History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

Search This Blog & Links


Wednesday, June 30, 2010


The “Word of the Hour”: From the “John Brown Song” to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

I.  Julia Ward Howe and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

 As many readers know, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was written by Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) during the U.S. Civil War.  A self-taught philosopher and poet, Julia was somewhat unhappily married to the much older physician and activist, Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-76), one of Brown’s so-called “Secret Six” supporters.  It seems that despite his bent toward liberation causes, Howe was not so keen on seeing his wife liberated beyond the necessities of motherhood and housekeeping, and consistently thwarted and opposed her efforts to cultivate a professional and public role for herself as an author.  This did not prevent Julia, especially during a marital separation, from pursuing her writing and studies; yet it seems that she was never able to fully realize a sense of her own capabilities and vocation until her renowned husband’s death.
Julia Ward Howe
According to Richards and Elliott, Ward Howe’s first biographers,1 the story of the writing of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” begins in the fall of 1861, when she went to Washington, D.C. with her husband, also in the company of Governor and Mrs. Andrew of Massachusetts, and the Rev. James Freeman Clarke.  Her biographers say that after observing a military review, this entourage found themselves surrounded amidst a long stream of marching men in blue uniform.  With their carriage at a stand still they decided to sing aloud to pass the time.  But when they sang, “John Brown's body lies a-moulding in the grave, His soul is marching on!” this brought a reaction from the soldiers, some of whom shouted “Good for you!” to Julia Ward Howe and her companions.  At this point, the story continues, Clarke turned to her and said, “Mrs. Howe, why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?"  Interestingly, Ward Howe excitedly responded that she had “often wished to do so.”  [This complete entry is available only in the forthcoming book, John Brown: Emancipator]

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Frederick Douglass and the 8th Avenue Underground Railroad (i.e., Subway)
The other day I posted pics and articles about the Frederick Douglass Circle dating back to 1950 and culminating with images of the beautiful statue and park now situated on the circle.  But I forgot that there are also related images in the "underground railroad station" corresponding to Frederick Douglass Circle, namely the subway station at 110th Street (Cathedral Parkway), a local train stop where folks in my neighborhood can catch the B and C trains.  On both the uptown and downtown sides of the station are some wonderful mosaics by artist Christopher Wynter ("Migrations") pertaining to Douglass and the Underground Railroad.  The wheel theme that is featured in the fence along the eastern side of the above ground Frederick Douglass Circle park is also featured in these lovely mosaics.  Well, anyway, I snapped a couple of pics today on the uptown side. . . 

. . . then I found the following description along with images of both the uptown and downtown sides on the Metropolitan Transit Authority website:

Cathedral Parkway (110th Street)
Migrations, 1999
Glass mosaic on mezzanine and platform walls
At Cathedral Parkway, Harlem's southern boundary, three large mosaic murals were created that refer to migration and African homelands. "Overall, the panels present the ideas of uprooting, migration, and progress in symbolic form," says artist Christopher Wynter. He further explains that the blocks of color differentiate various African ancestral homelands, and the circular symbol represents the n'kis, or sacred place concept, of the Nkongo people. Houses on stilts suggest Central African buildings, while horizontal bands of color denote village paths. Wheels and walking feet describe faraway destinations, according to Wynter, and reference the mass movements of Africans throughout history. The station is located below Frederick Douglass Circle. Douglass, the abolitionist crusader, is also depicted.



Monday, June 21, 2010

John Brown's Friend Honored
On the Street Where I Live: The Frederick Douglass Circle Story, A Scrapbook

From The New York Amsterdam News, June 10, 1950, p. 5.  Cutline reads: "IN HONOR OF ABOLITIONIST: The entire open street, shown above at Central Park West, Eighth Avenue and 110th Street and Cathedral Parkway has been named by the City Council as Frederick Douglass Circle in honor of the famed abolitionist and former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti.  The bill to name the circle was introduced into the Council by City Councilman Earl Brown. Previously the area had been unnamed, and the Bill passed the Council at its May 25th meeting."

From The Chicago Defender, July 1, 1950, p. 4.  Cutline reads: "OKs FREDERICK DOUGLASS CIRCLE--Mayor William O'Dwyer of New York City puts his deal of approval on bill to rename 110th Street Circle the Frederick Douglass Circle, as Councilman Earl Brown, who introduced the bill, looks on.  Left to right, Commissioner J. Raymond Jones, Thelma Boozer, John Henderson, Hawthorne Lee, Glester Hines.  Seated are Councilman Brown and Mayor O'Dwyer.

From The New York Amsterdam News, August 26, 1950, p. 8.  Dedication of Frederick Douglass Circle scheduled for Sunday, September 17, 1950.  Note that the Honorary Chairman for the dedication was Robert F. Wagner, Jr., who would be elected New York City mayor in 1953.  He served as Manhattan Borough President from 1950-53.  Also note the presence of George S. Schulyer, a leading black conservative in the mid-20th century, and Dan Burley, a prominent African American journalist.

From The Atlanta Daily World, September 29, 1950, p. 1.  Note this clipping includes an excerpt from Wagner's dedication speech.

From New York Amsterdam News, September 23, 1950, p. 1.  Cutline read: "A NAME IS CHANGED-Looking at the new street sign which reads "Douglass Circle" during dedication services Sunday are Frederick Weaver, great-grandson of Frederick Douglass, Councilman Earl Brown, Robert F. Wagner, Borough President, and Glester Hinds, president of the People's Civic and Welfare Association.  Douglass Circle is at 110th and Eighth Avenue.  (Story on page 2)

From New York Amsterdam News, September 23, 1950, pp. 2 and 4.

From The Chicago Defender, September 30, 1950, p. 3.  Cutline reads: "FREDERICK DOUGLASS CIRCLE--New York's famous Cathedral Circle is now the Frederick Douglass Circle, renamed to honor the memory of the distinguished abolitionist, orator, journalist, and statesman.  Borough President Robert F. Wagner Jr., son of the late Sen. Wagner, is shown unveiling the new street sign as Robert Weaver, left, great grandson of Douglass, and Glester Hines watch.  Before the unveiling more than 1,000 persons marched in an impressive parade down Seventh Avenue, from 135th Street to 110th Street and Eighth Avenue, where the ceremonies took place.  Defender photo by de Mille.

From The New York Amsterdam News, September 2, 1967.  Cutline reads: "HONOR THE PEOPLE--O.R.E. National History Committee recently held a program honoring prominent Afro-Americans at the Frederick Douglass Circle, Central Park West and 110th St., New York City.  Edward D. Orner is pictured with flowers presented during ceremonies to keep alive the memories of the greats, from Benjamin Banneker and Frederick Douglass, to Adam Clayton Powell and Martin Luther King as Orner named them (McAdams Photo)."

Transcribed excerpt from David W. Dunlap, "Transforming Central Park's Gateways," The New York Times, June 11, 1987, p. B.1.

Sweeping changes to the three great traffic circles on the corners of Central Park will be proposed tonight by the New York City Planning Department, in an effort to sort out tangled strands of vehicles and pedestrians and to make more monumental gateways out of jumbled, haphazard intersections.

Sweeping changes to the three great traffic circles on the corners of Central Park will be proposed tonight by the New York City Planning Department, in an effort to sort out tangled strands of vehicles and pedestrians and to make more monumental gateways out of jumbled, haphazard intersections.

The proposal calls for reshaping Columbus, Frederick Douglass and Milbank Frawley Circles - actually making them more circular than they are today - with a rearrangement of traffic lanes and the creation of large and rather verdant new islands within the circles. There is also the possibility of limiting traffic access to the park. . . .

For Frederick Douglass Circle, at the northwest corner, goals include simplifying traffic movement, discouraging illegal turns, improving pedestrian conditions and, possibly, closing the automobile entrance to the park.  Douglass Circle is now divided by quadrants. Under the plan, they would be replaced by two islands that would straddle the avenue. The eastern island might be the site of a sculpture, most likely a statue of Frederick Douglas.

Abstract: Emily M. Bernstein, "Neighborhood Report: Harlem; Rounding Off a Central Park Edge." New York Times, January 9, 1994, p. A.5

The $5.9 million redesign, which will feature new granite sidewalks and curbs and hexagonal paving stones like the ones around Central Park's edges, will make Frawley Circle as impressive an entrance to the park as those at Columbus Circle and Grand Army Plaza, said Lisa Daglian, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the work. The city is also considering renovating Frederick Douglass Circle at the northwest corner, she said, but money has yet to be allocated for that project.

Transcript: Nina Siegal, "Forget 'Heritage Corridor,' Some Say."  New York Times, May 9, 1999, p. 14.6

A proposal to turn 110th Street, bordering Central Park, into a ''heritage corridor'' commemorating famous black Americans was so popular among neighborhood and local business groups a few months ago that the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone was hoping to expand the design to include Lenox Avenue. But now some preservationists are opposing elements of the proposal, saying it will not be in keeping with the historic character of the park.

The plan, proposed by the nonprofit Cityscape Institute, the Empire State Development Corporation and the city's Department of Transportation, calls for landscaping, repaving sidewalks with cobblestones and installing new street lamps from Fifth Avenue to Frederick Douglass Circle. Each lamp would be decorated with images of black artists, political leaders or pioneers in various fields. A $9 million Federal grant has already been awarded for the project.

But preservationists say that the design for the lampposts, in particular, is troubling. The president of the Society for the Architecture of the City, Ronald J. Kopnicki, said the lamps did not match the historic character of light fixtures in Central Park.

''As we understand, it it is not historic, it is not based on any historic model,'' he said. ''Honoring distinguished residents of an area is an admirable idea, but there are many other ways to do it other than trying to do an all-in-one thing with a lamppost.''

He also said he was worried that the slots in the lampposts that would be for pictures of historic figures might eventually be used for advertising.

Cityscape's director of government and community relations, John T. Reddick, said the lamps would not be used for commercial purposes. ''We never saw it as an advertising venue,'' he said. ''For us, it's about evoking place and history.''

Arlene Simon, the president of Landmark West, which focuses on the architectural heritage of the West Side from 59th to 110th Streets, said her group supported planting trees and replacing the sidewalk above Central Park but not memorial plaques on the lampposts.

''The proposal for a memorial promenade relegates the northern 30 feet of Central Park to little more than a fringe area that has more in common with the north side of 110th Street than with Central Park,'' the group said in a written testimony before the Landmarks Commission in late March.

And a neighborhood preservationist, Michael Henry Adams, said he opposed the idea of spending $9 million on the project. ''There are better things they can do with their money and more meaningful things,'' he said. ''For instance, they could get Central Park North made into an historic district, and that would be preserving something real and vital rather than putting up some little theme park kind of gesture.''

The president of Cityscape, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, said input from community and preservation groups would be considered. 

Kelly Crow, “Trying to Make Douglass Circle A Gateway, Not a Roadblock.” New York Times (Late Edition) April 20, 2003, p. 14.6

For 15 years, Mila Mendez has heard talk of creating a gateway to Harlem by renovating Frederick Douglass Circle and installing a namesake memorial nearby. But, while civic groups have come and gone with their redesign ideas, the traffic circle still sits outside Ms. Mendez's condominium like a pie, with streets slicing between green patches at the northwest corner of Central Park.
A view of Frederick Douglass Circle looking east along Cathedral Parkway (West 110th Street)
in April 2008, prior to completion of construction.  Just beyond the circle is the northwestern 
corner of Central Park.  Photo by 
Louis A. DeCaro Jr.

Two months ago, however, the city made plans final to spend $15.5 million to transform the intersection into a three-lane rotary, funneling traffic from 110th Street and Central Park West into a ring around a new plaza. And there is a preliminary design for the plaza, which includes a statue of Douglass, a granite wall with cascading water and inlaid with constellations, and a patchwork flooring honoring the Underground Railroad.

Still, the skies are not yet clear for the long-promised project. Ms. Mendez is elated about the memorial, but not the rotary. She and other residents fear the three lanes will turn the gateway plaza into a roadblock, pushing traffic closer to their buildings while isolating the memorial from passers-by.

''For years, we've heard ideas and plans to make everything better,'' she said. ''But now, the traffic will be even more atrocious and no one will go out into the middle of the plaza to see Douglass. It's disappointing.''

On Feb. 12, Community Board 10 asked the Transportation Department to ban trucks from the rotary and preserve the width of the perimeter sidewalks as a buffer to the traffic. The board of managers of Towers on the Park, the pair of 20-story buildings that overlook the circle, has asked the city to narrow the rotary to two lanes and keep the loading lane that now lines the front of its buildings. A neighborhood group has also lobbied the city to preserve nearby bus stops and parking spots.

Tom Cocola, a department spokesman, said the city was working its way down the list, amending the project where feasible before construction begins next spring. He said the rotary would stay three lanes and would allow trucks, but sidewalks would not be narrowed. Loading lanes and bus stops will also be relocated nearby, he said.

''This is a great project,'' he said, ''and we're willing to work on it.''

Lee Caron, a manager of Towers on the Park, says she hopes so.

''We're really excited that finally, the circle is going to happen,'' Ms. Caron said. ''But the devil is in the details, and we need to be sure it's the best plan we can get. People have waited too long to get anything less.''

Transcription: Francis X. Clines, “Editorial: Summoning Frederick Douglass.” New York Times, November 3, 2006,  p. A26

For all his exultation in fleeing slavery to New York on the Underground Railroad, Frederick Douglass recalled how formidable the city soon seemed. ''The loneliness overcame me,'' he wrote of his first perch upon liberty in 1838, before he blazed into history as the articulator of African-Americans' determination to shuck slavery. ''There I was in the midst of thousands, and yet a perfect stranger,'' Douglass recorded of his early glimpse of New Yorkers. ''I dared not to unfold to any of them my sad condition.''

That such a powerful individual could be so daunted by the city, like so many ordinary newcomers, makes it all the sweeter that Douglass will be properly welcomed next summer at Harlem's gateway. His statue likeness, noble and powerful as the man, will peer forth at the skyline. The setting includes a 60-foot-long, laser-lit fountain, flowing with the waters of freedom, and an array of the quilted code symbols that were one of the ingenious secrets of the slaves' escape north.

Strategic quilts, harmlessly hung out to air along the routes toward liberty, offered instructions and maps to knowledgeable slaves on the run. Their innocent symbols -- wagon wheel, crossed wrenches, bear's paw, log cabin, child's shoofly -- were guides and cautions, just as patterns of knots marked mileage. These symbols are being rendered in multi-hued granite squares by Algernon Miller, a New York artist, as part of his Douglass tribute, under construction in a European-styled traffic circle and park bordering the northwest corner of Central Park. Mr. Miller's boyhood was spent at play on the circle's surrounding streets; an earlier work celebrated the Seneca Village community of African-American landholders displaced in the making of Central Park. ''Things just came together,'' he said of the muse he found in the quilted subtext of the Underground Railroad.

In contrast, the eight-foot statue catching Douglass in the classical pose of his daguerreotypes was done by Gabriel Koren, a Hungarian-born sculptor so fascinated as a child by far-off African-American human rights leaders that she came to specialize in them. ''They are so interesting, so magnetic.'' Her Malcolm X glares forth handsomely in Harlem, and her Marcus Garvey reigns lately in her city studio. ''I fought against doing Douglass 20 or 30 feet high, totally removed from ordinary people,'' said Ms. Koren, seeing to a proper welcome for the singular fugitive who landed here on his way into history.

Transcription: Noam Cohen, "In Douglass Tribute, Slave Folklore and Fact Collide." New York Times, January 23, 2007

At the northwest corner of Central Park, construction is under way on Frederick Douglass Circle, a $15.5 million project honoring the escaped slave who became a world-renowned orator and abolitionist.

Beneath an eight-foot-tall sculpture of Douglass, the plans call for a huge quilt in granite, an array of squares, a symbol in each, supposedly part of a secret code sewn into family quilts and used along the Underground Railroad to aid slaves. Two plaques would explain this.

The only problem: According to many prominent historians, the secret code — the subject of a popular book that has been featured on no less a cultural touchstone than “The Oprah Winfrey Show” — never existed. And now the city is reconsidering the inclusion of the plaques, so as not to “publicize spurious history,” Kate D. Levin, the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs, said yesterday.

The plaques may go, but they have spawned an energetic debate about folklore versus fact, and who decides what becomes the lasting historical record.

The memorial’s link between Douglass, who escaped slavery from Baltimore at age 20, and the coded designs has puzzled historians. But what particularly raised the historians’ ire were the two plaques, one naming the code’s symbols and the other explaining that they were used “to indicate the location of safe houses, escape routes and to convey other information vital to a slave’s escape and survival.”
It’s “a myth, bordering on a hoax,” said David Blight, a Yale University historian who has written a book about Douglass and edited his autobiography. “To permanently associate Douglass’s life with this story instead of great, real stories is unfortunate at best.”

The quilt theory was first published in the 1999 book “Hidden in Plain View,” by Jacqueline Tobin, a journalist and college English instructor from Denver, and Raymond Dobard, a quilting and African textiles expert. It was based on the recollections of Ozella McDaniel Williams, a teacher in Los Angeles who became a quiltmaker in Charleston, S.C. “Ozella’s code,” the book says, was handed down from slave times from mother to daughter. Ms. Williams died in 1998.

According to “Hidden in Plain View,” slaves created quilts with codes to advise those fleeing captivity. What looked to the slave master like an abstract panel on a quilt being “aired out” on a porch in fact represented a reminder, say, to be sure to follow a zigzag path to avoid being tracked when escaping. In Ms. Williams’s account, there was a sequence of 10 panels to guide an escaping slave, beginning with a “monkey wrench” pattern meaning to gather up tools and supplies and concluding with a star, a reminder to head north.

The authors say that people have tried to make too much of the book, which they intended to be one family’s story. “I would say there has been a great deal of misunderstanding about the code,” Dr. Dobard said. “In the book Jackie and I set out to say it was a set of directives. It was a beginning, not an end-all, to stir people to think and share those stories.”

Even before the book was published, the codes in “Hidden in Plain View” got a boost from “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which had Dr. Dobard, a quilter himself, as a guest in November 1998. The show was rebroadcast on Martin Luther King’s Birthday in 1999, the day before the book was published, according to Janet Hill, who edited it and is now a vice president of Doubleday. That same day, Ms. Hill wrote in an e-mail message, the book was featured in USA Today. “The book seemed to take off from there,” she wrote.

There are currently 207,000 copies in print, she said. The codes are frequently taught in elementary schools (teachers have been eager to take up the quilting-codes theory because of its useful pedagogic elements — a secret code, artwork and a story of triumph), and the patterns represent a small industry within quiltmaking.

Algernon Miller, who designed the memorial site, said he “was inspired by this story line,” which he discovered in the library. His was a re-interpretation, he said, noting that he was “taking a soft material, a quilt, and converting it into granite.”

“Traditionally what African-Americans do is take something and reinterpret into another form,” he said.
The team of Mr. Miller and a sculptor, Gabriel Koren, were selected in January 2003, from six proposals in a competition organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem. While the project, which involves rebuilding roadways, will cost more than $15 million in city, state and federal money, the 15,000-square-foot plaza and sculpture were commissioned for $750,000. It’s unclear how much it would cost to redesign it now. The memorial, at 110th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, is expected to be completed in fall 2008.

Professor Blight raised his concerns shortly after reading an editorial column in The New York Times in November praising the project and treating the quilting codes as fact. He posted a message at an online discussion group for historians of slavery. “Unfortunately, this UGRR quilt code mythology has also managed to make its way onto the very permanent and very important Frederick Douglass Memorial,” he wrote, using initials to refer to the Underground Railroad. “Douglass never saw a quilt used to free any slaves in his day. Why do we need to pin this nonsense on him now?”

Dozens of postings later, one commentator this month posted a note cautioning that the discussion was threatening to “degenerate into an episode of ‘Historians Gone Wild.’ ”

“We are watching in real time an unfolding of belief in a story,” said Marsha MacDowell, a quilting expert and an art professor at Michigan State University. “It will take years to undo. It’s like Washington chopping down the cherry tree. It has finally been written out of the history books.”

Giles R. Wright, director of the Afro-American History Program at the New Jersey Historical Commission, rattled off the historians’ problems in a telephone interview: There is no surviving example of an encoded quilt from the period. The code was never mentioned in any of the interviews of ex-slaves carried out in the 1930’s by the Works Progress Administration. There is no mention of quilting codes in any diaries or memoirs from the period.

Mr. Miller responded to critics: “No matter what anyone has to say, they weren’t there in that particular moment, especially something that was in secret.”

John Reddick, who works for the Central Park Conservancy and helped shepherd the project through its financing and community board approval, noted that in less than a decade “Hidden in Plain View” had become “a touchstone to creative people” and compared the quilt code to the coded language in Negro spirituals. “Take ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ ” he said, “the slave master thinks you are talking about dying, and the slaves are talking about getting away.” He also noted the paradox of historians demanding written evidence when slaves were barred from learning to read and write.
On Ms. Winfrey’s show, Dr. Dobard appeared with the black descendants of Thomas Jefferson. That relationship was preserved in oral history across the centuries, even as historians of the past generally dismissed the claim. DNA tests published in 1998 are considered to have confirmed Jefferson’s paternity.

A spokeswoman for Harpo Productions, which produces the show, had no comment on the controversy.

A historian, Christopher Moore, who is research coordinator at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, was consulted on the printed material in the memorial, which includes many quotations from Douglass.

In an interview, Mr. Moore said that as an unpaid consultant reviewing the project, he focused on the Douglass material, and gave cursory attention to the quilts.

When told of the historians’ objections, Mr. Moore said “it was a mistake” to include the text explaining the codes. He said he has since been asked to write a historically accurate text for the memorial.
Ms. Levin said she thought the memorial’s larger quilting theme was appropriate. “Something can inspire an artist that is not be based in fact,” she said. “This isn’t a work of history, it’s a work of art.”

"The Underground Railroad is one of the deepest American historical myths," says David Blight, a professor of American history at Yale. "It is a story of escape; it is a story from slavery to freedom. The problem has been: How do we carve through the enormous folklore and mythology of this story to get to the real stories of real fugitive slaves?"

Blight, who has written books on the Underground Railroad and Frederick Douglass, believes that children can appreciate this story through a mythic window. But he says that there is no mention of quilt codes in the oral histories of former slaves recorded during the Great Depression.

As for Douglass, he was literate, forged his own escape papers, dressed in sailor's clothing and escaped by land and by sea.

"Douglass was, politically, one of America's most ferocious political critics of the middle-19th century," Blight says. "To represent him through this apocryphal tale of quilt codes is a disservice."

GABRIEL KOREN: About the sculptor of the Frederick Douglass statue now standing on Frederick Douglass Circle

Source: New York City Culture website

The focus of Gabriel Koren's career has been to sculpt the leaders, artists, thinkers, and other members of the African diaspora whose lives and work have impacted contemporary life on national and international levels. Gabriel Koren was commissioned to create the first public sculpture of Malcolm X in New York City. The artist has created a life-sized, bronze sculpture of Malcolm X positioned to look as if he is speaking to the people visiting the ballroom.

About the Artist...
Born in Hungary, Gabriel Koren received her M.F.A. at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest. She has been included in solo and group exhibitions at Richard Anderson Gallery, the Hungarian Consulate General, Hudson Guild Art Gallery, Alan Stone Gallery, and the Queens Borough Public Library. She taught sculpture at the National Academy of Design, and was awarded grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts in 1997.

Artist Quote...
This commission was the greatest honor and the greatest responsibility I have received in all of my life. My goal was to create a sculpture of Malcolm X which would be recognized by Malcolm's community as a true representation of him. I felt I was an instrument bringing Malcolm's message forward again through the sculpture. I felt the responsibility to bring him back to the Audubon Ballroom, as if he never left. I am not religious, but I prayed before I started the work, and I prayed when I finished the work. -- Koren, 1997

Source: Queens (NY) Library

Sculptures of Hungarian thinkers, writers and historical figures fill the parks and streets in the capital city of Budapest, where sculptor Gabriel Koren was born and raised. As a child she grew up climbing and playing on the sculptures, while asking her grandmother who these people were. A child of artistic parents living in a socialist country, Koren had a multicultural education that piqued her interest in African civilizations and African American art, history and culture. In the '70s she studied with master sculptors at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, earning her Master of Fine Arts diploma in 1977. After a year of study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, she moved to New York City and established a studio in Brooklyn. One thing that struck Koren about New York City was its lack of sculptures of famous African Americans, such as Marcus Garvey, Harriet Tubman, Paul Robeson and John Coltrane. It became her life's work to create monuments that would serve as a tribute to their lives and accomplishments. She gained inspiration for her works by attending history lectures in an African American church in Brooklyn, learning from respected historians in the community. A figurative sculptor, Koren sculpts in clay and plaster, later casting her pieces in bronze. Her works depict both everyday people and great leaders, artists and thinkers of the African diaspora whose lives and work have impacted contemporary life at national and international levels. Koren's goal is to place her sculptures of these legendary leaders permanently in the Harlem and Brooklyn communities. Earning a living by teaching at the National Academy of Design and working as a commercial sculptor for the fashion, display, film and theater industries, Koren began to realize her dream in 1994. After winning a nationwide competition, Koren was commissioned to create the first public sculpture of Malcolm X. The memorial was permanently placed at the site of his assassination, the former Audubon Ballroom (168th Street and Broadway in Manhattan), now the Malcolm X Museum. Koren's sculptures have appeared in 21 group exhibitions in cities including Budapest, New York City and Washington, D.C., and in a solo exhibition at the Richard Anderson Gallery in New York City. In 1996, Koren received the New York City Art Commission's Award for Excellence in Design for her sculpture of Malcolm X.

Koren's Malcolm X

Koren's Marcus Garvey

Koren's Prudence Crandall (19th century
abolitionist and educator, Connecticut)

My photos of Koren's Frederick Douglass. . .

Sunrise over Manhattan's Frederick Douglass Circle during construction, ca. 2006

Moon rising over Manhattan's Frederick Douglass Circle before construction began, ca. 2004
See more and better photographs of the Frederick Douglass circle & statue at the HarlemCondoLife blog

Friday, June 18, 2010


Through a Glass Darkly: The Skewing of John Brown in the 20th Century

Unfortunately, as his writing suggests, Gregory
A. Stiverson, Historic Annapolis Foundation president,
cannot see John Brown with clarity.  Is this due to lack
of real research,or is it just plain old prejudice?
I have often pointed out that serious students of John Brown must work harder than the biographers and scholars of any other figure in U.S. history, because no historical personality in this nation is so beset by prejudice, misinformation, and the skewing of facts than is “The Old Man” of Harper's Ferry.  Over the past forty years, many U.S. historians and writers have ostensibly been content to work from one authoritative text, To Purge this Land with Blood  (1970) by Stephen Oates.  While Oates’s book is a solid work of scholarship, it is hardly sufficient to represent the life and legacy of John Brown the man who lived and died; it has only been in this first decade of the 21st century that the “John Brown bookshelf” has begun to fill out with a number of thoughtful, researched, and fair-minded biographies and biographical studies.  [This complete entry is available only in the forthcoming book, John Brown: Emancipator]

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

“I Drew My Sword in Kansas When They Attacked Us”:
John Brown as Counter-Terrorist

Thanks to the misinformation and harping of writers who actually know next to nothing about John Brown, he is all-too-often remembered as the man who led the Pottawatomie killings in the Kansas territory, which took place overnight on May 24-25, 1856. The story of the killings of five pro-slavery southern settlers has been recounted ad nauseam, often in an unbalanced and even distorted fashion, always to Brown’s disadvantage. In these narratives, the men who were killed by Brown and his party are typically presented as having been guilty of nothing more than holding pro-slavery sympathies. Furthermore, they are portrayed as having been almost randomly chosen as targets of Brown’s alleged vendetta strike against pro-slavery people.

In this distorted scenario, the five men killed become victims and Brown and his men become not only murderers but also terrorists. However, one cannot present this flattened, sterile reading of the Pottawatomie killings without (1) misrepresenting the real facts of the incident; (2) ignoring the historical-political context; and (3) overlooking the moral and political "big picture" as it existed in 1856.

The Real Facts
As to the real facts of the incident, the Pottawatomie "victims" were not killed because they were merely pro-slavery, nor were they killed because they were southern men. While Brown did not agree with pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, he interacted with them peacefully from late 1855 until the heated circumstances of spring 1856, when pro-slavery terrorism was mounting in its bold assaults on free state people. Brown traded with pro-slavery Missourians and co-existed with pro-slavery settlers because, despite his hatred of slavery, he was willing to respect the democratic process that was supposed to have been going on in the Kansas territory through “Popular Sovereignty,” the idea that the future of Kansas as a state would be defined by the ballot.

It is true that Brown went to Kansas with weapons in late 1855; but he did so only to act in defense of his sons and their families who had already settled there in 1854. From his arrival in the fall of 1855, Brown monitored political matters in the Territory with great optimism and with no intention of fighting or attacking pro-slavery people. Indeed, throughout the first six months of his residence in Kansas, he never lifted a finger to oppose, threaten, or harm a pro-slavery person. It was not John Brown who was a terrorist; it was the pro-slavery faction that was anti-democratic and terroristic because they were clearly intent upon imposing slavery one way or another.

But if the “Pottawatomie Five” (Wilkinson, Sherman, and three Doyles) were not killed because they were pro-slavery men, why were they killed? Simply put, the men who were targeted by Brown and his men were part of a circle of Kansas territorial settlers who were actively engaged in conspiring to assist and support the overthrow of the democratic process in the territory; they were also local allies of invading pro-slavery "ruffians" (read: terrorists) who had invaded the territory with the intention of using violence to intimidate and, when necessary, eradicate free state people—particularly pro-black abolitionists like the Browns.

While some of the “Pottawatomie Five” were low-life types, this was not the reason they were killed. Nor was the fact that the Doyles--three of the five who were killed--were former slave hunters the point of their being targeted. Rather, the point of their being taken from their homes and killed was that they were discovered through reliable sources to have been conspirators and collaborators with invading terrorists, or “hordes” as Brown referred to them. Specifically, Brown had good knowledge that these men were connected with locally encamped terrorists, and that these terrorists had real intentions of attacking the Browns because of their pronounced anti-slavery and pro-black views. Indeed, Brown was convinced that waiting passively would only give these men time and opportunity to bring destruction upon his family.

One important fact that is usually overlooked is that the typical free state person was more likely pro-free white labor, not pro-black. Simply compare Abraham Lincoln’s “anti-slavery” views to those of John Brown and you will get the idea: Lincoln wanted the United States to be a white’s first nation (this was Frederick Douglass's assessment); blacks should be free, but he always gave priority to white people. Brown thought this at best was only half-right. He was a “radical abolitionist,” not because he picked up a gun, but because he constantly preached the equality of all people. In Kansas, this made the Browns a minority among free state settlers.

One should also remember that when Brown went to Kansas, he was already deeply connected with the leaders of the black liberation movement. Frederick Douglass was sipping tea in the Brown homestead over a decade before he was invited to Lincoln’s White House. The Browns read black newspapers, entertained black guests in their homes, and hosted a number of major black leaders before they ever thought about going to Kansas. Such openness was not typical of free state people, and the Browns were quite outspoken and even defiant in upholding their social and political views regarding the equality and empowerment of blacks. This is a key factor in understanding the political background to what happened at Pottawatomie Creek—and what might have happened had the Browns not struck first.

The Historical-Political Context
The historical-political context is another reality that is typically overlooked when John Brown's alleged "terrorism" is discussed in popular commentaries and TV documentaries. First, we must remember that by May 1856 a de facto civil war was already underway in the Kansas territory. Although there was no formal political division of the United States until secession in 1861, there was actual political division manifested in the Kansas territory in 1856. In 1856, it was the free state side that was grappling with the federal government, which was dominated by pro-slavery interests. In 1861, it was the pro-slavery side that was struggling against the federal government, now under the control of the Republicans, who wanted to delimit--but not abolish-- slavery. Unlike John Brown and a handful of abolitionists, much of the North was still enamored with the idea of political compromise with the South.

It is no small matter that Kansas in 1856 was a territory, not a state of the union. Given that the Kansas territorial war was technically outside of the United States, the distance, in terms of geography and information, was exploited by powerful pro-slavery forces. In other words, because the Kansas territory was literally on the frontier, on the “outside” of the political United States, pro-slavery terrorism targeting a largely benign and unprepared majority of free state settlers met no initial resistance. In his correspondence, John Brown’s letters reflect the "outside" reality of the Kansas territory. For instance, in a letter to his wife dated January 9, 1856, he wrote: "We get no News from the States of account to satisfy our hunger which is very great"; and again on March 6, 1856, he wrote: "It seems that those of our friends who write us, take it for granted that we know of all that happens in the United States." Free state and pro-slavery settlers alike shared the experience of being removed from the nation in a manner that had practical and political implications. Certainly there was a deficiency in information and communication that separated free state people from the United States. Interruption of and/or tampering with the mail and news reporting enabled pro-slavery interests to work behind a veil of political ignorance and naïveté in the free states of the union. With the support of pro-slavery interests in Washington D.C., the initial siege of the territory by pro-slavery thugs, including the first attempt to seize the town of Lawrence, could be carried out to a significant degree because it was “outside” and away from the ready sight of the free states. To no surprise, the record of Kansas’s territorial governors in this period reflects the power of pro-slavery interests and the relative impotency of free state interests. Indeed, what passed for "law and order" in the Kansas territory was pro-slavery domination at best. At worst, there was such a fragmenting of the rule of law that neither peaceful pro-slavery nor peaceful free state settlers were safe (Gov. John Andrew of Massachusetts made this point in his testimony before the U.S. Senate in 1860).

Free state settlers (who were in the majority) went to Kansas without the means of war, being fully confident in the just oversight of the federal government regarding the democratic process. As it turned out the most definitive presence in Kansas was that of the so-called Border Ruffians—armed terrorists from Missouri, as well as other pro-slavery thugs streaming into the territory from the South. As free state settlement increased so did violent and aggressive pro-slavery forces, particularly in the early spring of 1856. Meanwhile, federal and territorial officials failed to insure the civil rights and democratic freedoms of settlers, especially free state people. Brown had brought guns and swords to Kansas, but he never would have broken them out had the threat of terrorism begun to explode after the spring thaw. The notion that he is somehow the prototypical “domestic terrorist” is pure nonsense. If prototypes of domestic terrorism are to be found in the Kansas story, they are found in “Border Ruffians” from Missouri and pro-slavery hordes from the Deep South, some of which carried banners proclaiming “The Supremacy of the White Race.” These thugs threatening free state people before Brown arrived in the territory, and it was the murder, conspiracy, and malicious intentions of such men that constitutes the real prototype of domestic terrorism in the United States.

Pottawatomie and the “Big Picture”
Brown’s lethal response to the plotting and conspiracy of pro-slavery collaborators in his vicinity must be viewed against the backdrop of free state settlement and pro-slavery expansion, which is a vital part of the “big picture.”

Initially, the free state settler movement was politically conservative, somewhat passive, and apparently naïve regarding the intentions of the federal government and the power of pro-slavery interests. Since the free state movement was fundamentally conservative, free state leaders and settlers in the territory were not initially willing to use a militant response to pro-slavery intrusion. First, free state settlers were not political radicals. True enough, their interest in western settlement expressed a political opposition to the expansion of slavery; but free state people were willing to tolerate slavery in the South as long as it did not expand.

In contrast, pro-slavery leaders were about the business of expansion. The whole reason that “Popular Sovereignty” was introduced was to give pro-slavery leaders some hope of furthering their interests in the expanding nation. Pro-slavery leaders would not vote for a transcontinental railroad unless the government included pro-slavery options into the opening of new territories, including Kansas and Nebraska (1854). Actually, pro-slavery interests were determined to expand slavery by any means necessary, but were willing to go along with the democratic process as long as it worked in their favor.

John Brown was a careful student of pro-slavery politics and he believed that the South was not going to relent without militancy, an insight that was proven correct in history. In the 1850s, Brown believed that pro-slavery interests were exploiting federal resources and quietly planning to break out of the union if they were not successful in expanding slavery westward. He understood that Kansas was a watershed in the destiny of the nation as far as slavery was concerned. Journalist William A. Phillips recounted a conversation with Brown in early 1859, when the Old Man told him that civil war was on the minds of some of President Buchanan’s cabinet members; that “for years” the military’s resources had been manipulated and maneuvered to the advantage of the South; and other pro-slavery officials in the military and administration were preparing to ravage the federal government’s resources in the event of secession. Phillips was skeptical of Brown’s gloom-and-doom reading of antebellum intentions in the South, but Brown prophesied:
No, the war [in Kansas] is not over. It is a treacherous lull before the storm. We are on the eve of one of the greatest wars in history, and I fear slavery will triumph, and there will be an end of all aspirations for human freedom. For my part, I drew my sword in Kansas when they attacked us, and I will never sheathe it until this war is over. Our best people do not understand the danger. They are besotted. They have compromised so long that they think principles of right and wrong have no more any power on this earth. [William A. Phillips, “Three Interviews with Old Brown,” The Atlantic Monthly (Dec. 1879): 743-44.]
We have no reason to doubt the fundamental integrity of Phillips’ reminiscence, not only because the historical framework of his article is trustworthy, but because Brown’s remarks are very consistent with his letters and other recorded words. It is clear that he understood the significance of the territorial civil war in Kansas, especially the fact that it was only an opening skirmish in what he believed would become an unprecedented tragedy in the young nation’s history. Beyond this, he seems to have alluded to Pottawatomie as the jumping-off point of his own activism: He raised the sword in what he perceived as an attack upon himself, his family, and their allies--in conjunction with the larger free state presence.
By pointing out the lack of understanding among the “best” free state people, Brown was criticizing the politically conservative and ill-prepared leaders of the North who were so caught up in political business-as-usual that they did not see the naked reality of the pro-slavery power. Not perceiving them as enemies, they persisted in the belief that the South could be placated and bartered into cooperation with the North. Meanwhile, the South was playing politics while quietly preparing for secession and war.

Brown knew full well that pro-slavery interests were fundamentally violent and hostile to both democracy and human rights. But in the Kansas territory he also had to contend with a large segment of free state people who were “besotted”—muddled and stupefied by their own belief that somehow the nation could find a solution by political compromise. By settling in Kansas, most free state people were not only establishing new lives and expanding the white frontier, but were hoping to bring Kansas into the federal union as a free state based upon the assumption that the South would actually cooperate if defeated by the ballot. Not only were they entirely unrealistic about prospects of “Popular Sovereignty,” they were reactionary and critical of the more militant voices among the free state side. Not a few free state leaders were unwilling to use force and were quite critical of any talk of militancy in the face of pro-slavery aggression.

The conservative, passive, and even timid stance of many free state settlers was matched with one other problematic factor that also made things hard for John Brown. Far too many were fundamentally racists and Negrophobes. The contemporary assumption that “free state = abolitionist” is flatly incorrect. In fact, there was a significant different between free state whites and abolitionists. Free state whites (including Southerners who came to the Kansas territory) did not presuppose black equality or “racial integration.” To the contrary, free state assumptions entailed the legal exclusion of blacks from settlement in Kansas. The black man was persona non grata in free state society. Why would they allow blacks in the new territory? Salmon Chase, an Ohio governor and later a member of President Lincoln's cabinet, once bemoaned the "degrading" moral presence of blacks in his state. "I do not wish the slave emancipated because I love him," Chase declared, "but because I hate his master; I hate slavery; I hate a man that will own a slave." [See letter of W. D. Chadwick dated Nov. 8, 1859, The Valley Spirit (Chambersburg, Pa.) Dec. 7, 1859, p. 1]. Such was the true spirit of the free state movement in John Brown's era.

Yet the Old Man, ever the optimist, preferred to characterize the free state position as “half-right,” for he was happy to find agreement as to the exclusion of slavery from the new territory. However he wanted Kansas to enter the union as a free state for whites and blacks to live together in equality. This was the family philosophy of the Browns, and their determination to see that position triumph was no small sore spot in their relations with free state people. Needless to say, if this troubled free state allies, the Browns’ gospel of black equality was downright infuriating to pro-slavery settlers, including neighbors living in their vicinity. Indeed, the Browns’ reputation as lovers of black people was broadcasted by the Browns themselves in a tone of defiance. Although he had refused to follow his father in the case of the Pottawatomie killings, it is interesting that John Brown Jr. had attempted to liberate a slave by force around the same time. To his disgust, he was obligated by his free state colleagues to return the victim to his master.

It has often been claimed that it was the Pottawatomie killings that incited war in Kansas. This is a frank misrepresentation of the facts. Violence, terrorism, and warfare were the work of pro-slavery thugs—armed men who had no intention of desisting whether or not they met resistance. The shelling and sacking of Lawrence in May 1856 was the natural result of pro-slavery politics in Kansas. Soon to follow was the intended attack on the Browns, radical abolitionists that were marked for removal by any means so that the pro-slavery faction could advance their cause over against the democratic process. Osawatomie, the burgeoning free state community closest to the Browns’ settlements, was marked for assault whether or not Brown had acted. The fact that pro-slavery terrorists attacked Osawatomie three months after the Pottawatomie killings was simply a regrouping of the pro-slavery faction’s original intentions. It is ludicrous to argue that the attack would not have taken place if the Pottawatomie killings had not taken place.

Like matters in the United States several years later, matters in Kansas had to come to the climax of war because pro-slavery interests were determined. There is no “counter-factual” in this regard as much as contemporary historians would like to argue. Blaming John Brown for the inflammation of matters in Kansas is like blaming a surgeon for causing the advance of his patient’s disease, as if the doctor’s scalpel is somehow the source of the patient’s disease. One may not believe in inevitability; one may argue against Brown on the basis of some possibility that the war could have been avoided. The Slave Power could never have been defeated by the implementation of latter day civil rights marches, sit-ins, and non-violent demonstrations as some scholars wistfully speculated at the sesquicentennial of the Harper’s Ferry raid last year. (Such a rationale amounts to little more than counting stars or staring into one’s navel, and in the case of some historians, somber adventures in “counter-factual” speculation are a demure manner of attacking John Brown’s legacy, while at the same time admitting that he was “on the right side of history.”) In 1856, pro-slavery interests were advancing with determination into Kansas; they saw it as a first step toward achieving the territory they intended to take. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out what would have happened if pro-slavery terrorism had not been checked in the Kansas territory; nor did the Slave Power easily surrender. After Brown was hanged and buried, even the most conservative people in Kansas probably wished that he were resurrected to face off against the likes of “domestic terrorists” such as Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson.

When John Brown and his men pulled the Pottawatomie Five from their cabins in the dead of night and hacked them to death, their deeds were terrible, bloody acts of a kind that would make any man sickened. There is no way to beautify the Pottawatomie killings: they are a reminder that the advance of evil can sometimes become so great that even good men are driven to extreme measures of violence in order to stop it. John Brown never regretted the Pottawatomie killings, although the episode was probably painful in memory. When the widow and mother of the slain Doyles wrote to him in his Virginia jail cell, perhaps both gloating and grieving in the process, Brown evidently read her letter and said nothing. What could he have said? Had he not also lost sons in the war against slavery? The only difference between the two of them was that he grieved over sons slain in defense of human rights; the Widow Doyle’s husband and sons had died as terrorists caught in a snare of their own making. By her own words at the time, they had fallen prey to their own “devilment.”

Like their leader, none of the killers ever expressed regret for wrong doing in the Pottawatomie incident. It may have broken Owen Brown’s heart to kill his enemies so savagely; but neither he nor Henry Thompson (Brown’s son-in-law) ever reneged on the necessity of the bloody deed because they understood that the lives of their own family were at stake. No doubt speaking for himself as well as Owen, Henry, and the others, Brown wrote to his wife, only slightly veiling their role in the bloody incident: "We feel assured that he who sees not as men see does not lay the guilt of innocent blood to our charge" [John Brown to Mary Brown, June 24, 1856].

The Pottawatomie incident cannot be viewed as a case of domestic terrorism. To the contrary, the awful slaying of five men along the Pottawatomie Creek in May 1856 must be viewed through the lens of political and historical reality. John Brown used blunt but measured force to excise a real threat; his actions were counter-terroristic, surgical, and specific to a particular case where all forms of law and justice had broken down, and where the power of thugs and terrorists threatened to swallow up everything sacred to freedom. "The horrors wrought by his iron hand cannot be contemplated without a shudder," Frederick Douglass (who probably knew the details from Brown himself) would later write in reference to Pottawatomie. "But it is the shudder which one feels at the execution of a murderer" [Life and Times of Frederick Douglass] John Brown saw his family and compatriots overshadowed by a murderous threat and he struck first. He did not lift his sword to initiate terrorism, but to answer terrorism with finely honed steel.

And evil men trembled.