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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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Saturday, May 15, 2010

John Brown's Birthday Celebrated on May 8: Graveside Ceremony Attended by Descendants of the Old Man and Harpers Ferry Raider Copeland

Justus Lucas, a member of the Frederick Douglass Club at James P. Duffy School No. 12 in Rochester, NY, gives one of Douglass’ speeches at a wreath-laying ceremony at John Brown’s gravesite on Saturday, May 8, 2010. Looking on, from left, are state Sen. Betty Little, Brown descendant Alice Keesey Mecoy, John Copeland descendant Brenda Pitts, Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward and North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi. (Nathan Brown - Adirondack Enterprise photo)

LAKE PLACID, NY - The people who braved Saturday's cold and wind to come to John Brown's 210th birthday party left with some reason to hope that the historic site will stay open.

State Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, told the crowd that Parks Commissioner Carol Ash has said she will do everything she can to make sure the 41 state parks, and especially 14 historic sites, that are being considered for closure remain funded. Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, R-Willsboro, said the state has an "obligation and a duty" to make sure historic sites are kept open.

Numerous speakers and performers took part in Saturday's commemoration at the farm, where Brown and what are believed to be 11 of his followers are buried. Students in the Frederick Douglass Club at James P. Duffy School No. 12 came all the way from Rochester to participate, reciting Douglass' speeches, and students from Newcomb Central School performed "Take it to the Top," a song they wrote about slavery.

Brown's actual birthday was Sunday, May 9. The park closures and service reductions proposed in February would save $6.3 million, of which the John Brown farm represents $40,000.

As well as Brown, the event was meant to honor John A. Copeland, a free black who took part in the raid on Harper's Ferry. Brenda Pitts, a descendant of Copeland, was there and spoke briefly, as did Alice Keesey Mecoy, a descendant of John Brown who was heavily involved in the events last year commemorating the 200th anniversary of the raid and Brown's execution.

Franny Nudelman, an associate professor in the English Department at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, talked about the treatment of Copeland's body. While Brown's body ended up being given to his family and buried in North Elba, Copeland's was stolen by medical students and dissected. The corpses of black people were frequently treated this way during this time, Nudelman said; medical students got bodies for research from black cemeteries. Virginia Gov. Henry Wise apparently considered giving Brown's body the same treatment, knowing the symbolic power of the corpse, but decided against it. A couple of years later, Union soldiers were singing about "John Brown's body," which was "a-moulderin' in the grave," but "his soul was marching on."

"From the moment he was sentenced to death, his body became a source of controversy and struggle," Nudelman said.

Reggie Harris set to music and sang a letter Copeland wrote to his parents in the days before his execution.

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