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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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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mary Ellen Pleasant Grave Restoration in California: “She was a friend of John Brown”
Special submission by Jean Libby, scholar, documentarian, and editor of Allies for Freedom

DEC. 28--Well over one hundred years after Mary Ellen Pleasant’s burial in the Tulocay Cemetery in Napa, California, the grave of the Mother of Civil Rights in California is going to be restored from damage caused by the E Clampus Vitus fraternal organization.

Mary Ellen Pleasant led a long and active life in support of enslaved African Americans, fugitives and freedom-seekers, and the pioneer black community in San Francisco through the institutional churches. Her role with John Brown was to bring donations from the black community to Chatham, Canada West, Committee of Vigilance that included Mary Ann Shadd and Osborne Anderson in 1858. According to research by Gwen Robinson of the Black Heritage Museum, Mary Pleasant purchased property which was to be used by the liberated people settling there. Chatham and Buxton were already settled by African Americans who were self-liberated, and by free people who wanted to live in a country where they had the rights of citizens.

During the time of the John Brown raid, October 16 – 18, 1859, Mary Ellen Pleasant was an agent for freedom in the Roanoke River area of Virginia and North Carolina. Disguised as a jockey, she would lead groups to the Allegheny Mountains, where Brown intended to establish forts and stations to move people through Pennsylvania and Ohio to the western territories for self-governing communities he called “Good Towns.” Some would continue through Detroit into Canada to join the thriving cooperative settlements begun by missionary societies. When the Harpers Ferry entrance failed, Pleasant remained incognito in familiar St. Louis for a while, then returned to San Francisco and her burgeoning enterprises that made her one of the wealthiest women in California during the 1860s and 1870s. Her fortunes turned in the 1880s, and Mary Ellen spent the rest of her life in poverty. Her dying wish (at age 89) was to have her gravestone contain a single inscription beside her name: “She was a friend of John Brown.”

For an excellent program about Mary Ellen Pleasant, see the four-minute public television history by KVIE, Sacramento, that features Dr. Susheel Bibbs, a performance historian and biographer of Mary Ellen Pleasant.

But what of her grave at the Tulocay Cemetery in Napa, California, where she died in 1904? In the early 1970s, the San Francisco Negro Historical and Cultural Society placed a memorial plaque reading “Mary Ellen Pleasant, Mother of Civil Rights in California 1812-1904. She was a Friend of John Brown.” This was done by arrangement with the cemetery, which is privately operated. In 1978, the E Clampus Vitus fraternity clamped a plaque over the headstone which declared this was the grave of “Mammy Pleasant, a remarkable woman of the Gold Rush.” The damage to the grave was extensive.
Who are the Clampers of E Clampus Vitus? In my honest opinion, they are vandals who arrogantly portray themselves as historical humorists:
Modern-day Clampers typically dress up in garb reminiscent of the gold-rush -- usually a red miner's shirt, and black hat -- and they still hold their unique initiation ceremonies, but now specialize in putting up commemorative plaques of historical and hysterical interest. Along with serious sites that need more reverent commemoration, Clampers have been known to plaque places like saloons, bawdy houses, and other locations that have been "overlooked" by more serious historical societies. (E Clampus Vitus website
“Plaqueing” Mary Ellen Pleasant’s grave with a racially derogatory term (used twice) is hardly reverent commemoration, especially when it was done without permission and the grave damaged. Although there are many plaques from E Clampus Vitus in graveyards in California that have apparently obtained permission, and are not clamped directly on the burials, the intended purpose is to be “the comic strip on the page of California history.” Their arrogant slogan “Right wrongs nobody” can hardly be applied in the case of Mary Ellen Pleasant, a friend of John Brown and the Mother of Civil Rights in California.

On January 15, 2011, from 5-7 p.m. the Napa Valley Museum will hold a Benefit Reception to raise matching funds from the Tulocay Cemetery to replace the damaged Mary Pleasant grave site monument. A wine-tasting by the Black Coyote Wintery, h’orsdeuvres, and brief talk and film screening with Susheel Bibbs are planned. The talk is titled: "Before Martin There Was Mary," Screening: The Legacy of Mary Ellen Pleasant, (Bibbs' Telly Award winning TV short). The museum is at 55 Presidents Circle in Yountville, California. Contact: Pat Alexander, pat@napavalleymuseum.org, telephone 707-944-0500 ext. 106. A $35 donation is asked.
If attendance is not feasible but you would like to support the restoration, please mail your donation to the Napa Valley Museum, P. O. Box 3567, Yountville, CA 94599.

More programs in store by Susheel Bibbs, Ph.D., who has been researching, performing, and writing about Mary Ellen for many years: www.mepleasant.com/


The second event is Oakland's first public screening of Meet Mary Pleasant, Mother of Civil Rights. Did you know Pleasant briefly lived in Oakland and was (of course) the richest African-American resident? We want everyone who missed it on TV in the Bay Area to see this inspiring film there, and it's a perfect time to be inspired by the legacy of Pleasant and MLK. Please pass the word -- ask others to do the same.

Details: The Oakland Museum, January 16, 4:30-6 pm, Lecture Hall, Free (graciously sponsored by Rhodes Scholars and the Museum), 1000 Oak St (at 10th St.), Oakland, CA 94607, (510) 238-2200. History Dept., Contact: Carolee Smith

Program: Brief talk by Dr. Susheel Bibbs entitled "Before Martin Their Was Mary"; Oakland Premiere screening of Bibbs' award winning PBS feature documentary Meet Mary Pleasant (Mother of Civil Rights), Lecture Hall, Oakland Museum (space is limited).

February 5, 2 p.m,. African-American Museum and Library at Oakland-- Exhibit: "Mother of Civil Rights" and a lecture with visuals: "Mary Ellen Pleasant: A Friend of John Brown," Come to learn about Susheel's latest research on Mary Pleasant with abolitionist John Brown. Contact: Rick Moss, rmoss@oaklandlibrary.org

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

FAKE Raiders and Other FRAUDS

A. M. Ross: Liar, Liar,
Pants on Fire
Some of my readers may be aware of my essay, originally published on this blog, about the fabulous Canadian fraud, Alexander M. Ross, who conned his way into history books as a friend and confidant of John Brown.  Ross was a man of science and an anti-slavery advocate, but despite his better qualities, he was a skillful manipulator and liar and certainly never knew Brown.  He didn't let this stop him from inventing a scenario wherein he had known Brown, not to mention corresponded and collaborated with him.  Ross was such a skillful liar that he powerfully deceived Brown's adult children, who generously took him into the bosom of the family by granting him access to letters and documents that he then used to further enhance and frame his deceit.  Ross was not only successful in fooling John Brown Jr., Ruth Brown Thompson, and Annie Brown Adams, but also Richard Hinton, Brown's actual associate and biographer.  Indeed,  he has posthumously fooled a number of historians into using his memoir and betrayed the trust of many a proud Canadian with his claim to being a part of the John Brown story.  Once more, Ross' fraudulence was never exposed in his lifetime, and although one or two scholars may have suspected him (Villard, for one), it was not until Boyd B. Stutler, the godfather of John Brown studies, who finally sniffed out of the evidence that Ross was a fraud, well into the 20th century.  Based upon Stutler’s unpublished critique, when I read through a cache of his letters to John Brown Jr. I was able to reconstruct an extensive account of Ross the fraud, now published in my book, John Brown: The Man Who Lived.

I have on file another fake, although this one evidently was not as successful at rooting himself into the John Brown story.  Richard W. Howard, from Conesett, Rhode Island, claimed to have been among John Brown’s men in Kansas and among his Harper’s Ferry raiders.  Thus far, I have found only two publications conveying Howard’s story, an article published in the Atchison [Kansas] Globe in 1892, and The Historical Record (published under The Early History of Wyoming Valley [Wilkes-Barre, Pa.]) in 1893.  

These articles, based upon interviews with Howard, make the convenient assertion that he was the last living Harper’s Ferry raider—a claim easily made since Howard evidently felt it was safe to concoct his lie since all of Brown’s associates were dead by this time.  Of course, Howard was not as studied a liar as Ross, and evidently either he did not know or had forgotten that Annie Brown Adams, the daughter of the abolitionist, had spent some time in Maryland with the Harper’s Ferry raiders.  In her testimony and reminiscences of the raid, Annie never mentions Howard as being among Brown’s men.  Like Ross, Howard was obviously a fan of John Brown, and admired him so much that he became obsessively determined to weave himself into the story.  In his apocryphal testimony, Howard claimed to have made a daring escape from Harper’s Ferry when the raid failed, first being in the company of Brown’s brave lieutenant, John H. Kagi, who was killed in action.  Howard claimed that when they were fired upon with lethal effect, he escaped, floating in the water among the dead (!), and then made his way to Harrisburg, Pa., then St. Louis, Mo., and finally returned east to his home in Rhode Island.  “He kept quiet until the war broke out when he enlisted in the 9th Rhode Island Regiment,” according to The Historical Record.  Howard further said that he served the Union cause in the Civil War, claiming to have been a spy in Richmond who had “many narrow escapes.”  This is not unlike Ross the liar, who not only claimed to have been John Brown's confidant, but that his tour of the South was made in conjunction with Brown's plans.  While it is possible (but hard to accept without suspicion) that Howard was a Union spy in the South, there is no reason to believe his claim to have been among John Brown’s men.  Some of my readers and colleagues are much more studied in the matter of John Brown's raiders, so I'd be happy to publish a retraction and apology to Col. Howard should evidence be introduced in his defense.  Until then, I'm afraid that he--and A. M. Ross--must be consigned, at least in historical terms, to Dante's Malebolge, the eighth circle of hades prepared for liars, counterfeiters, grafters and other seducers.  But all is not lost.  Being such warm admirers of Brown, Ross and Howard at least will have plenty of time for fisticuffs with Robert Penn Warren and Otto Scott. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

American Uprising Chronicles Long Suppressed History of Black Resistance in New Orleans

On January 8, 1811 a group of determined enslaved Africans set into motion a plan to rise up against slavery and take their destiny into their own hands.  Vowing to cast the shackles that bound them to the sugar cane plantations just west of the Crescent City, these ambitious warriors carved out a place in history for themselves that some have sought to bury for two centuries.

While many are familiar with the stories of uprisings led by Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey and John Brown, a significantly fewer number of people know the  story of revolutionaries Charles Deslondes, Harry Kenner, Kook and Quamana who  led a group of enslaved Africans toward a vulnerable New Orleans during the annual Mardi Gras celebration in hopes of gaining their freedom.

That is about to change.

American Uprising, a new book written by Daniel Rasmussen and slated for an early January 2011 release tells the story of the planning and execution of this uprising and its aftermath.

Rasmussen, a recent Harvard University grad, says he began researching and writing the book about three years ago after stumbling upon the story of the revolt while working on his senior thesis. "In a lot of history about slavery there were only three sentences about this revolt, the largest slave revolt in America," he told The Louisiana Weekly. "Very little was known about it. The more I came upon this in different books, I said to myself 'I've got to figure this out.' I've done a fair amount of investigative journalism so the idea of looking into something that other people didn't know about and I think some people have consciously tried to keep secret was really intriguing to me.

"The more I learned about it, the more fascinated I became," he continued.  "Number one, my thesis was exactly right, this revolt had been covered up for almost 200 years by very powerful people with very strong interests in keeping this secret. As soon as I found that out, I got even more excited."

Rasmussen says that over the course of his research he learned that a lot of what he had been taught about slavery was wrong. "First of all, the revolt shows the slaves as complex, politically organized and highly sophisticated in a way that challenges a lot of what we think about slaves," he said. "That they were able to forge these communication networks, that they were in touch with people from all over the world, that they had real republican political vision...that was really shocking and exciting.

"This revolt demonstrates the heroism of the men that resisted slavery," he added. "These were not complacent victims; these men fought back. I as a 21- to 22-year-old guy at the time fell in love with the story and wanted to tell that story to a broader audience. I was so excited by it and thought that these men deserved to be honored and to have a real place in American history which they don't right now."

To tell that story, Rasmussen had to spend countless hours sifting through public records, military records, archival documents and transcripts from 19th-century court trials. While exhaustive and tedious at times, his painstaking research yielded a treasure trove of information about an important event in the history of New Orleans and the United States.

After learning about the geography of the area and everything he could about the sugar plantations along the Mississippi River, Rasmussen was able to reconstruct the social and economic climate of the time and turn the obscure heroes who revolted against slavery into living, breathing human beings.

He says he was aided greatly by longtime activist and historian Professor Leon Waters, who has led tours of the area where the revolt took place for years and has a website devoted to teaching others about the important uprising and what it means as part of the long, protracted struggle of Africans in America for freedom, justice and self-determination.

According to www.historyhidden.net, Leon A. Waters is a licensed tour guide for Hidden History Tours, a division of Hidden History, a touring, publishing, and research company started by Waters. Waters is also a founding member of the Louisiana Museum of African American History located in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Waters' great great grandfather, Hanniball Waters, was an enslaved African on the James Brown plantation in St. Charles Parish who escaped from the plantation and later served in the 1st Heavy Artillery Corps d'Afrique of the Union Army in the Civil War. By doing so, he avenged the enslaved Africans who died fighting for their freedom during the 1811 slave revolt and played a critical role in Union's ultimate victory over the Confederacy.

For much of his life, Waters has fought for justice and dedicated his time and energies to keeping the memory of the 1811 slave revolt alive and teaching "what they don't teach you in the Great American Schools."

The self-described "archive rat" says he was blown away by the experience of visiting the area where the slave revolt took place. "To set foot on the grounds of these plantations and to walk along the River Road and follow in the footsteps of these slaves 200 years later was incredibly powerful," he said.  "These men are real heroes of mine, so to walk in their footsteps and see what they saw was just so cool."

Some who read American Uprising may be surprised to learn that many of the revolutionaries who fought for their freedom in 1811 were executed and decapitated and that their heads were placed on poles along the levee of the Mississippi River and in Jackson Square (then called Place d'Armes). They may also be surprised by the fact that some of the enslaved Africans held for trials after the revolt were kept at the Cabildo, when served as City Hall in the 19th century or that the federal government compensated the plantation owners for the enslaved Africans they killed and the property destroyed during the 1811 uprising.

In American Uprising, Rasmussen underscores some of the reasons the wealthy and powerful families of southern Louisiana and the government have labored to marginalize if not completely obliterate the story of the 1811 slave revolt and its brutal suppression.

"It's remarkable when you think about hundreds of slaves beheaded and their dismembered corpses dangled in Jackson Square and there's not a single reminder of that," he said. "In fact, it's named after (Andrew) Jackson who himself was a notorious crusher of the Seminoles ...That's sort of an ultimate irony that the place where this happened is not only forgotten but is named after Andrew Jackson."

Rasmussen recounts these incidents but he also tells the triumphant and amusing story of a St. Bernard Parish man who was appalled at the thought of former enslaved African men showing up to claim their "wives" at gunpoint after the tide during the Civil War.

After being told of the ongoing efforts of the family of Henry Glover to find the victim's skull after he was murdered by New Orleans police and his body was burned on the Mississippi River levee, the author acknowledged the "powerful parallel" with the displaying of the rebel slaves' heads on poles along the levee and said the Glover case reflects a long history of racial violence. "I think the best we can do is tell the stories of these men and make people recognize this," Rasmussen said. "I think the more we learn about the past, the more these things are discussed, to know that 100 heads were put on pikes...that's powerful stuff. It makes you question about who we are as a country. We need to deal with that memory and that legacy."

Rasmussen says he hopes American Uprising raises awareness of the 1811 slave revolt and leads to a greater understanding of the nation's past. "Other than Leon Waters and a small people who are actually familiar with the history of New Orleans, almost nobody knows about the revolt," he told The Louisiana Weekly.  "It's almost entirely secret. There's only one marker or monument to the revolt way up in Norco across from McDonald's and that's it.

"You think about Boston or Washington, D.C. where they got the Freedom Trail and historical markers . . . there are no historical markers up on River Road," he continued. "Although the houses of the men who suppressed the revolt are still preserved and celebrated, the slaves who participated in the revolt are almost completely forgotten. There are no roads named after them and no markers in their memory."

Rasmussen hopes to use his book to right that historical wrong and is hoping that its publication in early January leads to the 1811 slave revolt being studied in U.S. schools and that a walking trail with historical markers is eventually established in the area where the uprising took place.

"As with all things, it has to filter down," he said. "First the teacher reads it and hopefully tells the class about it.

"I'm certainly going to try to convey to people who write textbooks that they need to remember the heroism of these men who resisted slavery rather than just talking about the depressing victimization that really doesn't reflect who these slaves were and doesn't really capture what they were able to achieve under slavery. I think that's a tremendous story that we need to pay attention to."

Rasmussen says he wholly agrees with the adage that says "the past is always with us."

"That's absolutely right," he told The Louisiana Weekly. "The story of the slaves involved in the 1811 revolt has a lot to teach us today. This story talks about slaves in a new light. It's the story of powerful Black men and women who stood up to slavery and stood up for their rights.  That's part of a larger story in American history of men and women who stand up for their rights in the face of tremendous oppression. That battle for rights is still going on in this country.

"I think that the more we remember these historical struggles, they can serve as an inspiration and a reminder to us today of the things that we are up against - whether it's racism, greed or blinding nationalism...

"We're still fighting those battles and in order to fight those battles we need to confront the past and deal with it and its legacy in ways that are better than we are doing today."

Rasmussen says he will travel across the country in January and February to talk about the 1811 slave revolt.

Rasmussen is scheduled to speak at the Historic New Orleans Collection (533 Royal Street, New Orleans, LA) on January 6, will visit the St. Charles Parish Historical Society and the St. John the Baptist Parish Library (2920 Highway 51 LaPlace, LA) on Jan. 7 and will also make an appearance at the Garden District Book Shop (2727 Prytania St.) in New Orleans during his visit to the city.


DANIEL RASMUSSEN ’09 found his senior thesis topic where the history books left off: scattered but brief references to a slave rebellion in New Orleans in 1811 piqued his interest junior year. When the history and literature concentrator realized that, with a militia of some 500 black slaves, this was the single largest and most tactically sophisticated slave revolt in American history, and that not only this fact, but the event itself, had gone largely unexamined, he knew he had his topic.

The thesis went on to win a Hoopes Prize for excellence in undergraduate research, but Rasmussen wanted to make sure that the story had readers beyond the prize committee. “This is a story that needs to be told,” he says. “This is a tremendously important moment in American history, and a very important moment in African-American history. It undermines our understanding of slavery as depressing, and of the slaves as victims. These slaves were heroes.”

Since graduation, Rasmussen has been working as an analyst at a private equity firm in the Boston area and devoting his free time to expanding his thesis into a book. The result, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, will be published by HarperCollins in January.

The book ranges geographically from the origins of both the slaves in West Africa and the planters in France and Spain to their collision in the early-nineteenth-century Amer­­ican South, narrating not just the event it­self, but the ideologies that went into making it, the implications of its failure and brutal suppres­­sion, and the subsequent silenc­ing of the entire story by those in power. “If other slaves found out about this, it was not going to be great for Louisiana, the Deep South, and the sugar economy,” Rasmussen explains. “This goes against the fundamental premise of plantation slavery, which is that slaves are not people.”

His thesis, “Violent Visions: Slaves, Sugar, and the 1811 German Coast Uprising,” left out a lot of material, and he was eager to retell the story in its fullest form. “I think of the thesis as the ‘Google Maps’ version; the book is sort of the ‘Google Street View,’” he says. “For the thesis, writing the first definitive account of the largest slave uprising in American history was enough, but for a popular audience you have to do more—you have to explain why it matters, who these people were. I want this to speak to people who are in high school, people who are retired, people who are interested in American history and never knew about this.”

Fletcher University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in an advance review, “This book would be a major accomplishment for any historian; for a historian at such an early stage in his career, it is breathtaking.” Yet for the moment, Rasmussen is happy simply to be where he is. “I considered graduate school, but going to grad school is like entering the priesthood—you have to know it’s the perfect thing for you,” he says. “I certainly want to continue to write. I’m not yet sure what my next project will be…I want to see how this one goes, how it’s received, what people like and don’t like about it.”

Bravo, Mr. Rasmussen!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Larry Lawrence, Chairman, The John Brown Society Writes

Friday, December 24, 2010


Thomas Jefferson, in "Notes on the State of Virginia" (1787), made the same two arguments against freeing the slaves that whites would later make against ending Jim Crow:
1. Race war:
                Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites;
                ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained;
                new provocations;
               the real distinctions nature has made;
                and many other circumstances,
will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.
2. Race mixing:
Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.
He compares blacks to whites. Here is some of it:
Blacks are ugly:
                Whites have "flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form".
                Even black men prefer white women over their own, just as orangutans prefer black women over their own.
Blacks smell bad:
They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour.
Blacks like sex more but do not love as deeply:
They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.
Blacks do not suffer as deeply:
Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them.
Blacks are better at music, but:
Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.
Blacks are brave, but:
this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.
Black intelligence:
in memory they are equal to the whites;
in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid;
and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.
Jefferson compares them to the white slaves of Rome who, despite living under crueler conditions, have produced great thinkers and writers - like Terence, Epictetus and Phaedrus - unlike blacks.
Blacks have good moral character. Yes. Apart from their lack of respect for property laws, which is understandable, there are:
numerous instances of the most rigid integrity, and as many as among their better instructed masters, of benevolence, gratitude, and unshaken fidelity.
In conclusion he says more study is required, so:
I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. ... This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.

Source:"Black People According to Thomas Jefferson." Abagond (14 Dec. 2010)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

by Matthew Pinsker

The Underground Railroad was a metaphor. Yet many textbooks treat it as an official name for a secret network that once helped escaping slaves. The more literal-minded students end up questioning whether these fixed escape routes were actually under the ground. But the phrase “Underground Railroad” is better understood as a rhetorical device that compared unlike things for the purpose of illustration. In this case, the metaphor described an array of people connected mainly by their intense desire to help other people escape from slavery. Understanding the history of the phrase changes its meaning in profound ways.

Even to begin a lesson by examining the two words “underground” and “railroad” helps provide a tighter chronological framework than usual with this topic. There could be no “underground railroad” until actual railroads became familiar to the American public–in other words, during the 1830s and 1840s. There had certainly been slave escapes before that period, but they were not described by any kind of railroad moniker. The phrase also highlights a specific geographic orientation. Antebellum railroads existed primarily in the North–home to about 70 percent of the nation’s 30,000 miles of track by 1860. Slaves fled in every direction of the compass, but the metaphor packed its greatest wallop in those communities closest to the nation’s whistle-stops.

Looking into the phrase “Underground Railroad” also suggests two essential questions: who coined the metaphor? And why would they want to compare and inextricably link a wide-ranging effort to support runaway slaves with an organized network of secret railroads?
The answers can be found in the abolitionist movement. Abolitionists, or those who agitated for the immediate destruction of slavery, wanted to publicize, and perhaps even exaggerate, the number of slave escapes and the extent of the network that existed to support those fugitives. According to the pioneering work of historian Larry Gara, abolitionist newspapers and orators were the ones who first used the term “Underground Railroad” during the early 1840s, and they did so to taunt slaveholders(1). To some participants this seemed a dangerous game. Frederick Douglass, for instance, claimed to be appalled. “I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the underground railroad,” he wrote in his Narrative in 1845, warning that “by their open declarations” these mostly Ohio-based (“western”) abolitionists were creating an “upperground railroad (2).

Publicity about escapes and open defiance of federal law only spread in the years that followed, especially after the controversial Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Anxious fugitives and their allies now fought back with greater ferocity. Douglass himself became more militant. In September 1851, he helped a former slave named William Parker escape to Canada after Parker had spearheaded a resistance in Christiana, Pennsylvania that left a Maryland slaveholder dead and federal authorities in disarray. The next year in a fiery speech at Pittsburgh, the famous orator stepped up the rhetorical attack, vowing, “The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is to make half a dozen or more dead kidnappers” (3). This level of defiance was not uncommon in the antislavery North and soon imperiled both federal statute and national union. Between 1850 and 1861, there were only about 350 fugitive slave cases prosecuted under the notoriously tough law, and none in the abolitionist-friendly New England states after 1854 (4). White Southerners complained bitterly while abolitionists grew more emboldened.

Yet students often seem to imagine runaway slaves cowering in the shadows while ingenious “conductors” and “stationmasters” devised elaborate secret hiding places and coded messages to help spirit fugitives to freedom. They make few distinctions between North and South, often imagining that slave patrollers and their barking dogs chased terrified runaways from Mississippi to Maine. Instead, the Underground Railroad deserves to be explained in terms of sectional differences and the coming of the Civil War.

One way to grasp the Underground Railroad in its full political complexity is to look closely at the rise of abolitionism and the spread of free black vigilance committees during the 1830s. Nineteenth-century American communities employed extra-legal “vigilance” groups whenever they felt threatened. During the mid-1830s, free black residents first in New York and then across other Northern cities began organizing vigilant associations to help them guard against kidnappers. Almost immediately, however, these groups extended their protective services to runaway slaves. They also soon allied themselves with the new abolitionist organizations, such as William Lloyd Garrison’s Anti-Slavery Society. The most active vigilance committees were in Boston, Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia led by now largely forgotten figures such as Lewis Hayden, George DeBaptiste, David Ruggles, and William Still
 (5). Black men typically dominated these groups, but membership also included whites, such as some surprisingly feisty Quakers, and at least a few women. These vigilance groups constituted the organized core of what soon became known as the Underground Railroad. Smaller communities organized too, but did not necessarily invoke the “vigilance” label, nor integrate as easily across racial, religious and gender lines. Nonetheless, during the 1840s when William Parker formed a “mutual protection” society in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, or when John Brown created his League of Gileadites in Springfield, Massachusetts, they emulated this vigilance model.

These committees functioned more or less like committees anywhere—electing officers, holding meetings, keeping records, and raising funds. They guarded their secrets, but these were not covert operatives in the manner of the French Resistance. In New York, the vigilance committee published an annual report. Detroit vigilance agents filled newspaper columns with reports about their monthly traffic. Several committees released the addresses of their officers. One enterprising figure circulated a business card that read, “Underground Railroad Agent” (6). Even sensitive material often got recorded somewhere. A surprising amount of this secret evidence is also available for classroom use. One can explore letters detailing Harriet Tubman’s comings and goings, and even a reimbursement request for her worn-out shoes by using William Still’s The Underground Railroad (1872), available online in a dozen different places, and which presents the fascinating materials he collected as head of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. Anyone curious about how much it cost to help runaways can access the site where social studies teacher Dean Eastman and his students at Beverly High School have transcribed and posted the account books of the Boston vigilance committee. And the list of accessible Underground Railroad material grows steadily (7).

But how did these Northern vigilance groups get away with such impudence? How could they publicize their existence and risk imprisonment by keeping records that detailed illegal activities? The answer helps move the story into the 1840s and 1850s and offers a fresh way to for teachers to explore the legal and political history of the sectional crisis with students. Those aiding fugitives often benefited from the protection of state personal liberty laws and from a general reluctance across the North to encourage federal intervention or reward Southern power. In other words, it was all about states’ rights—Northern states’ rights. As early as the 1820s, Northern states led by Pennsylvania had been experimenting with personal liberty or anti-kidnapping statutes designed to protect free black residents from kidnapping, but which also had the effect of frustrating enforcement of federal fugitive slave laws (1793 and 1850). In two landmark cases –Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) and Ableman v. Booth (1859)—the Supreme Court threw out these Northern personal liberty protections as unconstitutional. 

Students accustomed to equating states’ rights with South Carolina may be stunned to learn that it was the Wisconsin Supreme Court asserting the nullification doctrine in the mid-1850s. They may also be shocked to discover that a federal jury in Philadelphia had acquitted the lead defendant in the Christiana treason trial within about fifteen minutes. These Northern legislatures and juries were, for the most part, indifferent to black civil rights, but they were quite adamant about asserting their own states’ rights during the years before the Civil War. This was the popular sentiment exploited by Northern vigilance committees that helped sustain their controversial work on behalf of fugitives.

That is also why practically none of the Underground Railroad agents in the North experienced arrest, conviction, or physical violence. No prominent Underground Railroad operative ever got killed or spent significant time in jail for helping fugitives once they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line or the Ohio River. Instead, it was agents operating across the South who endured the notorious late-night arrests, long jail sentences, torture, and sometimes even lynching that made the underground work so dangerous. In 1844, for example, a federal marshal in Florida ordered the branding of Jonathan Walker, a sea captain who had been convicted of smuggling runaways, with the mark “S.S.” (“slave-stealer”) on his hand. That kind of barbaric punishment simply did not happen in the North.

What did happen, however, was growing
 rhetorical violence. The war of words spread. Threats escalated. Metaphors hardened. The results then shaped the responses the led to war. By reading and analyzing the various Southern secession documents from the winter of 1860-61, one will find that nearly all invoke the crisis over fugitives (8). The battle over fugitives and those who aided them was a primary instigator for the national conflict over slavery. Years afterward, Frederick Douglass dismissed the impact of the Underground Railroad in terms of the larger fight against slavery, comparing it to “an attempt to bail out the ocean with a teaspoon” (9). But Douglass had always been cool to the public value of the metaphor. Measured in words, however —through the antebellum newspaper articles, sermons, speeches, and resolutions generated by the crisis over fugitives—the “Underground Railroad” proved to be quite literally a metaphor that helped launch the Civil War.
Matthew Pinsker is Associate Professor of History and Pohanka Chair in American Civil War History at Dickinson College. He has written two books about Abraham Lincoln and currently is working on a book about the Underground Railroad.

(1) Larry Gara, The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (1961; Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996), 143-4.
(2) Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845), 101. 
(3) Frederick Douglass, “The Fugitive Slave Law: Speech to the National Free Soil Convention in Pittsburgh," Frederick Douglass' Paper (August 11, 1852).  Frederick Douglass Project (Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester).
(4) See the appendix in Stanley W. Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law: 1850-1860 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1970), 199-207.
(5) Out of these four notable black leaders, only David Ruggles has an adult biography available in print –and it was published this year. See Graham Russell Gao Hodges,David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
(6) Jermain Loguen of Syracuse, New York. See Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 410.
(7) For these materials and others, visit the Additional Resources Page (below).
(8) See secession documents online at The Avalon Project from Yale Law School.
(9) Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Hartford, CT: Park Publishing, 1881), 272.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


This segment was broadcast on the PBS program, "Antiques Road Show" sometime in 2005, though I'm sorry that I do not have specifics.  It features a direct descendant of John Brown who has brought two letters and a water-stained image of Brown to be appraised.  My guess is that the woman is a descendant through Salmon Brown, the son of John Brown and his second wife, Mary Day Brown.  I would very much like to obtain either a copy or a literal transcription of these letters, although one of them has been published in years past.  If she happens to read this, I hope she will get in touch with me, or with her cousin, Alice Keesey Mecoy, who keeps a wonderful blog called "John Brown Kin." If I can recover the specific information about this episode, I'll post it here.  By the way, Richard Lecky, the agent from Christie's Auctioners who is discussing the letters here, does not know or cannot say how to reach this descendant, so please don't contact him.  Mr. Lecky does a decent job here, although he mistakes the name of Brown's former Ohio business partner as "Samuel" Perkins, when it was actually Simon Perkins (Jr.).  He also has to throw in the Pottawatomie killings--without context, of course. 

Addendum: Jean Libby Writes

Thank you for posting this video from Antiques Roadshow. As always, my interest is following the photographs.  This is the first time I have seen a print inscribed by Brown on June 22, 1859.  A previous one, June 18, 1859, is in the Gilder Lehrman Center.  (It is Image 12 in Jean's Photo Chronology, which every student of John Brown should have in her/his library--LD).

Villard documents Brown's movements in Ohio on June 18 and June 22 (pages 400-402).  June 18 he is at West Andover; June 22 he is in Akron, at Jason's home.  JB is picking up his son Owen, traveling with Oliver and Jeremiah Anderson.  He is documented at Pittsburgh, Bedford, and then in Hagerstown, Md. on June 30.  He signs the hotel register as Isaac Smith & Sons.  Oliver signs it too, for himself and Owen.

Therefore, I believe the descendant in the video is more likely from John Jr., or Jason, than Salmon.  Another possibility is Ruth.  That is because most of the photo prints that have surfaced in the last 100 years or so have come from her and her descendants.  She had access to the photos on several occasions with her brothers, including the time she lived on Put-in-Bay (Ohio) in the 1870s.

After 1863, when Salmon left for California, she did not see him again.  An 1888 reunion with JB Jr., Owen,Jason, and Ruth, also younger sisters Annie, Sarah, and Ellen, in southern California, was not attended by Salmon.  His sons were there in force, however. Perhaps he was suffering from the bad fall he had from a horse that permanently crippled him.

I hope this descendant can be found.  Best regards and thank you again for your excellent blog with such treasures,

Jean Libby

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Did john brown boycott slave labor products?

 There is no record of Brown participating in a formal boycott of slave labor products, although there is an incident of him personally protesting the use of certain sacks that were being used by wool manufacturers because they were produced in the South by the labor of enslaved people. As a biographer of the man, I would assume that Brown would personally refuse to patronize any business that flagrantly supported slavery or sold slave labor products. However, he was not a joiner, so if there were organized boycotts at the time, it is unlikely that one would find his name on any such movement roster. Lastly, I do not know enough about the options that consumers had in the mid-19th century in regard to vital products, and what they did if, for example, the only cotton they could purchase was produced by slave labor. Today we have alternatives and substitutes as consumers if we object to certain products. Did the Brown family have alternatives when it came to cotton, for instance; and if they didn't, does that mean they grudgingly used cotton that was produced by slave labor? I more than suspect that John Brown would have deeply resented any product of slave labor, but I do not know enough about antebellum life and culture to that extent to say what alternatives were taken at the time.