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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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Friday, October 29, 2010

The Bigger Picture
And Just Who is the "Enemy Within"?

While we are appreciative that the Interpretive Services Manager, Richard Cooper, has cooperated in revising the problematic and offensive description of his John Brown presentation, the bigger picture needs to be addressed.  The bigger picture is that the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (NURFC) in Cincinnati, is hosting an exhibit entitled, "The Enemy Within: Terror in America--1776 to Today." 

The exhibit, which opened on September 11th and runs through February 6, 2011, originates from The Spy Museum, a Washington D.C. institution that celebrates and studies the origin, development, and function of surveillance, evidently with a particular focus on the present global and technological realities, including counter-terrorism.  According to the exhibit page on the NURFC website, "The Enemy Within" reveals nine major events and periods in U.S. History when Americans were threatened by enemies within its borders."  In so doing, the exhibit purports itself to depict "how the government and public responded, illustrating the corresponding evolution of the U.S. counterintelligence and homeland security efforts, and examining the challenge of securing the nation without compromising the civil liberties upon which it was founded."

Of course, the question is why a lecture on John Brown would be scheduled following a presentation entitled, “Before and After: Domestic Terrorism in America.”  According to the NURFC description, J. Michael Rhyne will present a discussion “focused on the connections between the terrorism experienced by Americans and in America today and the legacy of terrorism experienced throughout our country’s history.”  And get this: “Focusing particularly on events before and after the Civil War, this program is a case study through which we can understand domestic terrorism and it’s effects on Americans.”

I agree with Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, a biographer of Harriet Tubman and professor at Wheelock and Simmons Colleges, “This is more troubling than imagined” [Electronic mail, Larson to Libby, 29 October 2010, 6:47].  Larson subsequently writes: “I wonder if they include the firing on Fort Sumter by South Carolina as the start of 4 years of "domestic terrorism".  Certainly the Confederate States were "The Enemy Within" the United States of America in 1861-1865” [Electronic mail, Larson to Libby, 29 October 2010, 9:29].  True enough, but not being able to attend the exhibit, I thought it would be important to ascertain the nature of “The Enemy Within,” and particularly whether John Brown is portrayed as part of the exhibit. 

JB: Whose Enemy?
After a quick search on the internet, I discovered that “The Enemy Within” is not a new exhibit, and has been around for over five years and traveled around the country to places like Oklahoma and Minnesota.  The Minnesota Historical Society particularly provides the following helpful synopsis of the exhibit:

“Visitors then follow a pathway through the nine historic events. Highlights include:

•            Revolution: 1776 – 1890 A display shows the burning of the White House, Capitol and other public buildings during the War of 1812, emphasizing how a small group of Americans helped the British capture the city.
•            Sabotage: 1914 – 1918 Historic film footage shows the attempts of firefighters to extinguish the blaze after German secret agents, aided by American collaborators, blew up a munitions depot in New York Harbor.
•            Hate: 1866 – Present A floor-to-ceiling image of the 1925 Ku Klux Klan march through Washington, D.C. . . visitors . . . learn about the repeated rise and fall of the nation’s oldest hate group.
•            Radicalism: 1886 – 1924 Visitors learn about radical immigrant laborers and anarchists who used bombs and guns to fight for workers’ rights, and the government counter-measures including roundups, detention and deportation.
•            World War: 1939 – 1945 Graphic panels and a replica of a plane’s tail section retell the story of a Japanese pilot who, after participating in the attack on Pearl Harbor, terrorized the remote Hawaiian island of Niihau with the aid of a Japanese-American.
•            Subversion: 1938 – 1956 Visitors enter a 1950s FBI office and explore the actions citizens and the government took to confront a perceived communist threat during the “Red Scare.”
•            Protest: 1969 - 1981 Large photomurals depict protests during the social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s. Historic film footage of protests and the FBI’s response is mixed with a recent interview with a member of the 1960s extremist group Weather Underground about acts of violence undertaken to challenge government authority and policies.
•            Extremism: 1980 – Present The Oklahoma City bombing, the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil in the 20th century is explored.
•            Terrorism: 1980 – Present Visitors enter a theater to watch “Under Siege,” an eight-minute film exploring the terrorist threat today, initiatives by the U.S. government to root out terrorist elements in the U.S., the balance between civil liberties and national security, and the impact of these initiatives on the daily lives of Americans

After reading this it was no surprise that Ken Ringle, a contributor to The Washington Post, wrote about “The Enemy Within” as a confusing, blurring exhibit:

Ambitious in conception and frustratingly fuzzy in execution, "The Enemy Within: Terror in America -- 1776 to Today" at the International Spy Museum manages to confuse as much as it clarifies. . . . Unfortunately, "The Enemy Within" muddies the issue from the start, not only by failing to define "terrorism" but by lumping it with all sorts of other questionable activities, from espionage and subversion to political radicalism.
"Terrorism" as whatever makes
(white) Americans "uneasy"?
While this exhibit may sound interesting, it evidently is a ham-handed and sloppy treatment.  As Ringle concluded, the result of “The Enemy Within” is that “visitors may leave with the impression that terrorism is whatever makes one uneasy.”

And here’s the rub.  Much of the “terrorism” discussion as forced upon the John Brown story is often precisely about what makes a large number of white people “uneasy.”  Conversely, what does not upset or disturb the sensibilities of the majority is not considered terrorism.  Thus Prof. Kate Clifford Larson writes:

[Associating John Brown with terrorism] is a reflection of just how pervasive ignorance about the history of slavery and the pursuit of freedom really is in this country. When a place like the Freedom Center describes a talk about John Brown -- John Brown! -- as a terrorist, when that place is supposed to educate the public about the several hundreds of years of "domestic terrorism" against people of African descent speaks to the continuing domination of a neo-Confederate perspective on slavery and the causes of the Civil War. [Electronic mail, Larson to Libby, 29 October 2010, 6:39]

Obviously, we could not agree with her more.  Nor should we be surprised that “The Enemy Within” includes Brown’s activities in Kansas and the Harper’s Ferry raid.  According to a description of this exhibit on the website, Freedom 2.0 Distributed Democracy, “The Enemy Within” includes a “timeline that traces over 80 acts of terror [my emphasis] that have taken place in the U.S. from the 1776 to today, including the Revolutionary War plot to kidnap George Washington, the events of Bloody Kansas prior to the Civil War, John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry, 1960s Church bombings in the South, and the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.” 
There are two issues here: the first is a tendency toward sloppiness and sensationalism. . . . The other is a tendency to focus on the experience and perception of the majority population, thus defining “terror” according to a conventional reading of U.S. history.
Evidently, there are two issues here: the first is a tendency toward sloppiness and sensationalism, which allows a variety of episodes and incidents to be bunched together under a broad range of themes—the only common denominator apparently being that all of them involve violence, regardless of the political issues.  The other is a tendency to focus on the experience and perception of the majority population, thus defining “terror” according to a conventional reading of U.S. history.  While the exhibit includes the notorious bombing of black churches in the Civil Rights era and the KKK is presented as “the nation’s oldest hate group,” it is nevertheless defined by what white society considers hate and terror.  While we agree that the Klan is a “hate group,” this overlooks the bigger problem of racist hatred and oppression throughout history—namely, that African Americans views much of the nation’s history as reflecting “hate group” thinking and behaviors.  The preponderance of racist abuse, from slavery, to segregation, to the daily indignities and injustices of systemic racism suggest that in U.S. history, the real “hate group” afflicting African Americans is much larger than the KKK.  

The last point to be made about this exhibit is that “The Enemy Within” is intended to show how these events influenced the "evolution" of "U.S. counterintelligence,” and “the challenge of securing the nation without compromising the civil liberties upon which it was founded." 

FBI's Hoover: Black
People's "Enemy Within"  
The inherent flaw of this premise is the notion that counterintelligence, surveillance and other “security” measures were developed only in the face of real violence and radical danger threatening the nation.  This is not the case, particularly as it is a matter of historical record that the surveillance community in the 20th century cut its teeth and honed its skills by spying on and undermining activists and organizations that represented peaceful, constructive, political alternatives as well as those that were critical of white supremacy.  Consider what a young J. Edgar Hoover did to destroy black nationalist leader, Marcus Garvey, or what he did in later years to attack and undermine Martin Luther King Jr.  The truth is that while the surveillance community and federal constabularies have done the hard work of protecting this nation, they have also worked over time to destroy any group perceived as being  “extremist,” “leftist,” “communist,” or “radical.”  The definition of these terms had nothing to do with whether surveillance targets were criminals or violent terrorists, but whether they held to politically and socially unacceptable views according to Hoover and right-wing "America."

Primo Spy Allan Pinkerton
Helped John Brown in Chicago
As far as John Brown is concerned, in his day he was tracked by “Uncle Sam’s Hounds,” as he described federal marshals in the late 1850s.  But there was no FBI or surveillance community in place in the antebellum era, and using pseudonyms, disguises, and coded communication worked quite well for him in the pre-telephone era.  Yet is evident that he was not considered a "terrorist" by anti-slavery folks, even if they believed him "monomania on the subject of slavery." Indeed, Brown was actually supported by the progenitor of U.S. intelligence, Allan Pinkerton, who assisted Brown in smuggling black fugitives through Chicago en route for Canada in early 1859.  I doubt this fact is included in “The Enemy Within,” just as I doubt that this exhibit identifies the larger problem of slavery and the ultimate territorial war that was waged upon Native Americans—neither of which were concerned with “compromising the civil liberties” upon which this nation was supposedly founded.  [rev. 30 Oct 2010--LD]
A Good Result
A Revised Title for the NURFC Program on John Brown

On behalf of the John Brown community and certainly my readers, I would like to extend my thanks to Mr. Richard Cooper of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center for kindly hearing and acting upon the constructive criticism offered by Jean Libby, me, and others who have written to him and/or the NURFC about the title of its upcoming program on John Brown.

The website formerly read:

THE ENEMY WITHIN Gallery Talk: John Brown
November 13, 2010 02:30 PM
Join Interpretive Services Manager Richard Cooper for an in-gallery conversation discussing on of America’s most infamous domestic terrorists: abolitionist John Brown. Presented in conjunction with The Enemy Within. 
Happily, it now reads:

Gallery Talk: John Brown

November 13, 2010 02:30 PM
Join Interpretive Services Manager Richard Cooper for an in-gallery conversation discussing abolitionist John Brown. 

We appreciate this adjustment and trust that Brown likewise will be fairly represented despite the overarching theme of domestic terrorism entitled, "The Enemy Within," presented just prior to Mr. Cooper's discussion.

We further encourage people to attend the NURFC and its programs and will post available news and information about Mr. Cooper's presentation if available.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

P'd Off Again
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Calls John Brown an Enemy Terrorist

I am informed that the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, has a program scheduled for November 13 on Domestic Terrorism featuring a gallery talk entitled, "The Enemy Within: John Brown," led by Interpretive Services Manager, Richard Cooper.  While it is my understanding that Mr. Cooper is a well-meaning fellow operating with no malevolent intent, the program title is inflammatory, malignant, and insulting.  Certainly it is unworthy for a program being presented by, of all places, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

I have emailed Mr. Cooper my appeal and protest (published below).  I encourage my readers to contact Mr. Cooper ASAP at rcooper@nurfc.org or call him at 513-333-7594.

John Brown was both a participant in and friend of the underground railroad, and he was admired by the leaders of the underground railroad, especially among African Americans.  For Brown to be excised from history, held up in a negative, hostile light, and portrayed as an enemy is not only an affront to his life and legacy, but it is an insult to the real victims of terrorism in the U.S.A.--the enslaved black men, women, and children who suffered under the original and most blatant form of "domestic terrorism" in the nation: white supremacy.

"The Unkindest Cut of All": My Email to Richard Cooper

Dear Mr. Cooper,

As a biographer of John Brown the abolitionist, I am writing to express my utter dismay and actual disgust at the news of your upcoming gallery talk entitled, "The Enemy Within: John Brown," along the lines of domestic terrorism.

I do not know you and I should be careful not to draw harsh conclusions about you, your political viewpoint, or your sense of history, but it is very hard at least not to question the integrity of such a title and the reasoning underlying it.

First, let me point out that the view of John Brown as an inimical terrorist and prototype of the domestic stripe of terrorist in particular is a view that is not held by any serious John Brown biographer or scholar.  Even someone like Oswald G. Villard, whose biography one hundred years ago was critical of Brown's efforts in Kansas, would not have embraced such a fundamentally hostile and misrepresentative approach.  Along with myself, biographers Evan Carton, Robert McGlone, and even David Reynolds (who utilized terrorist language in his popular biography) do not employ or approve of such hostile language in describing Brown.   Besides biographers, the leading documentary scholars from Jean Libby today to the late Boyd Stutler and Clarence S. Gee and Louis Ruchames (the latter two both clergymen as I am also) either object to or would very much have objected to the categorization of John Brown with domestic terrorism.  I am both a Brown biographer and an ongoing documentary scholar and student of the man, and frankly I find that people who tend to argue along these lines are typically doing so from a self-decided position based on a decontextualized and problematic reading of the record.  I should add that I was part of a scholarly conference at Yale University last October and while there were references to terrorism in the program, the consensus of that conference was hardly inclined to identify John Brown as an internal enemy.

Second, the concept of John Brown as an enemy terrorist of the domestic stripe is historically inaccurate and highly problematic for two reasons that have both political and historical aspects:

A.  To isolate and elevate Brown in such a negative manner ignores the record of events in Kansas in 1855-56, during which time the territory was overrun by pro-slavery thugs bent on using violence to force the territory to adopt slavery "democratically."  The free state side was non-violent, vainly trusting in the federal government (which was dominated by pro-slavery forces), and ill-prepared to deal with this terrorism and it is a matter of record that they were being completely intimidated and violently assaulted prior to the response of men like Brown, Montgomery and others.  The point is that to discuss Brown as a terrorist is historically irresponsible.  “Home grown” terrorism in Kansas was the pro-slavery assault, which was not only anti-free state but also functioning against the alleged democratic process put in place.  How can you discuss Brown as an "enemy within" without dealing with the larger issue of pro-slavery terrorism and the extensive program of violent filibustering, expansionism, and territorial conquest that characterized pro-slavery terrorism in Brown's era?  How can you justify excising John Brown completely out of historical context and portraying him as "the bad guy"?  

B.  To further isolate Brown as an inimical terrorist presence is not only an affront to the free state side in Kansas, but is to stand in virtual negation of the explicit terrorism of slavery as a system.   How can anyone responsibly speak of terrorism in the antebellum era as if John Brown invented it, when 4 millions of black people lived as chattel slaves under a system that regularly used terror in explicit ways and relied upon implicit terrorism to sustain its operation and infrastructure?   To pretend that John Brown was somehow a singular terrorist figure is not only ridiculous in light of the political realities that faced free state and abolitionist people in Kansas and the larger nation at the time, but it is essentially a slap in the face of African Americans who were the real victims of terrorism.  It is to suggest that the political and social status quo of the antebellum era in the U.S.A. was essentially stable and democratically functional until aberrant people like John Brown upset it.   Such a stance is either indicative of historical ignorance or it may be judged as inherently racist and certainly problematic.

C.  To present the John Brown theme of "the enemy within" in conjunction with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is antithetical.  John Brown was not only a veteran participant in URR activities but was known and admired by URR leaders, especially in the African American community.  Even pacifist Quakers who disagreed with Brown's methods at Harper's Ferry could write to him in acknowledgment of his high character and friendship to humanity despite differing with him ideologically.  How can you guys do this to Brown--you of all people?  

With the help of my associates, I keep a close watch on what is written about Brown, especially on the Internet, and I've not seen this blatantly insulting rhetoric even from writers who are highly critical of Brown.  While one is entitled to raise questions about violence, one should at least consider providing a fair and balanced discussion that entails the full controversy of which Brown is a part.  Even critics of John Brown, such as the renowned writer Tony Horwitz (who has an unfortunate tendency to want to make Brown into something resembling a terrorist) will acknowledge that John Brown stands on the "right side of history."   I do not agree with Mr. Horwitz's negative inclinations respecting Brown, but I should point out that even he has shown more caution than to utilize the kind of reckless, sensational terminology you have used your for your program title.  In other words, your program title places you, historically speaking, on the wrong side of history and on the side of a segment of writers and scholars who tend to force Brown into prepackaged categories for meretricious and malignant reasons.

While I believe in free speech and understand that this is your program and that you are entitled to do what you want to do, I hope that free speech in this case would be protected by a sense of historical and ethical responsibility and integrity.  Please do not feed into the less worthy inclinations of popular prejudice by propping up a fairly useless straw man (i.e., John Brown the original domestic terrorist) that has no real value to a study of John Brown the man who lived. After all, your forum is not just any public or academic forum.  It is supposed to represent the feet and hands of the anti-slavery movement.  For the NURFC to portray Brown under such hostile rhetoric is perhaps the unkindest cut of all.  
I urge you with all best wishes to revise your program title and to introduce a balanced presentation.

Yours truly,
Rev. Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., Ph.D.
New York City

Monday, October 25, 2010

John Brown in the News

John Brown’s Connecticut Roots Discussed

The Haddam (Connecticut) Historical Society will host a program with historian Bill Hosley, who will present "John Brown: The Connecticut Roots of an American Legend," Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. at the town hall, Field Park Drive.

John Brown (1800-1859) is the Connecticut native and American abolitionist whose fiery rhetoric and controversial activism helped blaze the trail that led to the Civil War. Although he was raised mostly in Ohio and achieved fame in Kansas, Brown's combination of evangelical fervor, Yankee ingenuity and marketing savvy, made him a convincing exponent of Connecticut values and identity.

This armchair tour of art, objects and historic sites associated with Brown will recall the drama and issues of his life by reviewing how his legacy has been interpreted, preserved and expressed in art, sculpture, poetry, material culture, music and in mythologized historic sites.

“Riddle of the Sphinx” Exhibit on John Brown at the University of Pennsylvania

Oct. 16 marked the 151st anniversary of abolitionist John Brown’s campaign on Harper’s Ferry.

On Oct. 22, the DuBois College House commemorated the historic date with a recital marking the opening of an art exhibit — Riddle of the Sphinx. The recital was directed by Terry Adkins, former faculty master of DuBois and current director of the house's Amistad Gallery.

Held in the Amistad Gallery, the opening recital consisted of a video element, an avant-garde music performance and an interactive piece featuring Brown’s writings. The exhibit itself, which opened Oct. 16, also featured several sculpture pieces created by Adkins specifically for the event.

Both the recital and the exhibit highlighted John Brown’s life as a soldier, prophet, shepherd and martyr.

“The whole thing is an ensemble that speaks together and works together,” Adkins said. “It’s hard for me to see individual pieces.”

Adkins’ goal is for visitors to feel “more informed and spiritually nourished” by the exhibit.

Around 40 visitors attended the event, including graduate students from Adkins’ sculpture seminar. Many were moved by the documents and art pieces on display.

“There’s a lot of narrative, a lot to digest,” junior School of Design graduate student Cristina Tufino said.

“Adkins “starts with historical materials and makes them contemporary,” senior School of Design graduate student Jessica Vaughn said.

Others felt the exhibit did a good job of educating visitors about Brown’s actions and the history of abolitionism.

“I think it provides another vantage point to discuss American racial issues, as well as American religious history,” faculty master Will Gibson said.

“I’m glad to see a show that helps view John Brown as a prophet,” 2010 College graduate Kyle LoPinto said.

Overall, Adkins was pleased with the turnout.

“I hope that [visitors] will take away a knowledge of who John Brown was, just what he means for America, and how his vision has played out,” he said.

The Riddle of the Sphinx will be open until Dec. 2, the date of Brown’s death.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Salmon Brown on His Father's Kansas Critics and the Pottawatomie Killings

In the later 19th century, some of the established former Kansas free state leaders, such as Eli Thayer, Charles Robinson, and G. W. Brown, turned against John Brown and attacked his legacy in newspaper and publications.  Apparently they did so out of political conservatism and jealousy. 

Reflecting on their latter day treachery, Salmon Brown wrote to historian William E. Connelley that these critics, whom he called "men of easy reformed opening," knew full well that Brown and other militant free state men "never struck a blow but what was done in the defense of Kansas against the Missouri cut throats that were burning their towns and killing their people."  This lengthy letter itself is a page by page rejoinder (admittedly, much of it laced with angry sarcasm) to the slanderous, error-ridden biography of Brown by Hill Peebles Wilson (1913).  In fact, the Wilson bio was authorized and paid for by the widow of Charles Robinson, who shared her husband's evident contempt for John Brown.  It has never been taken seriously by historians, and Salmon was doubtless correct in referring to it as a "worthless book which is fit only for reading by those who are still mourning for the lost cause."  

Salmon's letter includes the following interesting comments in defense of his father, particularly in regard to the much misrepresented Pottawatomie killings of May 1856:
Who whipped Buford's men and broke up Cato's court and whipped Capt. Pate at Black Jack and whipped Reed at Osawattomie when nine tenths of the people of Kansas did not dare to let it be known which side they were on [?]   It was John Brown, and his men, and men that stood with him. . . . We came fresh from the burning of Lawrence to that Pottawattomie crossing where Cato was preparing to exterminate "every dam[n]ed abolishinest [sic] in that region" as were were told by Buford's men a few days before Lawrence was burned.  Cato in his efforts to exterminate the Browns exterminated his court and his low down backing officials.  That was the last attempt to hold court in our neighberhood [sic]."
H. H. Williams . . . wrote down the names on a sheet of paper of the men that he wanted picked off on the Pottawatomie and handed it to my father.  I stood by him when he wrote down the names.  He saw us grind the sabers and knew what it was for. . . .  He lived at this time on the Pottawattomie and afterwards at Osawattomie.
Students of John Brown, particularly those interested in understanding the Pottawatomie killings, must revisit all the testimony and evidence surrounding the incident instead of relying on hackneyed remarks by writers with decided opinions that Brown was a "terrorist."  The Browns later acknowledged that the killings were carried out under John Brown's leadership, but unfortunately the "terrorist" school of writers does not use the full extent of their statements.  As Salmon's testimony shows, not only was John Brown urged on by local free state people like H. H. Williams, but received specific names of persons that were distinguished for pro-terrorist activity.  After investigating these men under the guise of a pro-slavery surveyor, Brown got first-hand affirmation from the very mouths of Buford's pro-slavery terrorists encamped nearby.  In light of these dire political circumstances and the complete lack of protection by federal and territorial law enforcement at the time, the Browns took violent action at Pottawatomie to suppress pro-slavery terrorism, defend his family (which is the main reason he went in the first place), and make the first real counter-terrorist response on behalf of the vulnerably passive free state side.  Brown was confident that he would be vindicated in historical terms for the killings, but that full vindication has been delayed by the prejudice and selective reading of Brown's "friends" and enemies alike.

If critics of John Brown think that it would be morally justifiable to uncover and destroy any terrorist cell with plans to attack our nation and its cities today, then at least they should grant John Brown some more consideration and stop blabbering the nonsense of "terrorism."  Indeed, in light of all the evidence, the only critics of Brown with any justifiable platform are consistent pacifists.  The rest are biased, or they are warmed-over rebels still clinging to the "lost cause."

Source: Salmon Brown to William E. Connelley, November 6, 1913, pp. 3, 4, 16,  25 and 32-33. Boyd B. Stutler Collection, MS05-0044

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Reading Between the Lines of History
RICH MAN, POOR MAN: The Surviving Sons of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln in 1914

Robert Todd Lincoln
A single son still survives to cherish the names of the two great abolitionists [sic], Abraham Lincoln and John Brown.

The only living son of ex-President Lincoln is Robert T. Lincoln, and the only living son of John Brown of Harper's Ferry is Salmon Brown.  A span of several thousand miles separates the homes of these two sons of two world famous men, for Robert Lincoln lives at Manchester, Vt., and Salmon Brown at Portland, Ore.

Both are aged men.  Mr. Lincoln this last summer celebrated his seventieth birthday, and Mr. Brown, grizzled and gray, and crippled from an accident of several years ago, staggers about his little farm on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, a man past the 80 mark.

Salmon Brown
Robert Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln, is rich.  Salmon Brown, the son of John Brown, is poor. Mr. Lincoln, who has money, is head of the Pullman Car Company, lives in a royal $100,000 mansion in one of the most beautiful country towns in New England and spends about all of his leisure playing golf.  Salmon Brown is obliged to labor long hours on his farm at Portland to make a living.  Neither has ever seen the other, and it is doubtful if one knows the other is alive.

Salmon Brown in giving an account of the incidents of his father's life cites a singular circumstance.  He said: "Robert E. Lee captured John Brown in Virginia.  At the close of the war Lee laid down his arms to General Grant, a fifth cousin of John Brown.  Grover Cleveland was a sixth cousin to my father, and both he and Grant not long thereafter became presidents of the United States."

Mr. Brown, in closing an interesting interview concerning his father said: "With more than a half century intervening since the tragedy at Harper's Ferry, during which time public judgment has calmed and changed materially, I feel that no apology is needed on behalf of John Brown, husband and father, kind and true, however much some may still doubt the saneness of his work for the abolition of that horrible national curse, slavery."

Source: "Son of Lincoln, Rich; John Brown's Son, Poor," Topeka Capital (Apr. 12, 1914)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How History Professors Mislead People: The Case of Joseph C. Morton vs. John Brown

According to the byline of his recent article in the Northwest Herald (Crystal Lake, Ill.), Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of numerous articles and books on American political history.  I have most readily found two of his books on Amazon.com, Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787: A Biographical Dictionary (Greenwood Press, 2005), and The American Revolution (Greenwood Press, 2003).

Unlike the inevitable John Brown-hating bloggers and journalists who periodically contaminate the internet with ignorant, unstudied, and bigoted articles about John Brown, I believe that Prof. Morton, a scholar and expert on early U.S. history, probably intended to contribute a popular and useful article in remembrance of Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, 151 years ago.  His piece appeared on the 18th under the awkward title, “John Brown forfeit his life to end slavery.”   Unfortunately, Prof. Morton’s’ article, although thoughtful at points, suffers from errors of fact as well as bias. 

[The complete entry is available only in the forthcoming book, John Brown: Emancipator]

Saturday, October 16, 2010

1 5 1  Y e a r s   L a t e r

One year has passed since the Harper's Ferry Raid sesquicentennial, and 151 years since the raid itself.  Last year, conferences, programs, and published articles were in abundance marking the event, and I believe the general tenor of these programs was far better than what was expressed in 1959, at the centennial of the raid.  In mid-20th century academia, Brown's legacy was fairly well held hostage by a group of leading historians whose prejudices rendered their judgments largely worthless in terms of learning about John Brown the man who lived.  In fact, it took the balance of the 20th century for scholars to significantly move away from the fundamentally flawed presentation of Brown by those whom Boyd Stutler facetiously called the "scientific historians."

As I write this on the evening of October 16, 2010, I am mindful that 151 years ago tonight, John Brown and his men were holed up in the engine house of the Harper's Ferry armory works.  The Harper's Ferry episode is perhaps the most dramatic moment in antebellum history, and the counterpoint to the famously celebrated 1836 Alamo defeat, where a group of supposed heroes died at the hands of superior force.  Both were defeats, but whereas Harper's Ferry represents the struggle for human rights, the Alamo represents white nationalism and the goal of the extension of slavery.  I am quite sure that over the next few years, the theme of the Harper's Ferry raid will continue to be discussed, debated, and represented in both scholarly and popular media.  But even the greatest detractors of this generation will find it hard to deny the integrity of vision and devotion of personal sacrifice reflected in the struggle and death of men--white and black--who went to Harper's Ferry to initiate a war on slavery.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Osawatomie Notebook
H. H. Williams, An Ally of John Brown in Kansas

Henry H. Williams was an Osawatomie abolitionist who fought proslavery forces alongside John Brown. After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the Hudson, N.Y., man emigrated to Kansas, first settling in Anderson County along Pottawatomie Creek and eventually moving to Osawatomie.

Williams was commissioned a lieutenant in the Pottawatomie Rifles, a free-state militia commanded by Brown in November 1855 during the so-called Wakarusa War. About 1,500 proslavery militia men had surrounded Lawrence, threatening to attack and burn the town to the ground. Abolitionists negotiated a peaceful end to the Wakarusa War, and the Pottawatomie Rifles were disbanded. When the Rifles were reorganized in 1856 under the command of John Brown Jr., Williams enlisted as a private.

He was elected as a delegate from Osawatomie to the free-state convention in December 1855, and in January 1856 was elected to the free-state legislature, a rival body to the federally approved proslavery government.

Proslavery forces captured Williams in June 1856 and imprisoned him at Lecompton, the proslavery capital of Kansas Territory. Williams had fought beside John Brown and therefore was charged with high treason by the territorial government. U.S. Commissioner Edward Hoagland kept Williams in custody to prevent him from being killed by proslavery advocates, but he was released later in 1856.

Williams served as sheriff of Miami County in 1857 and was reelected to that post in 1859. When the Civil War broke out, Williams joined the Union Army in the Third Kansas Volunteers and was given the rank of major. He commanded the Third Kansas at the battles of Cane Hill, Prairie Grove and Van Buren in Arkansas. Williams later served on the staff of Gen. Thomas Ewing and was provost-marshal of the District of Saint Louis. Williams was honorably discharged from the Union Army in 1865 and continued to serve the public the rest of his life.

Williams was sheriff of Jackson County, Mo., from 1865 to 1867 and then returned to Osawatomie. He opened a hardware store and was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives in 1867 and the Kansas Senate in 1868.

Henry H. Williams is an example of an Osawatomie citizen who quietly spent his life serving his community and his nation. He is an example of the civic leaders who, throughout Osawatomie’s and the nation’s history, have worked to build up their towns and country.

Leaders like Henry H. Williams are not often the subject of books or movies, but they made invaluable contributions to American history. We have the communities and culture we have today because of people like Williams, and we owe them a debt of gratitude and respect.

   Grady Atwater is administrator of John Brown State Historic Site.

Postscript: H. H. Williams, John Brown, and the Pottawatomie Killings

According to Salmon Brown (the son of John Brown), H. H. Williams might be taken down a few notches despite his notable leadership among the free state settlers in that troubled era.  Salmon told Katherine Mayo, the researcher of Oswald Villard, that it was Williams who was something of the mastermind behind the Pottawatomie killings.

The younger Brown said that Williams was the “principal man—the leader—in the council that resolved on the necessity of Pottawatomie,” although he expressed some hesitation in revealing this because Williams himself had never acknowledged this after the fact of the killings.  At the time, however, Williams

was wholly determined that the thing must be done.  He knew all those men on the Pottawatomie, better than any of us.  He lived among them—was familiar with all their characters.  He was now the most active of us all in urging this step.  And not fifteen minutes before we left to go to Pottawatomie I saw him, myself, write out a list of the men who were to be killed and hand it to father.  This was the crest of the wave of enthusiasm. . . .  Williams wrote down the names of the men whom, he said, it was necessary to pick off to prevent the utter destruction of the whole community and handed the paper to father.  We started back, thereupon, for the Pottawatomie country, which was the headquarters for the pro-slavery men, under Judge Cato, for that region, to pick off the designated men prominent in enforcing Border Ruffian laws. (Villard, John Brown, 152)

Villard points out in a note that, in all fairness, at the time that Brown and his men were organizing their attack on the Pottawatomie, Williams warned another settler not to get involved because something “rash” was going to be done (n. 16, p. 609).  However, Salmon Brown also pointed out that Williams “was a little cautious,” and “too smart” to involve himself in the same mission that he had encouraged when he could get others to do it for him.  Perhaps this other testimony reflects his subsequent timidity about the outcome, since Salmon told his interviewer that Williams “got scared” after the fact, weakened in the face of negative reaction of conservative free state critics, and “went back on his own radical measures, weakened, [and] did not confess to his own share in their origin, and counseled peace.” (Villard, p. 152).

Of course, Salmon Brown’s eyewitness account must be weighed, along with other admissions by the Browns and other Kansas testimonies.  We are of the opinion that the Pottawatomie killings were largely a matter of preempting and destroying the terrorist base in the vicinity of Osawatomie, although Salmon Brown likewise attributes a “radical retaliatory” aspect to the violent assault.  To be sure, we reject outright any notion that the Pottawatomie killings were an act of “terrorism” in the contemporary sense.  Neither Brown nor H. H. Thompson, were acting as terrorists, but as people caught in the midst of a war being waged upon the free state people by militant, violent and terroristic pro-slavery thugs with all the weight of the pro-slavery power’s influence in their favor. 

A fair evaluation of the political, legal, and strategic circumstances surrounding the killing make any notion of the Pottawatomie killings as “terroristic” a ridiculous and ill-founded conclusion.  Those who accuse Brown of being an “American terrorist” have probably failed to study the Kansas situation with adequacy, but instead are largely fueled by political bias and hearsay.

This is not to suggest that there are not questions—particularly questions surrounding the way Brown presented himself in relation to the killings in retrospect.  Nevertheless, the fundamental paradigm of John Brown the Pottawatomie “terrorist” must be set aside for a more reasonable and fair framework. 

Shortly after Brown’s hanging, an old Ohio associate recounted a conversation that he had with Brown sometime in the fall of 1857.  In that conversation, Brown recounted how, in 1856, the free state settlers had been invaded “by hordes of ruffians, and threatened with a bloody extermination.” [See “Recollections of John Brown,” The New York Times (Dec. 3, 1859)].  Responding violently to the threat of “bloody extermination” within a context of war and in the absence of any real protection from federal or local police cannot rightly be branded “terrorism.”  

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mary Brown: “God Bless Abraham Lincoln”

Among the primary documents in the collection of Boyd B. Stutler, the great documentarian of John Brown (West Virginia Department of Culture and History), there is a letter written on January 7, 1863 by Mary Brown, the widow of John Brown.  It is addressed to Mary Stearns of Medford, Massachusetts, the wife of George L. Stearns, one of Brown’s most faithful and generous supporters—one of the so-called Secret Six.  Apparently, Mary Stearns was quite a force in her own right, and Brown himself had written to her on November 29, 1859, only two days before he was hanged in Virginia (two copies of the letter are held in the Stutler Collection; the original letter is in the Gilder Lehrman Collection at the New York Historical Society).

Both Mary Brown and Mary Stearns strongly supported their husbands and both were independently devoted to abolitionism.  Given her great means, however, the latter Mary continued to support the anti-slavery cause, and for the rest of her life proved a great supporter of African American concerns.  For instance, there is a kind remembrance and salutation of Mary Stearns by Booker T. Washington, which he wrote in the Boston Transcript after her death in 1901.  Washington spoke of her as “one of the truest and wisest of friends” of the black community, and revealed that she had supported his Tuskegee Institute as well as other black schools in the South.

In the January 7th letter, Mary acknowledged having received some sort of photographs that Stearns had made for her, one of which included Watson Brown, one of the two sons that she and John Brown lost in the Harper’s Ferry raid.  “I have one equally good of dear Oliver,” she added in reference to the other son she had lost.  “They were very dear children to me. Oh I would praise God that they ever lived and were counted worthy to suffer and die is so Just a cause and that he has left others for me to love and do for.”  This statement speaks for itself as to the depth of conviction that Mary Brown felt for the anti-slavery cause and the supreme price she had paid, along with her husband, in losing two sons at Harper’s Ferry.  (Brown’s elder son, Frederick, who was murdered in Kansas by a pro-slavery preacher, was her stepson from John Brown’s first marriage to Dianthe Lusk.)  Mary Brown went on to mention the progress that her daughters Anne and Sarah were making in their schooling at Fort Edward—apparently Fort Edward, New York, in the area of Glens Falls.  One internet source says that Fort Edward Collegiate Institute had opened in 1854, a college preparatory school, and this may have been the place where Anne and Sarah had been sent to study, undoubtedly with the support of abolitionist friends like the Stearns family.

There is also a curious reference to Mary Brown having met with James Redpath in Boston, Redpath being the first biographer of John Brown.  When she and her daughter Ellen met him, Redpath set about riding around the city in his carriage “to find the contraband”—perhaps a black man who had some affiliation to the Browns.  Perhaps the “contraband” may have been considering accompanying Mary and Ellen back to North Elba, in the Adirondacks.  Of course this is speculation.  However, Mary wrote that Redpath subsequently located the “contraband,” who had changed his mind about leaving Boston after having “had so much said to him.”  Perhaps the man heard too many discouraging things about life in the Adirondacks from local blacks that he decided not to leave Boston.  Mary Brown also mentions that before she left Boston, she and Ellen spent the afternoon at the home of abolitionist guru, William Lloyd Garrison.  She concluded that when she got back to North Elba she found that her daughter-in-law Isabella (“Bell”) Thompson Brown was sick and had moved back to her parents’ home in North Elba.  Bell was the widow of Watson Brown, the two young people having been married just over three years at the time of the Harper’s Ferry raid.   Bell was part of the large Thompson family that was joined with the Browns in marriage and death—her two brothers, William and Dauphin, having been killed at Harper’s Ferry, and her elder brother Henry being the husband of Ruth Brown, the eldest daughter of John Brown.

While the details of this letter may be interesting only to Brown students, there is a fascinating postscript: “God bless Abraham Lincoln and give God the glory for the day of Jubilee has come. M[ary] A[nn] B[rown].”  This statement undoubtedly reflected the issuance of the second phase of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which freed enslaved people in the rebellious Confederate states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, and North Carolina.  

This postscript provides a fascinating insight.  First, it reflects the optimism and excitement that many anti-slavery people—including many African Americans in the North—felt about the Emancipation Proclamation at first.  In his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist recalled the meetings held at Boston’s Tremont Temple and the Twelfth Baptist Church in response to the January 1st proclamation, remembering that it “was not logic, but the trump of jubilee, which everybody wanted to hear.”  Douglass wrote further that when news of the Emancipation was officially declared from the telegraph, the impact of the announcement “was startling beyond description, and the scene was wild and grand.”  Nor, admitted Douglass, was there “disposition on the part of this meeting to criticize the proclamation” at first, caught up as they were in the “anti-slavery side” of Lincoln’s executive pronouncement.  Only later did anti-slavery people like Douglass subject the Emancipation Proclamation to “further and more critical examination” with the conclusion that it was “extremely defective” as an anti-slavery measure  (p. 359).  After the novelty of Lincoln’s “change” had worn off, the anti-slavery community had to come to terms with the President’s half-loaf measure of justice—the substance of which led Douglass in later years to declare that Lincoln was first and foremost the white man’s president (Life and Times, pp. 492-93). Mary’s words in praise of Lincoln and his proclamation must certainly be weighed in the context of this early, uncritical response of anti-slavery people throughout the North.

But Mary’s affirmative response to the Emancipation Proclamation should also be understood in the simplicity and sincerity of the spouse of John Brown, a man who always saw the better side of any situation.  Despite the popular portrayal of Brown as an angry, vengeful, and violent man, the real John Brown was famously optimistic—as Boyd Stutler called him, “ever a pensioner of hope.”  Actually, it was characteristic of Brown to emphasize the part with which he could agree rather than the part with which he differed, and it is no surprise that his widow would take the same position in the case of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Had John Brown been alive in 1863, he would undoubtedly have shared the same optimism over the proclamation as well as the frustrating realization that it did not apply to all enslaved people and thus did not effectively deal with the problem.   Yet even if Brown were to recognize Lincoln’s bent toward compromise, devotion to white priorities, and the political ploy undergirding the Emancipation Proclamation, he would likely have greeted it kindly.

As a biographer of the man, I have seen how John Brown took a surprisingly uncritical look at a number of circumstances that might have evoked a strong reaction in other abolitionists.  For instance, when anti-slavery people criticized the hypocrisy of pro-slavery whites in the United States for enthusiastically greeting the republican Hungarian liberator Louis Kossuth in the 1840s, Brown—in contrast to the opinion of black leaders—saluted the popular response in favor of Kossuth, instead arguing that it could serve for the best on behalf of the slave (see DeCaro, “Fire from the Midst of You”: A Religious Life of John Brown, 198-99).  Similarly, he took a surprisingly “half-right” attitude toward anti-slavery racist settlers he had encountered in the Kansas territory in the 1850s.  Instead of berating them for their overt rejection of black people, Brown saw them as half-right.  “We have in the Territory a great many Southern men who are as yet but half right in regard to Slavery; &; go for Negro & mulatto exclusion," Brown wrote to his father back in Ohio.  "Some of them are very earnest Free State men.  We are glad to have them begin to get right” (Letter to Owen Brown, Jan. 19, 1856, Villard Papers, Columbia University, my emphasis).   This is the quintessential “half full glass” perspective. John Brown was not given to breaking bruised reeds (Isa. 42:3), to borrow a biblical phrase quite familiar to his thinking; if he could find partial good in most things he would rather do so.  Of course, there was nothing good about slavery.
Lincoln: No Abolitionist's Hero

Whether or not Mary Stearns shared Mary Brown’s initial enthusiasm about the Emancipation Proclamation is not known, although she probably shared her husband’s critical view of Lincoln—a view that was probably quite common among abolitionists, particularly since the knew that their president was not a committed anti-slavery man as much as he was a committed compromiser.  For instance, in late 1861, George L. Stearns wrote to John Brown Jr., referring to President Lincoln as an “imbecile” who had set the nation to “drifting” (See George L. Stearns to John Brown Jr., December 28, 1861, in the John Brown Jr. Papers, Charles E. Frohman Collection, in the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library, Fremont, Ohio).  This does not fit well with the stylized, even mythologized, view of Lincoln that most of us have been fed since childhood.  But among the enemies of slavery, Abraham Lincoln was never considered an ally.  It was only after his martyrdom that he was groomed for historical success as “The Great Emancipator.”  Notwithstanding the fact that he got shot in the head by a Southern racist, perhaps God really did bless Abraham Lincoln in the long run.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Akron, Ohio, Author’s “Semi-Biographical” Memoir to Focus on John Brown the Abolitionist

On Thursday, Sept. 23, celebrated memoirist and author Joyce Dyer visited St. Mary’s College of Maryland as the second reader in the school’s VOICES lecture series.  Dyer is a distinguished Professor of English at Hiram College in Ohio, and has published three memoirs, one novel, and several essays. Last year, she won the David B. Saunders Award for Creative Nonfiction to add to her already well-stocked trophy case.

First, Dyer read from her first memoir, Gum-Dipped: A Daughter Remembers Rubber Town, in which she skillfully describes her feelings about growing up in the Firestone Park neighborhood in Akron, Ohio, a town built solely to house the workers for the Firestone tire manufacturer. Up next in Dyer’s reading canon was another memoir, Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood, a “prequel” to Gum-Dipped.  In Goosetown, Dyer’s pre-teen self deals with the death of her grandfather, who she had not seen in nine years since her days in Goosetown, where her grandfather grew up.

Finally, Dyer gave the audience a taste of her unfinished semi-biographical memoir about John Brown the abolitionist.  Dyer herself is unsure why she has taken such an interest in John Brown. The section she read, which tells the story of a woman she met whose life was changed indirectly by living on the site of John Brown’s home, Dyer comes to the conclusion that she is so fascinated with Brown’s life because she questions if her own moral outlook on life is worth defending.

When asking if anyone had questions at the end of the lecture, Dyer was met with stunned silence.

Friday, October 08, 2010



            John Brown’s memory was celebrated last evening, in earnest words and sculptured marble, by the colored people of this city.  The occasion was a reception at the Shiloh Presbyterian Church, No. 140 Sixth ave, to Miss Edmonia Lewis, the colored sculptress, and the presentation of her life-size bust of John Brown to the veteran colored clergyman and abolitionist, the Rev. Dr. Henry Highland Garnet.  At 8 o’clock the body of the church was nearly filled with a well-dressed and intelligent looking audience of colored people.  A very few white persons were present, and appeared to be deeply interested in the exercises.
            Dr. Garnet introduced Miss Lewis to a few persons and then the two advanced to the platform, where the marble bust was placed, veiled in white.  The sculptress has in her veins the blood of the Indian and Negro races, and her features show the characteristics of the two types.  She is small of stature, and modesty promoted her to sit on a front seat in the church, leaving the platform to her husband, to Dr. Garnet, the Rev. [J.] S. Atwell, who presided, and Charles Douglas[s], the son of Frederick Douglas[s] and ex-Consul to San Domingo.
            When the choir had sung “America,” and Miss Evaline Williams had read the poem, “The Dying Cleopatra,” out of complement to Miss Lewis’ statue that was exhibited at the Centennial, Dr. Garnet made a brief address.  He said: “Were I able physically I could talk to you at greater length, for my heart and mind are full to-night of things that this occasion calls up.  We have with us a young lady who has honored us at home and abroad.  By a peculiar arrangement of Providence she has in her veins the blood of the only two races that have been outraged and persecuted by the white man.  Her mother was a Chippewa Indian, and her father an African.  She has gone forth to rescue both races from the interior position in which they have been placed by her skill in her chosen field of art.  She was born in Greenbush, near Albany.  I have seen much larger women than she is now, but she was a little girl when she first came to see me, and, looking up into my face, said, ‘I am going to become an artist.’  Mr. Garrison [applause], that noble defender of the rights of mean, showed her encouragement.  She took a lump of clay and modeled before him the foot of a baby.  He said, ‘Well done.’  She then went into Italy, where the color line is not so closely drawn as on this side of the water, and worked like a young man, and achieved success.  She tells me that she has executed nine busts like this of John Brown, and I notice with delight that she chooses for her subjects men who have been heroes, and who have suffered martyrdom for freedom.  She stood before the Memorial Hall at the Centennial, she says, trembling like an aspen leaf, while the case containing her statue of ‘The Dying Cleopatra’ was being opened to the gaze of the critics, who ordered it at first sight to an honored position in the gallery of art.  She is about to return to Rome to execute several orders.”
            “John Brown,” he continued, “was my intimate friend for twenty years.  I said to him when he visited my church for the last time, on his way to Harper’s Ferry, ‘Friend Brown, it seems to me that there is not much hope for success in the work you are about to undertake.’  ‘Friend Garnet,’ said he, ‘you may be right, I may not succeed but I believe that God has sent me to do what I may, and if I die in the attempt I shall know that I have done right, and that thousands will rise up to take my place!’  He was right.  If the raid on Harper’s Ferry had not been made, there might have been no rebellion and no abolition of slavery.  I never knew a man who was better acquainted with the Scriptures that John Brown.  He never swore; he never drank a drop of intoxicating liquor, and never used tobacco.  He was a man of strict morality and a lover of religion.  The last time he was at my church he asked me to sing ‘Blow, trumpets, blow!’  It was his favorite hymn, and I ask you to sing it now.”
            This hymn, “The Year of Jubilee,” was followed by the reading of John Brown’s last letter to his children and his speech at his trial.  Both made a deep impression on the audience.  Dr. Garnet asked all to join in singing “John Brown’s Body lies Mouldering in the Grave.”  Miss Lewis then ascended the platform and unveiled the bust, revealing the familiar features of John Brown, cut in white marble.
            Charles Douglas[s] made the speech of presentation to Dr. Garnet, eulogizing the character of John Brown, complimenting the sculptress, and speaking in warm terms of Dr. Garnet’s services to the cause of freedom, and of his organization of a society for keeping sacred the day on which John Brown lost his life.
            On this point Dr. Garnet said that he should never fail to remember that 2d day of December.  He and a few abolitionists assembled at the old church at 10 o’clock, and joined in prayer and supplications to God that his life might be spared until after the hour of execution.  Nineteen years had passed since then, and on each December 2 a few had met to commemorate the martyrdom of one of America’s greatest heroes.  [Applause.]  Washington and Lafayette and the other heroes of America would have perished by the gallows if they had failed in 1776.  John Brown had maintained his principles single-handed against the military and civil forces of a great government.
            William Oland Bourne, one of the two white men on the platform, referred to the act of John Brown in taking in his arms a black babe and kissing it as he was walking to the scaffold.  The Rev. W. F. Dickerson, of the Bethel African Church, who was to have presided, made an eloquent address.  America was his native land he said; he knew of no Africa.  He felt sad to think that Miss Lewis was compelled to cross the ocean to find opportunity and recognition.  As a clergyman recently said to him, American prejudice couldn’t cross the ocean; it got drowned on the way, but it was always fished up again when the object of it got back.

            I transcribed this article from a microfilm copy of the New York Tribune for December 27, 1878 (p. 5), in which is described an event that took place the day before, Thursday evening, December 26, at the Shiloh Presbyterian Church in New York City.  Shiloh, an African American Presbyterian church at 140 6th Avenue, is long gone.  The Shiloh congregation moved in later years, culminating in the building of St. James Presbyterian Church on West 141st Street in Harlem.   The site of Garnet’s Shiloh church is in the present day SoHo [south of Houston Street] section of Manhattan, between Broome and Spring Streets.

Henry Highland Garnet

            Henry Highland Garnet (1815-82) is one of the most dynamic and formidable figures of the 19th century, particularly distinguished in the antebellum era as a leading African American abolitionist whose influence and voice were contemporary with Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and other prominent figures.  Garnet and Douglass were both friends and associates of John Brown, and the latter was probably ideologically closer to Garnet in terms of resistance to slavery—at least until Douglass broke with Garrison in the early 1850s.  Like Douglass, Garnet also escaped from slavery in Maryland, although Garnet escaped as a youth along with his family, who settled in New York City.  Garnet was baptized in the First Colored Presbyterian Church of New York, later studying under a Presbyterian pastor in Troy, N.Y.  Garnet held several pastorates but held the pulpit of Shiloh twice, first from 1855-61 and 1870-81.  He was also a missionary to Jamaica, the president of a Christian college in Pennsylvania, a newspaper editor, and a prominent antislavery leader and advocate for the rights of African Americans in the later 19th century.  During the Civil War, Garnet—then the pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in the nation’s capital—was invited by President Lincoln to address the U.S. Congress, making him the first African American to do so.  In 1881, President Garfield appointed Garnet U.S. ambassador to Liberia.  However, it was Garnet’s fiery 1843 message to the National Congress of Colored Americans that won a name for him in the annals of militant abolitionism—his famous call for outright resistance to slavery proving a landmark in antislavery history, although at first it was repudiated by Frederick Douglass. [See Andrew E. Murray, Presbyterians and the Negro—A History (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1966), 135-37; and Christine Ann Polcino, “Henry Highland Garnet,” Pennsylvania Center for the Book (College Hill, Pa.: Penn State University Libraries).]

Garnet on Brown

Garnet: "Brown my friend
for twenty years"
            Of particular interest to John Brown students is the black leader’s vignette of John Brown as reported in this Tribune article.  First, Garnet says that he and Brown were friends for twenty years, which puts the beginning of their association as far back as 1839 or possibly the early 1840s.  If this is true, then Brown knew Garnet before he knew Frederick Douglass, whom he met in the later 1840s when engaged in wool business in Springfield, Massachusetts.  While it is possible that Garnet was stretching things, the possibility that they were indeed friends for twenty years is reasonable.  In the late 1830s Brown traveled extensively and might very well have met the Garnet through common church or antislavery associations.  Up until 1837, the Presbyterian and Congregational churches were bound in the Plan of Union, which involved sharing Presbyterian clergy with Congregational churches, especially in Ohio and western New York.  Brown’s own upbringing in a Congregational church in Hudson, Ohio, suggests a significant impact of Reformed Presbyterianism.  Furthermore, the openness of Hudson’s Western Reserve College to blacks in this era also entailed possibilities of interaction and exchange.  Certainly we have the reminiscence of Salmon Brown that Garnet stayed in the Brown’s home in Akron, although this was much later, in the early 1850s (see DeCaro, “Fire from the Midst of You”: A Religious Life of John Brown, p. 210).
            However, the most reasonable assumption is that Brown met Garnet around 1843, either during the National Convention of Colored Citizens, which convened in Buffalo, N.Y., from August 15-19, 1843, or at some point afterward.  We cannot place Brown at this national black convention; there are less than five John Brown letters extant from 1843, which completely undermines any hope of constructing some kind of chronology of his movements.  Although Buffalo was reasonably close to eastern Ohio, if Brown attended as an observer there is no way of knowing it.  Garnet’s speech at this convention is a historic moment in antebellum abolitionism, marking the growing voice of militancy.  According to the minutes of the convention, Garnet (who chaired the business committee) became annoyed when a motion was made to have his speech reviewed by a committee before he could deliver it to the general convention.  Garnet arose to object to the motion and in defending the right to deliver his speech, proceeded to deliver it on the spot—an anointed speech that lasted nearly ninety minutes and had most of the audience in tears and standing to their feet in applause.  Of course this was his famous “Resistance! Resistance! Resistance!” speech, and as word of it spread, it probably got John Brown’s immediate and undivided attention, since Brown was enthusiastic about any black man who was willing to fight.
            The brief but interesting summary of Garnet’s last conversation with Brown is also believable, and may have taken place during Brown’s last visit to New York City in June 4-6, 1859 (see Katherine Mayo’s chronology in Villard, John Brown, p. 678).  This is all the more probable because this visit took place over the weekend, and Brown probably attended the Shiloh Church on Sunday, June 5, 1859, when he reportedly asked Garnet to have the congregation sing his favorite hymn, Charles Wesley’s “Blow Ye, the Trumpet, Blow,” his personal anthem.  [You can hear it and read the lyrics at Net Hymnal.]

The Brown-Douglass-Garnet Connection

            If my reading of the Brown-Douglass story is correct, Brown’s hope of getting notable support from free blacks in the North was greatly diminished by the summer of 1859, and Douglass was in no small part the reason for this discouragement.  As early as February 1858, Brown’s good friend in New York, James N. Gloucester, complained (as he saw it) of the lack of “sagacity” in the black community, making it “so difficult to strike a line to meet them.”  These are strong words, but coming from a black community leader, I doubt they were a hollow attempt to patronize Brown in his disappointments.  Gloucester added: “No one knows better than Mr. [Frederick] Douglass the truth of this,” which suggests that Douglass had his own frustrations working with the black community, although it may hint that Douglass’s support of Brown’s increasing militancy was actually waning. [See James N. Gloucester to John Brown, February 19, 1858, in Benjamin Quarles, Allies for Freedom / Blacks on John Brown (New York: DaCapo Press, 2001), p. 4.]  Brown was generally disappointed by the lack of actual support he received from the major black leaders in the North, although he was probably unreasonable to expect accomplished clergymen and other gentlemen to enlist themselves in his dangerous mission in the South.  As I have discussed in The Cost of Freedom, however, Frederick Douglass did more than back away from following Brown into Virginia.  Evidently he used his influence to discourage others from doing so, and would not throw his weight behind Brown’s effort even, when a group of black Philadelphians urged him to do so.  Of course, I entirely sympathize with Douglass, but his handling of the matter undercut Brown and turned the Brown family against him thereafter.  Certainly his autobiographical recollection of this chapter cannot be read uncritically as is always the case with historical writing on the subject.  One must read Douglass carefully between the lines to surmise that his retrospective salutation of Brown is tainted with melancholy if not regret. (See DeCaro, John Brown—The Cost of Freedom, pp. 64-69).
Charles R. Douglass
(National Park Service)
            The Garnet-Douglass-Brown theme is echoed at the Shiloh church program with the presence of Charles Remond Douglass (1844-1920), the fourth son of Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass.  Perhaps the younger Douglass was present to greet the Lewis bust of John Brown on behalf of his father. Charles—apparently named for Charles L. Remond, an abolitionist associate of Douglass from Massachusetts—is mentioned in the 1870 census as working in the Treasury Department in Washington D.C.  He likely would have had childhood memories of John Brown, who visited their Rochester home in the 1850s, especially being holed up there in February 1858 when he wrote his “Provisional Constitution.”  Unfortunately the summary of Douglass’ words is sufficient enough to give us an idea of his address but far too brief to convey any substantive information.

Attwell, Dickerson, and Bourne

St. Phillip's Episcopal Church at Anthony
and Leonard Streets, New York City (NY History.org)
            Before addressing the main theme of Edmonia Lewis’s sculpture, I should point out the other interesting contemporaries present at this event according to the Tribune report.  First, is mention of “the Rev. A. S. Atwell.”  My copy from the microfilm was so poor that at first I was not certain if it was “Adwell” or "Atwell."  In fact,  it is “J. S. Attwell”—the Reverend Joseph Sandiford, rector of St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church--the first black Episcopalian church in New York City.  Attwell was sent to lead St. Phillip’s by the venerable Bishop Horatio Potter and installed as its pastor in October 1875 [See John H. Hewitt, Jr., Protest and Progress: New York’s First Black Episcopal Church Fights Racism (New York: Garland, 2000), 132.] (Since I first posted this blog, I have received wonderful assistance from Attwell family descendants, who not only supplied the full and correct spelling of the Reverend's name, but also his wonderful picture below.)
The Rev. Joseph S. Attwell
(courtesy Attwell Family descendants)
            Along with the Reverend Attwell, another black New York clergyman is mentioned as being in attendance at the Shiloh program.  Reverend W. F. Dickerson of “the Bethel African Church” is mentioned as having been invited to preside, but gave an eloquent address, the details given by the Tribune being slight but interesting, particularly his statement about not knowing Africa and “America” being his native land.  Dickerson’s remarks may reflect more than a random anti-colonialist expression.  Given the rising crisis of blacks in the South being attacked by organized white racists, Dickerson seems to be responding to blacks and whites who had begun to argue for black repatriation or colonization outside of the United States.  His words were also a sleight at the racism of white society, which could neither accept nor conceive of black brilliance as exemplified in the artistry of Edmonia Lewis.
            William Fisher Dickerson is a major figure in the history of the black church in the 19th century, and “the Bethel African Church” refers to the New York City affiliated congregation in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania--thus named for “Mother Bethel,” the founding church of the AME movement.  Dickerson would shortly be raised to the bishopric, alongside another AME giant, Henry M. Turner, at the 1880 General Conference of the AME in St. Louis, Missouri.  However, at the time of this 1878 John Brown program at Shiloh, Dickerson was serving in the pastorate of Bethel AME Church on Sullivan Street in New York. [See Richard R. Wright, Centennial Encyclopaedia of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Philadelphia: Book Concern of the A.M.E. Church, 1916), 83-84.]  Like Attwell, we should assume that Dickerson shared a common concern for the struggle against racism and the growing problems associated with the fall of Reconstruction after the federal government abandoned the black southern community into the hands of former Confederates and other organized white racists in the South.  Only several months after the John Brown program at Shiloh, Garnet and Dickerson were among a group of black leaders, and a swelling crowd of African Americans, who flooded the Great Hall of the Cooper Institute on April 23, 1879.  The occasion was an urgent rally in support of black refugees who had fled from the South into the western states to escape the terrorism of reenergized white supremacy (thanks to the betrayal of the “Party of Lincoln” and the general indifference of white northern society as a whole) [See “To Aid Fleeing Negroes; Mass Meeting at Cooper Union,” New York Times (April 24, 1879].
            The last figure mentioned in the article is William Oland Bourne (1819-1901), the son of a Philadelphia clergyman and vanguard abolitionist, George Bourne.  Son William Bourne was an editor, poet, and librarian of the New York Free Academy, a friend of the Tribune’s own Horace Greeley, and the author of many published works.  In particular, Bourne wrote a pamphlet entitled, Anti-slavery Leaders; The Pioneer Abolitionist, some years later to defend the claim that his father, and not William Lloyd Garrison, was the true patriarch of the abolitionist movement.  Although both Bourne father and son admired and praised Garrison, it was the insistence of William Bourne that his father had preached, propagated, and suffered for the cause of abolitionism in Virginia long before William Lloyd Garrison launched his high profile anti-slavery mission.  Bourne’s identification with the abolitionist movement and his community leadership explain why he was invited to sit on the platform.  His reference to Brown’s legendary black-baby-kiss may reflect his own poetic soul, but it seems a bit patronizing in retrospect.  However, his presence at the Shiloh church’s John Brown event makes sense in light of his forgotten profile [See “William O. Bourne” [Obituary], New York Times (June 7, 1901); and William O. Bourne, Antislavery Leaders; The Pioneer Abolitionist (Boston: Thayer, 1885). ] The identity of the other “white” man on the Shiloh platform that evening in 1878 has been lost to history.

Edmonia Lewis and her “John Brown”

            The correct date of birth for Mary Edmonia Lewis is not known to her biographers and students, but was sometime between 1840 and 1845.  She was born to an African American father and a Chippewa First Nation mother.  Biographers have likewise been uncertain of her birthplace, varying accounts saying she was born in Ohio, New York, or New Jersey.  They may find this article of interest, particularly since Garnet himself says that Lewis was born in Greenbush, New York, near the city of Albany.  Considering that Garnet says that he knew Lewis from when she was a little girl (with artistic ambition!), it is probably the case that his statement on her origins is reliable—including the mention of her black and Chippewa parentage. 
            Lewis studied at New York Central College, a Baptist abolitionist secondary school in McGrawville, New York, and in the year of the Harper’s Ferry raid, she was enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio.  Her experience at Oberlin was tainted by false accusations of attempting to poison some white female students; the hostility against her was so great that Edmonia was attacked and beaten quite brutally.  She was acquitted in court and continued her studies at Oberlin, but did not complete her degree, evidently because her enemies there falsely charged her with theft.  Her pre-mature departure from Oberlin was a result of these disturbing developments and perhaps also because she much preferred to pursue sculpture. Whatever the case, Edmonia never completed her degree program at Oberlin.
            From Ohio, Edmonia moved to Boston where she apprenticed under the renowned sculptor, Edward A. Brackett, who had done a sculpture of John Brown in 1859 through the influence of George L. Stearns and other abolitionists.  It was probably during this period in Boston when she molded an infant’s foot to the delight of William Lloyd Garrison, the incident likewise being relayed to us by Garnet.  Although she was befriended by sympathetic means in Boston, Lewis did not want to remain long in apprenticeship and opened a studio.  At this period she executed a medallion of John Brown, the first of a number of sculpturing projects regarding the martyred abolitionist.   
Edmonia Lewis, John Brown (1876)
Smithsonian Institute Collection
           Edmonia first went to Florence, Italy, during the U.S. Civil War and became established in the international artistic community there, and was accepted into
the “strange sisterhood" of women sculptors living in Rome.   In the 1860s, when she learned that Henry W. Longfellow was in Rome, she observed him as he walked along the street, sketched his likeness, and then sculpted a bust that was well received by his family.  Lewis is well known for her sculptures depicting the biblical figure of Hagar and the death of the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, but she executed many works of sculpture relating to historical, literary, and classical themes, including abolitionists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Wendell Phillips, and Civil War era figures like Abraham Lincoln and Horace Greeley.  Lewis returned to the John Brown theme with a life-size sculpture that she donated to the Union League Club of New York City.
            Lewis’ bust of John Brown seems to have been unveiled first at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876 where it was well received.  She probably exhibited it again among other works at the Chicago Interstate Exposition of September 1878, prior to her presentation at the Shiloh Presbyterian Church in December.  A decade later, Lewis received a visit in Italy from Frederick Douglass, and she toured the aging abolitionist hero and his second wife around Rome and Naples.  The biographers of Mary Edmonia Lewis do not know the precise date of her death in Italy or the place of her burial.   I am inquiring as to her life-size statue of Brown that was donated to the Union League Club in Manhattan. Based upon Garnet’s words in the Shiloh presentation, Lewis had done ten copies of the John Brown bust up until that time, although there is probably no way of knowing what the life time sales were for this particular piece. Fortunately, as shown here, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C holds a copy of the Edmonia Lewis John Brown bust. [There are many sources regarding this amazing sculptor, but I found the following most helpful: “Edmonia Lewis Biography,” in Women in History (Lakewood, Ohio: Lakewood Public Library, 2010) —provides a bibliography and links to other good sources; and Stephen May, “The Object at Hand,” The Smithsonian Magazine (Sept. 1996).]