narrate and the Akron Symphony Orchestra will perform a John Brown concert, including the debut of "The Passion of John Brown" by Jesse Ayers, a Malone College professor. The concert will begin at 8 p.m. at E.J. Thomas Hall. For details, call 330-535-8131 or see akronsymphony.org.

On Wednesday, Dec. 2, Akron leaders will commemorate the anniversary of Brown's hanging at 11 a.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 647 E. Market St. At the end, the church bells will toll, as many local bells did 150 years ago that day.

Through the rest of 2009, an exhibit of artifacts called "Summit County's John Brown" will be on view in the Special Collections department on the third floor of the downtown Akron-Summit County Public Library, 60 S. High St., 330-643-9000, akronlibrary.org.

In 1865, Oberliners raised a monument to three slain local raiders, among the first black Americans so remembered. The tribute stands today at Martin Luther King Park, East Vine and South Pleasant streets.

The monument is part of a local "Freedom's Friends" tour by the Oberlin Heritage Center at 11 a.m. the second Friday and fourth Saturday of each month through October and by appointment. For details, call 440-774-1700 or see oberlinheritage.org.

Besides the John Brown House, his only local home still open to the public is now Benedict's Antiques, 4138 W. Streetsboro Road, Richfield, 330-659-3427. The shop is open 12:30 to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Symposium on abolitionist to be held at Springfield Technical Community College
Saturday, September 26, 2009

"The Sword of the Lord and of Gideon: John Brown & The Coming of the Civil War," a symposium on the militant abolitionist from Connecticut who led the raid of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., on Oct. 16, 1859, will be held on Oct. 17 at Springfield Technical Community College.

David S. Reynolds, author of John Brown Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, will be the keynote speaker.

Dinah Mayo-Bobee, visiting professor of history at University of Massachusetts in Amherst, will also present on Brown and the "Pottawatomie Affair."

Richard Colton, historian at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, will discuss the destruction of Harpers Ferry and its effect on the armory.

John F. Gately, chair of the English department at the community college, will present and discuss some Brown related items from his abolitionist collection.

Brown, who is the subject of a panel in the new Museum of Springfield History set to open on Oct. 10, and his family moved to the Springfield to establish a method of distribution that would offer a wider and fairer market for raw wool. Although the company failed, the four years Brown spent in Springfield were crucial to his deepening involvement in the abolitionist movement.

A book signing of Reynolds' best-selling biography will be held after the symposium.
Registration would be appreciated and can be done by notifying John Gately at Gately@stcc.edu

Norman K. Dann Ph.D. explains the support of Gerrit Smith and the Secret Six for John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry, which took place October 16, 1869. Dann will present on Sunday, October 11, 2009 at 2 p.m.

The Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark is located at 4543 Peterboro Road in Peterboro NY. There is a $2 admission and free to students, stewards, and residents of the Town of Smithfield.

For more information, visit www.sca-peterboro.org or call 315-684-3262.

Monday, September 21, 2009

John Brown's Akron Celebrates His Legacy:
Jacob Lawrence's "The Legend of John Brown" on Exhibit; Other Events Featured

This fall marks the 150th anniversaries of John Brown’s anti-slavery raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, a pivotal event in igniting the Civil War, and his Dec. 2, 1859 execution. To commemorate Akron’s most famous historic resident, the Akron Art Museum presents selections from Jacob Lawrence’s print series The Legend of John Brown. The exhibition will be on view from Oct. 16 to Feb. 14, 2010. Lawrence, one of the most significant American artists of the 20th century, was the first African American to depict the story of the controversial white abolitionist.

Lawrence’s screenprints, which are owned by the museum, will be joined by related images and artifacts from the Summit County Historical Society and the Akron-Summit County Public Library Special Collections Division.

A Northerner, Brown (1800-1859) worked on farms in Northeast Ohio before moving to Akron in 1844. An expert breeder of sheep and respected authority on wool, he attracted the attention of fellow shepherd Simon Perkins, Jr., the son of Akron’s founder. The two formed a business partnership and Brown moved into a two-room cottage yards away from Perkins’ own mansion.

Brown’s religious convictions led him to oppose slavery. While working with Perkins, he remained an active abolitionist and regularly housed slaves moving through the Underground Railroad in his Akron home. Now part of the Summit County Historical Society, it houses a permanent display about Brown’s life.

In contrast with the northern pacifist attitude, Brown believed that militant actions were the only way to end slavery. In the mid-1850s, he organized covert attacks in an attempt to liberate slaves and bring down the pro-slavery establishment. In 1859, with a company of 21 men—white and black—he led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He was captured and hanged for treason on December 2. While historians agree that Brown’s actions helped spark the Civil War, his dogged determination and the violence of his methods have been hailed as both heroic and foolhardy.
Jacob Lawrence’s screenprints frame the story as a narrative, which is the depiction of a particular story in either painted or graphic form. Each image presents a specific incident in Brown’s dramatic life. Rather than depicting these events in a realistic manner, Lawrence tells the story using sparse details rendered with simplified forms and vibrant colors, which heightens each scene’s emotion.

Lawrence (1917-2000), who lived in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, was the first African American artist to be included in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He was a storyteller who used the visual arts to interpret and disseminate important events in American history. His prominence as an artist undoubtedly helped perpetuate the remarkable story of John Brown’s life as an abolitionist.

This exhibition is organized by the Akron Art Museum and supported by a gift from Akron General.

Related Community Events

Akron-Summit County Public Library John Brown exhibit
On View through December 31
Visit Special Collections to see the Summit County’s John Brown exhibit, including historical artifacts from Akron during the era and small glimpses into all the different time periods of his life: moving to Hudson, Ohio as a young boy, his own life as a husband and father, business failures, the infamous raid at Harpers Ferry and finally his hanging as a traitor in 1859.

150th Anniversary of the Harpers Ferry Raid at the Akron Zoo
October 16, 11 am
A commemorative event will be held at the Akron Zoo grounds and the John Brown Monument in Perkins Woods.

The Passion of John Brown by the Akron Symphony Orchestra
October 17, 8 pm
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 will be held at E.J. Thomas Hall.

150th Anniversary of John Brown’s Execution
December 2
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.

Museum Information
Address: One South High, Akron, OH 44308
Tel: 330.376.9185
Fax: 330.376.1180
Website: www.AkronArtMuseum.org
Gallery and Store Hours: Wednesday – Sunday: 11 am – 5 pm, Thursday: 11 am – 9 pm, Closed Mondays and Tuesdays
CafĂ© Hours: Wednesday – Sunday: 11 am – 3 pm, Thursday: 11 am – 7:30 pm; Closed Monday and Tuesday
Library Hours: Wednesday, Thursday & Friday: 11 am – 4 pm
Admission: Adult general admission is $7, Student and Senior (65+) general admission is $5, Children (12 and under) are FREE, members are FREE. On the first Sunday of every month, individual admissions to the collection are FREE. Special exhibitions may require paid admission. No tours available on these days.

Source: The Suburbanite.com [Akron, Ohio], September 21, 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Gilder-Lehrman Instituate and New York Historical Society's
September 15, 2009-March 25, 2010

The Gilder-Lehrman collection, an amazing archive for anyone and everyone interested in U.S. history, holds an amazing amount of John Brown material--particularly letters from Brown and his children. By all accounts, it is one of the most important collections of the several major John Brown holdings across the country.

According to the Gilder-Lehrman Institute's website:

On view from September 15, 2009 through March 25, 2010, this exhibition of rare materials from the Gilder Lehrman Collection and the New-York Historical Society also sets the stage for the culminating presentation of the Historical Society’s Lincoln Year, with the landmark exhibition Lincoln and New York, opening October 9, 2009.

“John Brown: The Abolitionist and His Legacy examines Brown in the context of growing national divisions over slavery in the 1850s,” said James G. Basker, President of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. “Most African Americans and abolitionists saw John Brown as a martyr for a noble and humane cause. Others saw him as a terrorist who attacked legal institutions and was willing to kill to achieve his goals. This exhibition invites people to examine the tension between these divergent views at the critical moment in American history, with repercussions down to the Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century.”

"John Brown’s attack at Harpers Ferry convinced Southerners that their political and economic survival was threatened, while outrage over his execution rallied and unified Northern abolitionists,” according to Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “As we continue our year-long celebration of Abraham Lincoln, we hope these extraordinary and seldom-seen materials will not only shed light on Brown himself but will help illuminate events that led to Lincoln’s election in 1860."

Visitors to the exhibition will encounter manuscripts never before exhibited, including dramatic letters by John Brown to his followers; a letter by Frederick Douglass praising Brown but distancing himself from the raid; Brown's parting words on the eve of his execution; a letter from the mother of a Kansas murder victim, damning Brown on the scaffold; and reminiscences by Brown's children and other eyewitnesses.

Lending dramatic context to these materials are powerful images, such as the 1859 sculpture “The Slave Auction” by John Rogers; the heroic 1867 painting by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, "John Brown's Blessing"; photographs of Brown and his family members; photographs of his supporters, the "Secret Six"; and photographs of other key participants. Among the other important objects on view will be a "John Brown Still Lives!" broadside from 1859; a rare printing of the Emancipation Proclamation; a 1926 lynching poster; and other artifacts of the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras.

Apparently most of the materials on display are from the Gilder-Lehrman Collection, although researchers should be aware that the New York Historical Society, which hosts and houses the Gilder-Lehrman Collection, has its own prestigious holdings which include John Brown letters and documents.

As to James Basker's remarks quoted above, we should point out that the term "terrorist" was not in use in the U.S. in the antebellum era, so this portrayal is anachronistic. To be sure, John Brown was viewed as an invader and killer by his enemies (the defenders of slavery), but given the fact that slavery had its own share of invaders and killers, one should not confuse certain contemporary notions (put forth largely by white scholars and intellectuals) of Brown as a "terrorist" with the inimical perception of Brown by pro-slavery people in the antebellum era. Similarly, the reference to a "letter from the mother of a Kansas murder victim" is a loaded description. Undoubtedly a reference to the letter of Mahala Doyle to John Brown, this is indeed the letter from the widow and bereaved mother of three men killed by Brown's men in May 1856. The question remains to what degree they were "victims": in the most literal sense, the Doyle men, father and two sons, were Brown's victims because they were apprehended and executed at his direction. But in the broader sense, the Doyles, along with the two other men killed by Brown's men in May 1856, were conspirators, collaborators in a plot to murder, and essentially insurgents--so that killing them was more a strike against victimization, a kind of counter-terrorism (to engage Mr. Basker's terminology).

Whatever the case, readers of this blog who reside within reach of New York City are advised to make the trip to the New York Historical Society, not only for the Gilder-Lehrman Exhibit, but beyond that to utilize these great archival resources for research and study. For further information, visit the New York Historical Society website and the Gilder-Lehrman Institute website.

Monday, September 14, 2009

John Brown, Slavery, and the Legacies of Revolutionary Violence in Our Own Time:

A Conference Commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Harpers Ferry Raid
Gilder Lehrman Center's 11th Annual International Conference
October 29-31, 2009

Discussions of the place of violence--its forms, its causes, its justice or injustice--in American history often begin with John Brown and his exploits in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in the 1850s. Brown's image has been appropriated by groups from the left and the right. He is a historical as well as a legendary figure, and often the myth overshadows the reality. This conference will explore the meaning and memory of John Brown as well as the problem of violence in American culture, past and present.

Conference Participants
Thursday, October 29
7:00 – 7:30 p.m. Conference Registration

7:30 – 9:00 p.m. Performance

* Performance of John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom
Norman Thomas Marshall, Playwright and Actor
Introduction by Larry Lawrence, The John Brown Society

Friday, October 30
8:30 - 9:00 a.m. Coffee and Registration

9:00 - 9:15 a.m. Welcome Remarks

9:15 - 10:30 a.m. Keynote Address

* W. Fitzhugh Brundage, UNC-Chapel Hill

10:30 - 11:00 a.m. Coffee Break

11:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. Panel 1: John Brown: A Problem in Biography

* David Reynolds, City University of New York, Baruch College
How I Wrote John Brown, Abolitionist: A Cultural Biography
* Evan Carton, The University of Texas at Austin
The Word and the Life: John Brown as Reader
* Robert Blakeslee Gilpin,Center for the Study of the American South, UNC-Chapel Hill
The Wind and the Whirlwind: Can Biography Explain John Brown?
* Louis A. DeCaro, Nyack College and Alliance Theological Seminary
* Moderator: Annette Gordon Reed, New York Law School

1:00 - 2:30 p.m. Lunch

2:30 - 5:00 p.m. Panel 2: John Brown and the Arts

* Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw, University of Pennsylvania
John Brown Embodied: An Afterlife in American Visual Culture
* Franny Nudelman, Carleton University
From Armed Propaganda to Creative Suffering: John Brown and Traditions of Expressive Violence
* Kirke Mechem, Composer
John Brown: The Opera
* Robert Stepto, Yale University
John Brown in the Visual Art of Hovenden, Lawrence and Pippin
* Moderator: David W. Blight, Yale University

6:30 p.m. Speakers Dinner

9:00 - 9:30 a.m. Coffee and Registration

9:30 - 11:30 a.m. Panel 3: John Brown and the Legacies of Violence

* Beverly Gage, Yale University
Was John Brown a Terrorist?
* David Rapoport, UCLA
John Brown and the Legacies of Violence
* Kay Wright Lewis, Rutgers University
Considerations on the Rhetoric of Race War in the Antebellum South
* Caleb Smith, Yale University
* Moderator: David W. Blight, Yale University

11:30 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. Lunch

1:00 - 3:00 p.m. Panel 4: John Brown and Abolitionism

* John Stauffer, Harvard University
'I'll be John Browned': Abolition in the Southern Imagination
* Richard Blackett, Vanderbilt University
John Brown and the Tradition of Attacking Slavery at the Source
* Caleb McDaniel, Rice University
William Lloyd Garrison, Nonviolent Abolitionists, and John Brown
* Wendy Hamand Venet, Georgia State University
John Brown, Female Abolitionists, and Rights for Women: A Mixed Legacy
* Moderator: David W. Blight, Yale University

3:00 - 3:15 p.m. Coffee break

3:15 - 4:30 p.m. Concluding Roundtable: John Brown: A Problem for Our Own Time

* Russell Banks, Author
* Tony Horwitz, Author

For further information, visit the conference website here

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


Brown Fought In Spite of Unfavorable Odds

Luke Parsons* was an abolitionist who fought alongside John Brown at the Battle of Osawatomie on Aug. 30, 1856. Parsons delivered a speech in the town on “John Brown’s Day” on Aug. 30, 1913, and at the time was the last living survivor of the Battle of Osawatomie living in Kansas.

Parsons stated that John Reid and his pro-slavery force’s purpose in attacking here was to “destroy the town of Osawatomie and arrest John Brown and his little band, charging them with treason.”

According to Parsons, Brown was aware that he could not win the Battle of Osawatomie. He said that “Brown, through his spies and scouts, knew they were coming, knew their strength and purpose, and with his small band could offer but feeble resistance.”

Brown was most concerned about the safety of the citizens of Osawatomie and told Parsons: “We must save the women and children first, and then save ourselves if we can. We will attract their attention while the men get their families out of danger.”

Brown’s willingness to die for his abolitionist beliefs is made clear when he gave the order to “take more pains to end life well than to live long.”

Brown’s first plan was for Parsons to take 10 men and make a stand in a blockhouse while Brown and his men fired at the pro-slavery flank from the trees along the Marais des Cygnes River. However, when Parsons and his men observed that the pro-slavery force had a cannon that could blow the blockhouse to smithereens, they abandoned the structure.

Parsons reported that Brown “conducted this battle coolly, courageously and well. He showed no fear whatever.”

He also observed that Brown placed his men in the timber so Reid and his pro-slavery force did not know how many men Brown had with him. The pro-slavery forces initially charged Brown’s forces on horseback, but the charge failed, and Parsons noted: “There was never a better opportunity to shoot men, they in plain sight, mounted on green horses, trying to form a new line.” This gave ample time for Brown’s men to aim and fire, and Parsons could “see them fall all along the line until they got wise enough to dismount.”

The pro-slavery forces’ cannon proved to be no real threat, as Parsons reported: “The cannon bothered them more than us, for they fired too high.”

However, Parsons went on to say that “their overwhelming numbers began to tell to their advantage. They pressed us back slowly, we falling back one at a time until it got too hot for us, but we kept up the line well until we got to the riverbank; here. we gave way altogether, to take a new position in a log house on the other bank. “Brown waited there to fight on, but the pro-slavery forces rode into Osawatomie and sacked and burned the town.”

Grady Atwater is the esteemed curator and tourism director of the city of Osawatomie, Kansas, and an important grassroots scholar of John Brown studies. We are always delighted to publish his articles, which play a major role in keeping Brown's Kansas legacy alive in this generation.--LD

John Brown Museum Receives $92,000 for Building Repair

As the rain came down Aug. 26, a crew of workers scrambled to cover the roof of John Brown Museum with a tarp to keep the water from leaking through the unfinished roof.

Still, things are in much better condition than they were even two years ago, said Grady Atwater, administrator of John Brown State Historic Site.

The museum is receiving a $92,000 overhaul that will be completed during the next two years in three phases — the first of which involves the repair of a leaky roof, an issue Atwater has been talking about since 2005.

“I vividly remember the day,” said Atwater of his first encounter with the leak. He was a volunteer at the time.

“I looked around, and it was leaking all around, pouring down the walls,” he said.

But that was nothing compared with the woes he and countless others in Osawatomie faced during the 2007 flood.

“Water was about one inch above the ground (around the museum),” Atwater said. “I was in here literally pushing water away from the cabin.”

After vigorously lobbying the Kansas State Historical Society for the funding needed to fix the building, the issue was finally put on the front burner in 2008, when federal stimulus funding allowed the project to be put into motion. The work was handled by a crew from J.A. Lyden, a Topeka-based construction company that specializes in work on historic buildings. Crew superintendent Troy Carpenter said the group has been working on the roof since Aug. 12, and he hopes to have the first phase of the project completed by the end of September.

In the second phase of the project, an underground drainage-tile system will be installed around the museum to divert water away from the structure, and all the windows and doors will be replaced in the final phase.

Atwater said the available funding may not be sufficient to fully complete the last phase of the project, meaning donations to the museum are still as important as ever.

But, he said, the project is worth every penny.

“The only other cabin (people have) taken this much care to preserve belonged to Abraham Lincoln,” Atwater said of the Adair Cabin in the museum. “We have to protect this cabin; it’s a precious cabin.”

John Brown Memorial Park
10th and Main Streets
Osawatomie, Kansas 66064
September 19-20, 2009

Freedom Festival Arts and Crafts Fair, Frontier Artisans, Children's Activities, and Food Vendors

Program Summary

Saturday Sept. 19
10 a.m. Civil War weapons and drill demonstration
11 a.m. Debbie Shadden and Pony Express
1 p.m. Civil War weapons and drill demonstration
1:30 p.m. Florella Adair, portrayed by Mary Buster
2:00 p.m. Abraham Lincoln, portrayed by Tom Leahy
3:00 p.m. John Brown, portrayed by Kerry Altenbernd
4:00 p.m. Reenactment of the Battle of Osawatomie

Sunday Sept. 20
10 a.m. Church service in John Brown Memorial Park
11 a.m. Todd Mildfelt, Civil War era music
12 p.m. The Lecompton Reenactors play "Bleeding Kansas"
1 p.m. Reenactment of a Civil War battle between Confederate Partisans and Union Troops
2 p.m. Mary Jane Richie, abolitionist, underground railroad conductor, portrayed by Anne Hawkins
3 p.m. Amelia Earhart, portrayed by Ann Birney
1-5 p.m., Army National Guard Climbing Wall

Contact info: 913.755.4384 or adaircabin@kshs.org

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

More About Illustrator/Writer John Hendrix and His New Book, John Brown: His Fight for Freedom

This might be the only illustrated children’s book that has the hero hanged at the end. But, true to history, that’s how it goes in John Brown: His Fight for Freedom, a 40-page book full of colorful drawings that is released today. It’s the project of John Hendrix, a Kansas University graduate now living in St. Louis.

“Part of the desire of mine is to revitalize his reputation in some ways,” Hendrix says. “I have a point of view about him. If I gloss over the stuff that’s controversial or icky, this could be easily dismissed as propaganda. That’s not helpful in telling the history.”

It’s a story that’s been told many times about the abolitionist, who is viewed as anything from a civil rights hero to the father of modern terrorism. But it’s probably never been told quite like this, with double-page illustrations and words that Hendrix figures are appropriate for a fifth-grade audience. “By then, they’re learning what slavery was,” the author says. “I see it as a supplement to a history class.”

Hendrix lived in Lawrence from 1994 to 1999, earning two degrees from KU. It was during his time here that he worked on his first John Brown project, a brochure on the history of northeastern Kansas for the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. When he moved to New York a few years later, he met a pastor who had written a book about Brown. Several colleagues encouraged him to pursue a children’s book on the abolitionist using his illustration skills, which he has used for publications such as Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, Esquire and The New York Times.

“Honestly, I thought that was a crazy idea,” he says.

Eventually, Scholastic Press signed on. He worked several years with that publisher until it eventually decided the subject matter might not be a good fit. That’s when he found Abrams Books, which agreed to pursue the project.

All of the major moments in Brown’s life are represented in the book, including the killing of five pro-slavery settlers on Pottawatomie Creek by Brown and his sons and the fact that the first man killed during the raid at Harpers Ferry — where Brown was attempting to take over an armory — was a free black man named Shephard Hayward.

The book also ends the same way Brown’s life ended: with his hanging for the Harpers Ferry attack. But Hendrix says he did try to keep the violence in check, limiting the number of guns and battle scenes in the book. The biggest challenge, he says, was to depict Brown as someone who was “both sane and fiery and compassionate” — especially considering many people identify his image first and foremost with the John Steuart Curry mural that hangs in the state Capitol in Topeka.

“The eyes very much came into play,” Hendrix says. “His face was very stoic. Moses meets Superman is kind of our pose. I wanted him to have grandfatherly wisdom on top of strength and size.”

And for as important as the drawings are, he wanted to make sure the history was as accurate as a textbook. “It’s listed as a nonfiction book,” he says. “We had to be rigorous with our facts. We really didn’t want this to fall into historical fiction.”

The facts pass the test, as far as Jonathan Earle is concerned. Earle is an associate professor of history at KU who studied the Civil War and who himself has authored a book on Brown. He admits he was skeptical when he first heard of Hendrix’s book. But after reading it, he says it works. “He cites the important works, takes John Brown’s religion and gets into how his thinking was far out of the mainstream,” Earle says. “He makes that a central part of the book.”

And he was surprised at how directly the book dealt with the controversial periods of Brown’s life. “There’s difficult stuff,” Earle says. “He doesn’t avoid the difficult parts of the biography, such as John Brown and his sons murdering the settlers in Pottawatomie. He doesn’t airbrush him.”

Hendrix sees Brown more of a civil rights leader than a terrorist. He’d like to share that view with a new generation of historians — starting them out in elementary school. “I think he was much more akin to Martin Luther King than John Dillinger,” Hendrix says.
Also see an excellent blogger review by clicking here--LD