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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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Monday, December 21, 2009


"What a year!": Magpie's Greg Artzner Writes (With Pictures)

Just wanted to compose one letter and send a few pics from our recent adventures in the saga of the sesquicentennial of John Brown's raid, hanging, funeral and burial. Call it my one-time "blog".
We just returned from 2 weeks on the road. The first 2 days were in the eastern Adirondacks working in songwriting residencies in the towns of Keeseville and Westport organized by our wonderful friend Martha Swan, founder of the organization "John Brown Lives!". More on that later.

Tuesday December 1, after our morning classes, we drove to the Albany airport and flew to Baltimore where we rented a car and drove to Charles Town, WV. Wednesday morning December 2nd we participated in the re-enactment of John Brown's execution procession from the Jefferson County Courthouse where he was tried to the exact location of his hanging. The sponsors had commissioned the construction of a 3/4 scale replica of the gallows, and our re-enactment ceremony took place there. Many of you have already seen the photos and video from that day. For those who haven't, the link is: http://www.inthepanhandle.com/local/news/article/john_brown_hanging_re-enactment/
At the gallows, I was given the opportunity by the sponsoring organizations, the Jefferson County NAACP and Black Historical Society, to speak in the character of the Old Man saying a few words such as he might have said if he had been allowed to address his executioners and spectators, which opportunity he was categorically denied on December 2nd, 1859. My remarks as John Brown, drawn from his writings and transcribed remarks with my own embellishments, are recorded on that video. The first photo below is from that scene.

I cannot begin to describe the emotions inhabiting my mind as I rode down the same street he traveled on that day 150 years ago, sitting on a "coffin" in the back of the wagon, as he did. I watched the crowd of over 300 people of every description follow the wagon down the streets and up to the gallows with a sense of pride to be in that role, leading a group of citizens such as those who were completely denied access to that experience in 1859 by order of declaration of martial law in the town. It was both a surreal and deeply moving experience.

Those feelings were heightened at the gallows site by the opportunity to speak in Brown's behalf, and also by words delivered by his great-great-great-granddaughter, our dear friend Alice Keesey Mecoy. Then they were deepened even more as I stood hidden behind the nearby house and watched Terry, portraying Mary Brown, newly widowed, receive her husband's "personal effects" of slippers and Bible, and then, escorted by our friend Naj Wikoff in the role of Wendell Phillips, as she followed the wagon bearing the coffin away.

After it was over, I dropped character and mingled in the crowd where I met Dick Gregory who was effusive in his expressions of emotion for the day. Mr. Gregory spoke to the crowd back at the courthouse before our procession began, a brilliant and humorous, impromptu address. He told me he wanted a copy of my remarks at the gallows, so I sent them to him. Our friend Kerry Altenbernd, who lives and portrays John Brown in Lawrence, Kansas, snapped a few photos of us. (Kerry and Alice were also with us all in the Adirondacks the following weekend, staying right to the very end.)

That afternoon, we drove back to Baltimore, flew back to Albany, and drove back to Martha's house at Westport. Thursday we finished the songs we were co-writing with our students, and Friday we joined them in singing the new songs in a showcase performance with students from other schools who were creating poetry and theatre in residencies with two artist colleagues. Our students wrote 2 powerful songs. One was a reflection on the losses endured by her families, the Thompsons and the Browns, in the voice of John Brown's oldest daughter Ruth Brown Thompson, and the second a call to action against racism and present-day slavery making the connection to the legacy of John Brown. The songs have found their way into our repertoire. The showcase took place at the Stone Church in Elizabethtown, and was preceded with talks by present day abolitionist Kevin Bales, president of FreetheSlaves.net, and Maria Suarez, a wonderful woman who is a survivor of modern day human trafficking and slavery. Their talks, stirring and deeply affecting, set the stage for the rest of the powerful weekend, making the connection between the work of our historical remembrance and direct action today. Please visit http://www.freetheslaves.net/Page.aspx?pid=183 to find out what you can do.

Saturday and Sunday were great days, joining in the symposium in Lake Placid where we shared unforgettable time with biographers, writers, scholars and John Brown people of all kinds. Highlights included hearing historian and author Margaret Washington talk about the African-American experience during the 19th century, professor J.W. Wiley's presentation on John Brown in context through the medium of film, novelist Russell Banks moderating a wonderful panel on Brown's legacy, and, most of all, our too-short time spent with Louis DeCaro Jr., author of one of our favorite biographies, Fire from the Midst of You, and his brilliant and talented wife Michele Sweeting, and son Lou Mike. We had the great pleasure of singing with Michele, who is a powerful singer of Gospel music. Our spontaneous 3-part arrangements of "Wade in the Water," "Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow" and "Amazing Grace" came together as if we'd been singing together for years. What a treat! We are looking forward to spending more time together with their family in NYC. Lou's blog site is a great clearing-house of information on "all things John Brown." [http://abolitionist-john-brown.blogspot.com/] I also spent some quality time with my friend and colleague actor Norman Thomas Marshall who has been portraying John Brown on stage for over 20 years. A number of people remarked that it seemed every time they turned around Norman, Kerry and I were standing in a three-way circle talking.

Seemed the three "John Browns" spent a lot of time "hanging" around together.
Saturday afternoon we sang with Michelle at a graveside ceremony at John Brown Farm in North Elba. Later that evening we were honored by the organizing committee of the John Brown Coming Home events with the presentation of the John Brown Coming Home Humanitarian Award for our work as artist-scholars interpreting and presenting the story of the Browns in theater and music. It was an overwhelming experience.

We shared the evening with the other honorees, J. W. Wiley, for his work as a community activist at SUNY Plattsburgh, and novelist Russell Banks for his work as Adirondack storyteller, particularly his story of the Brown family, and his humanitarian work. What an honor to share the evening with 2 such luminaries! We were also able to sing 2 of our "Sword of the Spirit" songs, "John Copeland" and "Heaven Bound" honoring John Anthony Copeland and Shields Green, Brown's compatriots and freedom fighters executed two weeks after Brown on December 16, 1859.

On Sunday afternoon at the Stone Church we had the pleasure of adding our music to a "speak-choir" presentation of a piece that combined excerpts from Benét's "John Brown's Body" with other writings, directed by our friend Lindsay Pontius. That evening right after the performance the replica coffin was brought to the courthouse in Elizabethtown where it lay in state over night, as in 1859.

Monday Terry portrayed widow Mary Brown as the coffin was brought to the Brown farmhouse in North Elba and set up on a stand in the living room. She, Alice and Naj rode the last two miles to the farm in a genuine, early 19th century horse-drawn buggy, following another horse-drawn wagon carrying the replica coffin. The whole thing nearly went awry when the left side rein came unattached and the horse pulled the wagon off the road and into the ditch. With its right wheels in the ditch the wagon leaned at a dangerous angle and nearly tipped over. Luckily Brendan Mills, site manager at the Farm, was able to re-attach the rein and they were able to get righted again before anyone was hurt. Whew! That evening we performed our stage play "Sword of the Spirit" in the meeting room in the basement of the Brown's barn. The audience was intimate and appreciative, and Terry felt it was one of our best and most spirited performances, inspired as she was by working in that most honored venue.

Tuesday the 8th in the cold and snow Terry again portrayed Mary and I stood in as the Reverend Joshua Young, re-enacting parts of the original funeral, the prayers and eulogy. The most moving part of the day was the exchange of soils. When Mary Brown died in California in 1884, she was buried there in the town of Saratoga. On the 150th anniversary of her husband's burial, Alice brought soil from her great-great-great-grandmother's California grave and mingled it with the soil over the grave of her husband. Simultaneously, Alice's father, in California, mingled soil from John Brown's grave in New York with the soil over Mary's grave in Saratoga. Terry, in character as Mary, held Alice's hand as she completed this very moving, symbolic exchange, the culmination of the remarkable and historic commemoration events this year.

What a year! Now we get back into the rest of our work as musicians for awhile, but be looking for more appearances of John and Mary Brown in "Sword of the Spirit" in 2010, beginning with January 16th in New York City at the People's Voice Café, and at Allegany College in Cumberland, Maryland during African American History Month on Thursday February 25th. We're also looking forward to bringing "Sword", both song cycle and stage play to Kansas next year.
Greg & Terry (Magpie)
"It is not the end of the fight": Brown's Great-Great-Great Granddaughter Closes the John Brown Year at Lake Placid, N.Y.

On December 8, 2009, the closing remarks of the John Brown Coming Home program at Lake Placid, New York, were made by Alice Keesey Mecoy, a direct descendant of John and Mary Brown the abolitionists (through their daughter Anne Brown Adams).

"In Saratoga, California, my father, Paul Meredith Keesey, a great-great grandson of John Brown, and here in North Elba, New York, I, a great-great-great granddaughter of John Brown, participated in the ceremonies commingling the soil from John and Mary Brown's graves. Today, though their bodies are buried on opposite coasts, John and Mary Brown have been reunited by the actions of their descendants.

The reenactment of the burial of John Brown and the commingling of soil between John and Mary Brown's graves represent the culmination of 2009 – The Year of John Brown.

I have been both honored and proud to represent the Brown family as I have traveled to and spoken at many of the sites with John Brown historical significance: Red Bluff, Rohnerville and Saratoga, California; Hudson and Akron, Ohio; Charles Town and, of course, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; and now, North Elba, New York.

Along the journey, I have had the opportunity to connect with many friends I have been corresponding with for years and have met many new friends. Like my ancestor, I do not see strangers, only friends I have not yet met.

The Year of John Brown has been an emotional year for me personally. I have experienced tears of joy and tears of sadness, moments of noise and longer moments of silence, examined the dark ugly side of humanity and celebrated the shining light of humanities greatest moments.

As I have traveled throughout this year, I have felt the presence of my great-great-great- grandfather, John Brown, close by my side - his hand on my shoulder when I needed comforting, his fingers brushing the tears gently from my cheeks when I wept, and laughing with me in my moments of joy, although I laugh much louder than he did.

Now we come to the end of The Year of John Brown – but it is not the end of the fight. John Brown gave the ultimate gift of his life to end slavery, but we are still surrounded by this most evil of institutions.

During my travels, I have often heard people say, "Slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, or if it does exist, it is only in underdeveloped countries. America does not have slavery." To this I answer, "No, you are wrong. Not only does slavery exist in the undeveloped countries, but in your own backyard. Slavery is not the public selling of another human, but rather the complete control of a person by the threat of violence for economic gain. A slave is a human being with no rights! This atrocity still exists today.'"

"But what can I do," you ask, "I am only one person. How much difference can I make?"

You must do everything you can to stop this evil:

Support the efforts of civil rights organizations such as C.O.R.E. (www.core-online.org) and the NAACP (www.naacp.org).

Become active in an Anti-Slavery organization like Free the Slaves (www.freetheslaves.net) or The Frederick Douglass Family Foundation (http://fdff.org).

Tell your friends, your neighbors, your family, your children, your teachers – stop strangers on the street and tell them about slavery and the need to end it.

There are so many things you can do, JUST DO SOMETHING!

As we come to the end of The Year of John Brown, we commemorate his death, celebrate his life and pledge to continue the good fight, remember, John Brown was only one man, and look at what he accomplished!"

1 comment:

Alice Keesey Mecoy said...

Thank you for sharing this amazing year with me, and for your dedicated support of "the old man." Your friendship and support along the way has been one of the high points of the year for me.