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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, March 31, 2010

Owen Brown's Stolen Colt Revolver Restored to Museum by Gun Collector

Robert Hassinger bid farewell on Tuesday to an old friend, a revolver whose craftsmanship, hallmarks and engraving led him on a fascinating quest and fed his lifelong passion for American history. "I like to do research," said the retired insurance investigator, who returned an 1851 Colt "Navy" revolver to the Chicago museum from which it was stolen 62 years ago.

Inside the third-floor boardroom of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, he donned a pair of white gloves and carefully removed the gleaming revolver from a brown valise. "There's no pitting, no rust," Mr. Hassinger, 83, said as he showed it to Libby Mahoney, chief curator of the Chicago History Museum, who was visibly impressed by its excellent condition.

"I can't really believe that it's resurfaced. You're an extremely honest person," said Kathleen Plourd, the museum's collections director. At a gun show here in 1991, Mr. Hassinger traded an 1860 Army revolver for the earlier 1851 Colt model because its low serial number piqued his interest. He began researching its history, accumulating information in a neat binder.

While paging through Man at Arms magazine in 2001, the North Hills man read an article headlined "John Brown's Colt Navies." John Brown, a zealous abolitionist, led an ill-conceived [sic]* raid in 1859 on a U.S. military arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Va. Afterward, he was tried and hanged. Three of his sons also died in the anti-slavery movement. But Brown's third son, Owen, escaped from Harpers Ferry, fleeing to Canada and later returning to the United States. The article reported that Owen Brown's gun, stolen in 1948 from the Chicago History Museum, remained missing and had a serial number of 43156.

Mr. Hassinger knew his Colt revolver bore the initials O.B. on its backstrap. He figured the initials were those of the soldier who used the gun but was never able to match the letters to anyone, even after examining regiment rosters. On the day he got it, Mr. Hassinger showed the O.B. initials to his wife, joking, "This stands for 'Oh, boy, look at the neat gun I got.' "

As he matched the serial number to his revolver, he was electrified by the realization that he held Owen Brown's gun in his hand. Now, he faced a dilemma. "I didn't know what to do," he said. Mr. Hassinger consulted Ronald J. Erhart, a lawyer he knew from the Greater Pittsburgh Civil War Roundtable, who contacted the Chicago History Museum.

He got no response. "Maybe they were afraid I was after some money. I wanted some proof that it was stolen," Mr. Hassinger said. "No claim was made to the insurance company because they thought the gun wasn't worth anything." Mr. Hassinger then consulted Mike Kraus, curator of Soldiers & Sailors. A collector of Civil War artifacts since boyhood, Mr. Kraus believes the revolver is worth between $100,000 and $250,000. Through colleagues, Mr. Kraus reached Ms. Mahoney, Chicago History Museum's chief curator. "She was very interested in talking to me, especially when she heard the phrase, 'Owen Brown's pistol,' " Mr. Kraus recalled.

Ms. Mahoney sent documents showing the Chicago Historical Society accepted the revolver in the 1920s from Frank Logan, a collector of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln memorabilia. The packet included a newspaper account of the gun's theft. That proof satisfied Mr. Hassinger. "I realized that it belonged to them and that it had to go back," he said. But that didn't make it any easier for him to let go of his crown jewel. "This is what makes me want to get up in the morning. I would love to own this, display it and give talks on it. It's a symbol of the development of this country," Mr. Hassinger said.

Collectors, he said, don't really own their artifacts. "We are just custodians of them during our lifetime." He's sad because Chicago History Museum officials "couldn't guarantee that it would go on display." They also declined to reimburse him for the costs he incurred in acquiring and insuring the gun. "That was never a condition of returning it, [but] why couldn't they just hand me $500 or even $100?" he said.

According to Mr. Hassinger's research, the Army adopted this gun in 1855. The 1st and 2nd U.S. Cavalry were the first regiments to carry it. An image of ships engraved on the gun's cylinder portray a fictional encounter between the Texan and Mexican navies, leading soldiers to call it a "Navy" revolver. Samuel Colt, who invented an innovative revolver, ordered this model to be engraved to honor the Republic of Texas because the first revolver he produced in 1836 was later used by Texas Rangers in fighting Comanches. It was called a "belt pistol" because at that time, soldiers stuck it in their belts.

Mr. Hassinger has a theory on how the revolver wound up in Owen Brown's hands. His father purchased a number of Navy revolvers while living in Lawrence, Kan., from 1856-58. Owen Brown joined his father there, participating in conflicts to prevent that state from becoming a slave state. Kansas joined the Union as a free state in 1861.  "The soldier it was issued to may have lost it or may have deserted and sold it," Mr. Hassinger said, adding that the Army rarely recorded which guns were issued to specific soldiers. Or, in 1856, Owen Brown may have fought with a member of the U.S. Army at a Kansas town called Black Jack, and taken the gun from a soldier there. Black Jack is about 20 miles south of Lawrence, the scene of bloody skirmishes over slavery.

The right side of the gun's grip bears the initials of Robert Henry Kirkwood Whiteley, who headed the arsenal on Governor's Island in New York. His stamp meant that the gun had passed inspection and authorized payment for it.

Some time after 1859, Owen Brown returned from Canada to be near his sister, Ruth Brown Thompson, who lived in California. After he died in January 1889, his sister sold weapons that belonged to him and his father to Mr. Logan, who donated the weapons to the Chicago Historical Society.

There's a strong market for Civil War memorabilia. "Stolen property remains stolen property," said Mr. Erhart. "He could have sold it to somebody in the black market. He understood that he had a duty to return it to the rightful owner." Today, Mr. Erhart said, many museums emphasize World War II, and the Civil War's significance is missed by many Americans. "They wouldn't know Owen Brown from Charlie Brown."

Mr. Erhart hoped this gun is displayed, for the sake of Mr. Hassinger and history buffs like him. "It may very well never see the light of day again and that hurts him. He has no say in what they do."

Source: Marylynne Pitz, “Historian reunites abolitionist's gun with museum,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette online (Mar. 31, 2010)

* Editor’s note: The notion that the raid on Harper’s Ferry was “ill-conceived” is a prominent assumption among those who have not studied Brown’s plans sufficiently, such as the author of this article. Note that there are other errors in this article as well: Owen did not “join” his father in Kansas; to the contrary, John Brown “joined” his sons in the terrorist-infested territory in the fall of 1855, whereas Owen and several other brothers had gone to the territory in 1854 after their father’s partnership with Simon Perkins Jr. of Akron, Ohio, was mutually concluded. Likewise, the article incorrectly conveys the impression that after the Harper’s Ferry raid, Owen Brown fled to Canada. In fact, Owen found his way back to northwestern Pennsylvania (where he and his family had lived from 1826-35), and remained “hidden” there while gainfully employed for some time. Owen, who never married, lived for extended times with his brothers, John Brown Jr. and Jason, at their respective homes in Ohio, and later moved with Jason to California. Most of the Brown family moved west during the Civil War and were joined later by Henry and Ruth (Brown) Thompson, who settled in Pasadena, Calif. Owen eventually joined his older sister Ruth and brother-in-law Henry there. The history of John Brown’s guns has been a subject far more explored by gun collectors and enthusiasts than by historians. My own assumption is that Owen’s “navy” revolver was among two hundred revolvers that John Brown received from T. W. Carter, Chicopee Falls, Mass., an arms manufacturer with whom he had corresponded as early as 1856 in expression of anxiety over the rise of pro-slavery terrorism in the Territory. According to correspondence held in the Kansas State Historical Society, two hundred revolvers were shipped to Brown via Iowa City, Ia., in May 1857. Brown did not pay for these guns; the bill for the weapons was sent to George Stearns, the prosperous New England anti-slavery businessman who shortly became one of Brown’s “Secret Six” supporters. [See T. W. Carter to Capt. John Brown, May 25, 1857, John Brown Collection #299, Box 1, Folder 23, Kansas State Historical Society.]--LD

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Naj Wikoff on the State of the Farm: So Far, So Good, but the Gov May Veto

The good news is that both the Senate and the Assembly have voted to put back $11.3 million to keep of NYS arks and historic sites open. On the other hand, the Governor is speaking of a veto, especially in light of the Assembly’s putting back $600 million for education. We could be caught in such a veto.

Thus now the focus must be on the Governor (and to thank our Senators and Assembly reps)

David A. PatersonBold

State Capitol

Albany, NY 12224


Email: www.state.ny.us/governor/contact/GovernorContactForm.php

We are two thirds of the way there. Keep up the good work.


Points to make:

• Put back $11.3 million in the NYS Parks, Recreation & Historic Places budget

• No state park or historic site has been closed in 125 years, even during the Great Depression (indeed in hard times, such places are needed more than ever)

• State parks and historic sites attract 57 million visitors annually, 2 million more than last year

• State parks and historic sites support over 20,000 jobs and generate over $1.9 billion in economic activity

• State parks & historic sites promote good health, they provide places for people to walk, canoe, swim, and ski which helps keep New Yorkers healthy and health costs down

• Historic sites are vital educational resources for schools; they bring history alive to millions of school children

• The John Brown Farm is a sacred site of national importance. 11 Black and white men, who gave their lives 150 years ago to end slavery for over 4.2 million people, are buried there.

• The John Brown Farm has been continuously open to the public since it became a State historic site in 1896

• The John Brown Farm remains a vital focal point for events that draw attention to the over 27 million world-wide living in slavery and 17,000 brought into this country each year through human trafficking

• Parks, Recreation and Historic Places have already had their budget cut 25 percent ($46 million), are willing to absorb an additional $18 million, but a still additional $11.3 million, which will result in the closure of 88 parks and historic sites, is too much and represents an unequal and unfair burden.

Monday, March 22, 2010


The Failure of Historical Memory: A Black Governor and Black Clergy Leaders Don't Seem to Mind the Idea of Closing John Brown's Farm

It is most unfortunate that David Patterson came into the governor's seat of the State of New York, not only as a result of the tragic downfall of former Governor Spitzer, but that he should take the seat of power at a time of increasing financial crisis for the state. One must sympathize with Governor Patterson, who inherited this office when New York was in such poor economic condition. One must also consider the pressures and burdens of his position before judging him too harshly.

On the other hand, there is something particularly unfortunate in the fact that an African American political leader in New York would so easily put John Brown's Farm, an official historic site, in jeopardy in an attempt to manage the state's current financial crisis. Frankly, I wonder if Governor Patterson would have considered closing down a historic site pertaining to a prominent black leader, especially one that was fairly inexpensive to operate as is the John Brown Farm site. I seriously doubt that Governor Patterson would do so, and the fact that his intention of closing down the John Brown Farm has met with little or no protest from the black community is indicative of an unfortunate shift in historical memory.

There was a time when blacks not only knew John Brown as a vital figure in the history of African American struggle, but considered him a heroic figure. There was a time when black churches, organizations, and pilgrims would make their way to the John Brown Farm to visit the graves of Old Brown, his sons, and raiders. Had the governor of the state then decided to close down the John Brown Farm for budget reasons, the hue and cry that would have arisen from the black community would have been deafening and protest most certainly would have arisen across the state, if not across the nation. Those days are quite evidently gone.

Governor Patterson's plan to close down the John Brown Farm (among other state parks and historic sites) reflects the man's own indifference to the legacy of Brown and its historic meaning to the black community. For even if Governor Patterson really had to close down the John Brown Farm site (and we really do not think it is necessary), at least one would have expected some words of regret, some sign of consciousness as to the historic value of the John Brown Farm to all of New Yorkers, but especially African American New Yorkers. Instead, Governor Patterson apparently has said nothing, not even a politician's note of regret. He gives the impression that John Brown's Farm might as well as be Johnny Appleseed's farm for all he cares.

Similarly, none of the "big name" black clergy leaders in New York State or nation-wide have expressed even a sentiment of regret over the Governor's plan to shut down the Brown farm. This is particularly true of the leading Reverends, Calvin Butts, Al Sharpton, Floyd Flake, and Alfonse Bernard, and others, not even the Baptist Minister's Conference of Greater New York -- none of them have even gone on record even to express regret over the Governor's strategy as it touches the John Brown Farm.

Of course, we understand that 150 years have lapsed and during that time, African American leaders have arisen in the continuing struggle against injustice and white supremacy in all its forms. Time stands still for no one, not even the most heroic figures in history. One should not expect black people in the 21st century to consider John Brown a "front burner" historical figure when there are so many black leaders to remember. Nor would one expect African American youth to be any more diligent than their counterparts in other communities, all of whom are apparently more concerned with the fashion and celebrity culture of our day than the legacies of freedom.

But none of this lessens the sad note of failure of historical memory as it pertains to blacks and John Brown the abolitionist. Had he become obsolete because of the disappearance of racism and the triumph of justice in the land, one could at least take comfort in knowing that a society without racism may not need to remember the heroes of freedom. But we have hardly arrived as a nation, blacks still deal with systemic racism and stubborn cultural and social prejudices against Africanity are so deeply embedded in this culture. This is why we still need to remember John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany, David Walker, Gerrit Smith, William Lloyd Garrison, and many others. Their struggle --often to the death or nearly so--is our inheritance, the legacy that this nation can best be proud of, can best find as a paradigm upon which to work in the present.

No one is asking black leaders to forego their community's social, cultural, and political priorities. No one would make the unreasonable and narcissistic request that John Brown somehow be elevated and prioritized in black memory. There are many men and women, not a few of Brown's own contemporaries, who equally deserve to be remembered and saluted. But if the judgment of a myriad black forefathers and foremothers was correct, then John Brown was a friend worth remembering. Certainly we must credit New York State Senator Kevin S. Parker for presenting a resolution to preserve the John Brown Farm. Parker and those working with him have shown not only a great sense of historical sensitivity but bravery in standing up for the John Brown Farm in the absence of popular and moral leadership from other black leaders in the state, especially from the church.

I once heard a proverb, "An African never forgets." If there is any truth in that statement, then the ancestors have not forgotten Old John Brown. Perhaps they will call their descendants to look back . . . and remember.

October 16th
PerhapsYou will rememberJohn Brown.John BrownWho took his gun,Took twenty-one companions White and Black,Went to shoot your way to freedomWhere two rivers meetAnd the hills of theNorthAnd the hills of theSouthLook slow at one another-And diedFor your sake.Now that you areMany years free,And the echo of the Civil WarHas passed away,And Brown himselfHas long been tried at law,Hanged by the neck,And buried in the ground-Since Harpers FerryIs alive with ghosts today,Immortal raiders Come again to town-PerhapsYou will recallJohn Brown.Langston Hughes

John Brown Farm closure a bad plan

Gov. Paterson’s proposed park closures in New York state is one of the most ridiculous things I have heard of in a very long time. In these times of economic strife, people losing their jobs and losing their homes, travel for most will be limited. Vacations, day trips, family outings are becoming fewer, mainly because of the lack of funds to do these family-oriented rituals. But these are very important to the nucleus, growth and bonding for the family units, and now our governor wants to close many of the parks.

I see many other options to make up the lack of state funds. Review and reduce or eliminate excessive spending, trips, salaries. Close agencies: for example, the Adirondack Park Agency. This is one agency that has grown out of control by not only regulating state land but also private property, telling property owners what they can and can’t build and even how to enjoy their property. Just think how much money can be saved by eliminating this agency. There can be leases to the public for the operations of parts of these parks (i.e. food services, events, tours, skiing, boating, fishing). All of these would help generate funds to the state and provide a valuable service to the general public, leading to higher visitation of the areas.

Let’s look at one of the announced closures. John Brown’s Farm in the Adirondacks. Here is a place that is beyond belief and has a lot of meaning to all, except the governor. For anyone that does not know John Brown, John Brown (May 9, 1800 to Dec. 2, 1859) was an American abolitionist and folk hero who advocated and practiced armed insurrection as a means to end all slavery. I find that this proposed closure being announced during Black History Month is a slap in the face for freedom. Where is this man’s thinking? How can he want to close the parks and take away the public’s ability to visit and enjoy all of these wonderful places?

Scot Goldman
Suffern, N.Y.

Source: Letters, Lake Placid News [Lake Placid, N.Y.], Mar. 22, 2010

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

John Brown's Raiders Remembered: Hazlett and Stevens Hanged March 15, 1860

[photo by Kevin Gilbert, Herald Mail]

George Rutherford lifts wreaths Tuesday after a ceremony commemorating the 1860 execution in Charles Town, W.Va., of two of John Brown’s raiders [photo by Kevin Gilbert, Herald Mail]

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — The trip to the gallows for the last of John Brown’s raiders — Albert Hazlett and Aaron Stevens — was commemorated in Charles Town Tuesday, exactly 150 years after it happened.

The ceremony follows a re-enactment on Dec. 2, 2009, of the hanging of abolitionist Brown at the same spot where he died Dec. 2, 1859.

Four of Brown’s cohorts in the Oct. 16, 1859, raid at Harpers Ferry, W.Va. — Edwin Coppoc, John Cook, John Copeland and Shield Green — were hanged Dec. 16, 1859. Those historical deaths were commemorated at the gallows site Dec. 16, 2009.

One difference between the three events was that Hazlett and Stevens had to walk the few blocks from the then-jail across the street from the Jefferson County Courthouse to the gallows in what was then a field. The site is now the front lawn of an elegant brick home owned by Gene and Jo Ann Perkins at 515 S. Samuel St.

Brown, Coppoc, Cook, Copeland and Green rode to their fate sitting on their caskets in a farm wagon.

Stevens, 29, fought in the Mexican War, according to one history. He joined Brown in Kansas and followed him to Virginia, according to a program outlining Tuesday’s event in Charles Town. He drilled Brown’s raiders in military tactics before the raid on Harpers Ferry.

Hazlett, 22, fought with the Free State Forces in Kansas, where he joined up with Brown in 1858.

More than 200 people watched the re-enactment of Brown’s execution on Dec. 2, 2009. About 60 were on hand for the ceremony marking the hangings of Copeland, Cook, Green and Coppoc. On Tuesday, about 25 onlookers gathered to commemorate the deaths of Hazlett and Stevens.

A two-thirds-scale representation of the gallows was on-site for the first two events, but was not there Tuesday. Two commemorative wreaths were set up in place of the scaffold.

Five members of American Legion Post 102 in Charles Town supplied the military presence, including a gun salute, in honor of Hazlett and Stevens. It was followed by the playing of taps.

Robert O’Connor, local historian and author, read an account of Hazlett’s and Stevens’ last moments:

“The prisoners ascended the gallows with alacrity with ropes binding their elbows. Hoods were placed over their heads. Ropes were placed around their necks ... both men fell at the same time. Hazlett died without pain. Stevens died hard. The rope slipped behind his neck and he was sometime dying.”

O’Connor closed by saying, “Aaron Stevens, Albert Hazlett, we remember you today.”

Source: Richard F. Belisle, "Anniversary of hanging of the last of Brown’s raiders is marked." The Herald-Mail [Hagerstown, MD] on line, Mar. 16, 2010.

Monday, March 15, 2010

THE JOHN BROWN FARM: The Best Strategy is to Keep All NYS Parks & Sites Open--Naj Wikoff (12 March '10)

About 200 people attended the NYS Office of Parks Recreation & Historic Places (OPRHP) regional meeting (Yonkers to Ausable Forks) to discuss their situation (cuts they have sustained over the past 4 years), why they selected the agencies they did for recommended cuts, ways of staving off the cuts, and next steps. Martha Swan, Brendan Mills and I represented the John Brown Farm. We left with every single person in the hall knowing where John Brown lived and is buried – a point echoed on National Public Radio as we journeyed north.

Decision Making Process

Carol Ash, the commissioner of OPRHP, said she made the decision on what to cut based strictly on what brought in the most money; which meant that parks and recreational facilities did way better than historical sites, which angered many in the room as a major mandate of the department is historical preservation; indeed, her proposed closing marked the first time any historic site would be closed in the department’s 125 year history (none were closed, indeed many added, during the Depression).

So from our standpoint, she did not consider the historic significance of John Brown, that this is hallowed ground, that our commemoration was the beginning of the nation's 150th commemoration of the Civil War, or that it was one of the few sites that addresses the issue of slavery. Basically she said if a golf course takes in more money it was more worthy of saving in her eyes.

It was pointed out it would have been far better, as is done by the NYS Council of the Arts, to have involved the various regions and representatives of the variety of programs served in the process, and taken from parks, recreation and historic facilities equally – then the choices, equally hard, would have been fairly made and made with consideration to attendance, money, significance and other factors. It was pointed out her approach set the historic community against the agency, called into question the department’s ability to make decisions by legislators, demoralized staff, set a bad precedent and failed to follow the principles of open government – all of which makes harder to make the case for supporting the agency. Many of the deputy chairs got the idea - not sure she clearly understood the level of damage she did. Be as that may, we all agreed that we need to move forward together to keep all the sites open, and make changes in the agency later.

The Challenge

88 state parks and historic sites would be closed, with service reductions at an additional 43 sites. The cost of closing the sites – preserving the artifacts, etc., has not been determined.

The Goal

The goal is to get the Legislature to put back in 11.3 million, which will keep all historic and other sites open, and still leave the Department with total cuts of around 30 percent of its budget ($46 million), still disproportionably higher than many other agencies. It was agreed that the three most effective means is through personal pitches, mailed letters (not email), and phone calls to the staff. In terms of letters, the most effective are from school kids, as well as non-traditional users, i.e. for historic sites x-country skiing, biking and other organizations that use the grounds for exercise.

State-wide, the parks & historic sites attract 57 million visitors, generate $1.9 billion in economic activity and provide 20,000 jobs. They are heavily used by the middle class as affordable vacations – indeed, overall attendance is up 2 million over last year. They foster health and fitness – indeed an important issue in this day of rising rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity in children.


It was agreed that any offers at this time for any town or friends group or other agency to protect isolated sites creates opportunities for legislators to duck their collective responsibility to keep them all open – thus any such suggestion is counter productive at this time.
It was agreed that the next two weeks will be especially critical to generate mail and media attention, to people’s elected representatives, and the Assembly, Senate leadership and the Governor (he still has the power of the veto).

That social networks should be used to the extent possible to generate support for the sites.
That, assuming the 11.3 million is restored, that NYS OPRHP decision-making process must change, must include the regional directors and representatives of agencies served, and that a state-wide alliance of Friends groups must be established.

Foot Note

Martha and I pumped a lot of energy into the meeting, helped clarify priorities, and helped people reframe the case. We also received great praise for the tremendous media attention the John Brown commemoration generated, the quality of the programming presented last December, and the visibility of the recent advocacy effort on behalf of the Farm.



Friday, March 12, 2010

John Richardson's Response (Mar. 12)

Nice arguments, professor, but Osama Bin Laden also considers himself a counter-terrorist, just as Scott Roeder considers himself to be doing God's work and Ho Chi Minh thought that cutting off the heads of village chiefs in the south was necessary for the greater good of Vietnam. I guess the definition shifts with which side you're on, which was my point. But I have to say that I'm surprised that you find the race of those 620.000 dead so important. To me they're all people, and the deaths of white people are as lamentable as the deaths and suffering of the slaves, even if some of them were defending an evil system. My larger point, which seems to have angered you so, is nothing that would surprise Martin Luther King or Gandhi or the Quakers who went to jail rather than war - basic pacifism. You might note that I never answered the question myself, and I'm not sure I can give an honest answer at this historical remove. But I'm surprised that you, as a scholar, are so proud that you wouldn't even ask the question.


. . . And My Response

Thank you for your attentiveness and expedience.

Believe me, John, that comparison to Osama bin Laden is pretty much a worn-out shoe that never fit in the first place, although certain people keep trying to force it.

The argument that terrorists also think of themselves as counter-terrorists (or that "one man's hero is another man's terrorist" as people like to say) does not answer the immediate question of historical context. As I keep saying, Brown and his family, as well as others in their association, were in danger of their lives in Kansas in May 1856. Brown had no plots to kill, maim, or destroy people of the opposite political persuasion, and his correspondence clearly shows his optimism in late 1855 that the democratic process would bring victory to the free state side in Kansas. But in early 1856 the pro-slavery side, being the minority, asserted and initiated violence against free state people, most of whom were unarmed and looking to the federal government to protect them. Brown went to Kansas to protect his sons and their families, who had settled there; but he only took action when the threats became realized in real attacks on free state people. When he learned that a large group of invading, armed southerners were encamped in his vicinity and that some of his neighbors were collaborating with them to destroy his family (who were notable for their pronounced pro-black views, even among the free state people), he could not call the FBI, the local police, the sheriff, or any other constabulary. Those that existed were appointed by pro-slavery leaders and the law was in the hands of pro-slavery people, and there was no appeal to law despite the federal doctrine of "popular sovereignty."

I don't know how to present this in any more clear terms. The bin Laden/Brown parallel has little efficacy in historical terms, particularly in Kansas. O b L used terrorism to invade the U.S., regardless of his political claims, and mastermined a conspiracy to wreak destruction and murder of many people who were simply citizens of the nation he hates. He may believe U.S. citizens are his enemies because we pay taxes to the government, but O b L's victims are not the parallel of the John Brown's "victims" in Kansas. Those five men were conspiring with terrorists to identify and lead them to specific free state people with the intention of destroying them.

Even if one argued that Brown overreacted, that he need not have killed all five of these men, one must argue both morally and legally that the circumstances and context of this horrible episode are very atypical of the kind of "terrorist" episodes to which you have drawn comparison.

I commend and agree with your humanitarianism. The lives of white Civil War soldiers, North and South, were no less valuable than the lives of the black men and women who were enslaved. But again, I would argue that this is not simply about weighing the value of one mass of humanity over against another mass of humanity. I realize that the Civil War was not driven by northern moral stamina, that Lincoln would have kept blacks enslaved if it would have appeased southern leaders and prevented secession. But as John Brown realized, the nation as a whole had a problem that it could not shake off--the problem of slavery and its oppressive, destructive grip upon people of African descent. The problem of slavery had to be dealt with, not only if our nation was going to be consistent with its own claims, but because the institution of slavery was a great wrong. I don't think you'd disagree.

So I don't know why you're surprised that I would focus upon "race" distinction in this matter. That's the point of the problem of slavery. Let's just say that we could re-write history and have all the white soldiers stay home; the South secedes and Lincoln lets them go. Now, 620,000 people do not die in civil war. But over 3 millions continue in cruel slavery--men, women, and children, whose lives count as mere property, whose bodies are used, abused, and discarded, whose labor is perennially funneled into the pockets of their owners. This is not a matter of being overly focused on "race."

To put it another way: Yes, I believe that the loss of 620,000 soldiers' lives was worth the end of slavery. Not only because numerically the number of human beings who suffered under slavery over generations, men, women, and children, is far greater than 1 million, but because the fact of slavery was evil. It was, as John Wesley called it, "the sum of all villainies." I am not angry at you, but I am disappointed that an intelligent, well-meaning man with the benefit of history at his fingertips would not see the forest for the trees.

Even if one argues from a philosophical pacifist standpoint, as you now seem to be claiming, you are shamed by the historical testimony of the Society of Friends, who were pacifists, labored strenuously (when so many Christians worked so hard to preserve slavery!) to liberate enslaved people. Some of the most admiring letters that Brown received in jail were from Quaker pacifists who disagreed with his use of force but saw him as an admirable figure nonetheless.

Your expression of surprise is underwhelming, particularly since you want to retaliate by calling me "proud" (apparently because I accused you of hubris). But had you expressed yourself from a principled standpoint as a pacifist, I would have responded to you as such. You didn't let your readers know that you objected to Brown on the fundamental basis of being a pacifist. Nor did you mention in your comments on March 10. By the way, John Brown associated with a lot of Quakers and loved them dearly (hardly the attribute of a terrorist).

By the way, when you brand John Brown as a terrorist, you are also inadvertently putting those who support him in that same camp -- you are not only branding his admiring biographers as being pro-terrorist, but far more importantly, you are suggesting that the experience and understanding of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and generations of blacks who admired Brown as either purely subjective, or aligned with a pro-terrorist stance.

You seem to love to point out that I'm angry. I think you're really the angry one here. The amount of anger and resentment that flows from a certain segment of writers in this nation is fairly evident. The question is why are you all so angry at John Brown?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Don't Cry, Mr. Richardson, It's Not that I Dislike You, I Just Disagree With You

Last summer, a journalist named John H. Richardson interviewed Brown biographer David Reynolds for Esquire magazine (June 16, 2009). I took issue with Richardson's conclusions, publishing my criticisms along with the interview on this blog on July 11, 2009.

In response to my comments, which Richardson apparently read just the other day, he published a short rejoinder on a blog entitled Health Checkr on March 10, following his article about Barney Frank and the legalization of marijuana. His section devoted to me (in which he misspells my name as "DiCario") follows, with my responses interspersed in italics:

"You like Dislike Me, You really like Dislike Me!

Actually, Mr. Richardson, "I don't agree with you" does not automatically equal "I don't like you." I don't know you; I disliked what you wrote.

"Loving a vigorous debate and personal abuse as I do, I have come to rely on my many right-wing critics for my weekly dose of bile. so it was very exciting to open my Web browser yesterday and find myself attacked from the left!

Here again, Mr. Richardson, I did not attack you; I criticized your harsh, ill-studied remarks. Evidently, you"really dislike" John Brown (although I doubt you know much about him except what you've been told), which is why you misrepresented him in the post-interview section of your Esquire article.

Second, it is entirely your assumption that you were attacked "from the left," apparently because you believe that anyone who would take issue with your comments must be a card-carrying member of some Leftist organization. The fact is that I do not have a political perspective that comfortably fits in either one of the two political categories that are allowed to exist in this nation, namely "the right" or "the left." While the Left has been far more sensitive to black people's experience in this nation (and consequently more sensitive to John Brown, who died for black liberation), there are significant "doctrines" held by the Left that I do not accept--and which I actually oppose. If leftists agree with me, that's fine. Very few leftists have embraced me, being that I am an evangelical Christian (a term that is troublingly loaded in itself). If I agree with Leftists on certain points, that's also fine. But don't pigeon-hole me.

"My crime was comparing the 19th-century abolitionist John Brown to the “right to life” assassin Scott Roeder.

No, your error was in comparing John Brown to Scott Roeder. You reacted to my criticism in a hyperbolic manner, but showed no evidence of having read or understood my explanation as a biographer of John Brown. If you are guilty of a "crime" here, it is hubris.

". . . also, lamenting the 620,000 people who died in the Civil War. according to historian Louis DiCario, that makes me a racist. “What Richardson actually seems to be asking is: “Was ending the enslavement of black people worth a half-million white people’s lives?”

Now you're back-peddling. You did not simply lament the deaths of 620, 000 people; you asked a question that was loaded--"Was ending slavery worth 620,000 lives?" That question means either (1) your mind is a "tabula rasa" regarding U.S. history and you actually were asking Reynolds to give you an answer because you truly didn't know the answer yourself; or (2) you were implying that ending black enslavement might not have been qualitatively "worth it" in comparison to the casualties largely sustained by mostly white Civil War soldiers (of course lots of black soldiers died in the Civil War too, and you'll never read of a black Union veteran or a black historian asking the question that you posed to Dr. Reynolds). I didn't call you a racist, but I did infer that your judgment, in asking that question, put you in a position of appearing like one. I would never have asked Dr. Reynolds that question, and the fact that you did left you open to be criticized. Personally, I will be happy to assume that you are not a racist. You just didn't know what you were talking about.

". . . and I was wrong to call Brown a terrorist too. Although he dragged a farmer and his sons from their beds and watched as his raiding party hacked them to death with swords, he was actually a “counter-terrorist.”

Hello! That was the point of my rejoinder. Of course you were "wrong." Is being "wrong" something impossibly alien to your experience?

You were wrong in calling Brown a terrorist. I can make a case that his actions in Kansas were counter-terroristic. But again, you do not engage the argument, you only react to it in a snide manner. But let me try one more time:

If one draws a parallel between contemporary terrorism and territorial Kansas in 1856, the armed, lawless, and deadly force were the pro-slavery invaders that were afflicting the free state settlers, most of whom were defenseless and naively trusting of their lives to a pro-slavery federal government. In 1856, there was no reliable constabulary to protect free state people from terrorism; in May 1856, the Browns were apprised that they (being adamantly pro-black) were targeted by local pro-slavery neighbors collaborating with invading pro-slavery terrorists. There was no protection or appeal to protection for them. The Browns had to decide how they would act on their own behalf in the absence of any protection from law and order and with a high certainty that they were going to be attacked. Their decision was to "get the jump on" the conspirators. They did so.

This is not wishful thinking; the consensus of scholars (and I mean those who have made a studied analysis of Brown in Kansas) is far more sympathetic toward Brown than your hollow cliche' notion of "terrorist" allows. You are not only wrong in fact, you are also wrong because you make statements without adequate knowledge of what you're speaking of. Journalists have gotten away with doing this to Brown for many years, but your leash is not as long as you think.

"In DiCario’s [sic] honor (and Barney Frank’s and John Stuart Mill’s and all the victims of righteous causes), here’s the quote of the day: “There is in most of us an unreconstructed Southerner who will not accept domination as well as a benevolent despot who wants to mold others for their own good, to assemble them in such as way as to produce a comprehensive unit which will satisfy our own ambition by realizing some vision of our own; and the conflict between these two tendencies – which on a larger scale gave rise to the Civil War – may also break the harmony of families and cause a fissure in the individual.” – Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore

I guess I should thank you for the "honor" of Wilson's (yawn!) run-on tribute to the "unreconstructed Southerner"? (Talk about gore; I hope the rest of the book isn't so poorly written.) Still, Mr. Richardson, I am happy to say that I have no "unreconstructed Southerner" possessing my inner life; such a spirit so possessed the leaders of the South that they zealously drove hundreds of thousands of their own brothers and sons to a bloody death in the name of opposing "domination," while they were engaged in the business of dominating and exploiting millions of black people. Besides, weren't the original "unreconstructed Southerners" the first generation of the KKK?

Regardless, Mr. Richardson, let me assure you that this has nothing to do with not liking you. It's just that my inner John Brown is better than your inner "unreconstructed Southerner."

Thursday, March 04, 2010

New York State Senator Kevin S. Parker's Legislative Resolution opposing the closure of the John Brown Farm Historic Site, March 3, 2010

WHEREAS, It is the sense of this Legislative Body to commend the efforts of those who seek to bring recognition to historical places within the State of New York, and in doing so, help to ensure that the complete history of our State and Nation is preserved and shared with present generations of citizens, and

WHEREAS, Attendant to such concern, and in full accord with its long standing traditions, it is the sense of this Legislative Body to oppose the closure of the John Brown Farm Historic Site; and

WHEREAS, In 1846, abolitionist and wealthy philanthropist Gerrit Smith was determined to give away 120,000 acres of his land in the Adirondacks; the donation of such a large parcel of land was notable, but impressive that the recipients were 3,000 African American men from nearly every county in the state; and

WHEREAS, Gerrit Smith’s “Smith Land” project was a direct response to the state requirement that only those with 250 dollars worth of land could vote; this extraordinary contribution has been concealed for more than a century, but today its significance is being retold; it is historically seen as a movement toward improving civil rights; and

WHEREAS, Gerrit Smith gained prominence because he was one of the wealthiest men in New York state with vast land holdings; since acquiring land was an important way for slaves to become citizens and gain voting rights: he had the means to make a difference in regards to American law; Gerrit Smith was a close friend of Frederick Douglass and enlisted him along with the other Black abolitionists to help; and

WHEREAS, in 1849 John Brown heard of Gerrit Smith’s Adirondack land grants being offered to poor Black men, and proposed to relocate his family among the new settlers to establish a farm and to provide them with guidance and assistance; Gerrit Smith accepted the proposal, and sold John Brown a piece of property; John Brown spent little time at the farm, and his attentions were soon preoccupied by the “Bloody Kansas” conflict, a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act; however, he did make occasional visits to the settlement until his raid on Harper’s Ferry; and

WHEREAS, After his execution John Brown’s wife returned his body to the farm for burial; the tombstone of his ancestor, also named Captain John Brown was inscribed with his name, as well as those sons who died at Harper’s Ferry; and

WHEREAS, Plaques were added, memorializing John Brown and his men, and the women of the Brown family, for their sacrifices in the cause for freedom; since 1895, the farm has been owned by the State of New York State, and is maintained and staffed by the Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; it is a popular tourist stop on the edge of Lake Placid, and recently celebrated 100 years as a State Historic Site; and

WHEREAS,I t is fitting to recognize the importance of John Brown’s involvement of Timbuctu farm in North Elba, his historic fight on behalf of abolition, and the significance of this special farm site to the history of New York and the local economy of the North Country and North Elba; now therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That this Legislative Body pause in its deliberations to oppose the closure of the John Brown Farm Historic Site; and be it further

RESOLVED, That copies of this Resolution, suitably engrossed, be transmitted to the Honorable David A. Paterson, Governor of the State of New York; Carol Ash, Commissioner, Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP); and the Congress of Racial Equality

"Don't Give Up": An Update from Our Friend, Naj Wikoff

Senator Kevin Parker deserves our thanks.

Martha Swan, Caroline Thompson, director of the Arts Council for the Northern Adks, and I made the rounds. We made a couple suggested edits to the resolution, which we have passed highlighting the 11 buried at the Farm, and Brown’s ongoing influence and inspiration in the fight for civil rights, justice, and to end human trafficking – additions we hope to get in an Assembly version.

About 200 turned out for the rally. Senator Betty Little and others highlighted the importance of the John Brown Farm as a reason for keeping all the NYS parks and historic sites open, and it was mentioned by Senate staff in a EnCom meeting with community leaders there to lobby on behalf of all the parks. Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, who attended a variety of Commemoration events, has been talking to her colleagues how we had packed audiences in Lake Placid, E Town and Westport this past Dec along with the amount of media attention it garnered.

We had long talks with many of the lead staff of the key leadership.

A key message is that many letters are needed, and we were asked if CORE, the NAACP, and churches can be encouraged to generate letter writing campaigns with letters asap (budget is to be passed by April 1).

Write to
Tunisha W. Walker, executive director
Conference of Black Senators
LOB 843A, Albany NY 12247

Chair Assembly Tourism Committee
Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward
JB Barn is in her district, member of the Assembly Tourism Committee
email: Teresa Sayward
Chair Assembly EnCon Committee Chair

Senator Jose Serrano, Jr.
Chair Senate Tourism Committee
518-455-2795 email: serrano@senate.state.ny.us

Senator John Sampson
Chair of the Democratic Conference:
518-455-2788 email: sampson@senate.state.ny.us

Senator Antoine Thompson
Chair of the Senate EnCon Committee;
518-455-3371 email: athompso@senate.state.ny.us

Senator Elizabeth O’C Little
JB Barn is in her district, member of the State Tourism Committee
(518) 455-2811
Email Betty O'C Little
Senator Malcolm A. Smith
Temporary President of the NYS Senate
(518) 455-2701email: masmith@senate.state.ny.us

We are making good progress Don’t give up.


"A Delightful Surprise": New York State Senator's Resolution to save John Brown Farm as Historic Site

State Sen. Kevin Parker of Brooklyn introduced a resolution Wednesday opposing closing the John Brown Farm State Historic Site.

"We didn't lobby for or ask for that resolution," said Naj Wikoff of Keene Valley, who went to Albany Wednesday to advocate for keeping the historic site open. "It came as a delightful surprise to see it." Wikoff was one of the principal organizers of the series of events last year marking the 150th anniversary of Brown's death.

Wikoff went with Martha Swan, director of John Brown Lives!, and Caroline Thompson, executive director of the Arts Council of the Northern Adirondacks.

"We spoke to how (the farm) represented an excellent collaboration between an historic site, local arts and historic organizations, and community government," Wikoff said in an e-mail.

Another resolution is being developed for the Assembly.

The state has proposed closing the historic site, which costs the state $40,000 a year to run, as part of the 2010-11 budget. The town of North Elba has expressed interest in taking over its operation if the state closes it.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Martha Swan to NY State: Save the John Brown Farm from Budget Cuts!

Founder of John Brown Lives! Holds Press Conference

Sunday, February 28, 2010

John Brown Farm, Lake Placid

Good afternoon. I am Martha Swan, director of the freedom education project, John Brown Lives!, and a teacher and social justice activist.

We are here today at the foot of John Brown’s grave to urge New York State to keep the John Brown Farm State Historic Site open, maintained and its modest budget fully-funded so as to provide the public with docents who can help interpret this important site.

Many New Yorkers, I dare say most, do not associate abolitionist John Brown with New York State or the Adirondacks. Yet he so loved it here, on this land, that in his last jailhouse letter to his wife Mary, Brown expressed his wish that she come after Virginia “applied its finishing stroke” to gather up his and their beloved sons bones and bring them home to North Elba for burial in the shadow of the big rock where he loved to sit and pray while looking out over the mountains.

Brown was first drawn to the Adirondacks by Gerrit Smith’s land grant plan to empower and enfranchise Black New Yorkers. Even when away, he constantly worried and inquired about Mary and the children’s well-being, the crops and the animals, how his family and their black friends and neighbors were getting on. And he was drawn back to this homestead as his final resting place. Buried alongside him are 11 Harpers Ferry Raiders, black men and white, including 2 sons and a son-in-law.

The lives that were lived here and the remains that lie buried under the snow make this hallowed ground. As on the day of Brown’s internment in December 1859, people come to this site from the world over to honor them all and dwell in the peacefulness of this place.

What we tell ourselves about John Brow and what we—and the State of New York—do with the John Brown State Historic Site today—provides a measure of our love and understanding of the true cost of liberty. It is a measure of our courage to face the failings and faultlines of our history. It is a measure of our indebtedness to those visionaries before us who protected this Site and established this Shrine.

New York State has owned and continuously operated the John Brown Farm since 1896. It is a measure of our collective will and imagination today to keep the Farm open and its continued protection assured as a New York State Historic Site.

Monday, March 01, 2010

ABOVE: Martha Swan, director of John Brown Lives!, speaks at a rally Sunday to protest the John Brown Farm State Historic Site’s proposed closure. To her left is Naj Wikoff, and holding the sign is Vito Arste. (Enterprise photo — Nathan Brown)

Rallying to Save John Brown Farm

LAKE PLACID - John Brown has been a part of Lake Placid's history for more than 150 years, but a part few people outside of the area were aware of until it was highlighted in a series of events last year.

Just a couple months after the final ceremonies marking the 150th anniversary of the radical abolitionist's hanging and burial on his farm in North Elba, the state historic site is slated for closure, a possibility many of the people involved in last year's activities are organizing to help avoid.

"The lives that were lived here and the remains that lie buried under the snow make this hallowed ground," said Martha Swan at a rally on the farm to protest the closure Sunday afternoon. Swan is a teacher in Newcomb and director of the freedom education project, John Brown Lives!

Several historians attended the rally, and one, Amy Godine, said the site needs funding for interpreters to explain to people the ties between Brown, the abolitionist movement in general and Timbuctoo, a black settlement in the town of North Elba that Brown was part of.

"That's more work than we can get on the signs," Godine said.

North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi has said the town could take over the farm if the state defunds it. It remains to be seen if the cuts make it to the final state budget, which is due to be passed April 1 but has been late more often than not in recent years.

The farm costs the state $40,000 a year to run, subtracting the $5,000 in revenue it generates - a modest amount given the site's historic significance, said Naj Wikoff. Many ordinary African Americans and civil rights leaders have visited the farm to gain inspiration, and Wikoff said the second meeting of the Niagara movement, which would evolve into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was there.

Wikoff was one of the principal organizers of John Brown Coming Home, the series of events marking the 150th anniversary of Brown's death that culminated in a reenactment of his funeral.

Only 10 percent of the land of Mount Vernon, Pres. George Washington's home, and 50 percent of Monticello, Pres. Thomas Jefferson's home, is preserved, Wikoff said, making the John Brown Farm a rarity.

Caretaker Brendan Mills said he was organizing a friend's group for the farm; he had started organizing it before news of the proposed closure, and had planned for it to become active in the spring. Anyone interested can contact him at 523-3900.


Upcoming events

John Brown Day is May 8, and it will be marked at the farm this year with events focused on Haiti, including a benefit concert with local bands and a possible appearance by actor Danny Glover. Wikoff noted that one of the main boulevards in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, is named after Brown, and the Haitians were inspired by his actions just as he was by their revolution.

"Juneteenth," or June 19, the anniversary of the day the slaves were officially declared free, will be marked by a talk from Scott Christianson, author of "Freeing Charles," a book about a slave's liberation in Troy a year before the Civil War started.

The 150th anniversary of the legal end of slavery in this country is coming up in five years, and Wikoff said he hopes the farm can be a part of it. He said slavery still exists, with 27 million people held in slavery worldwide, and that the farm and thinking about Brown's actions helps to draw attention to that.

"This is not about the past. This is very much about the present and the future."