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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 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).]


Marilyn Richardson said...

Splendid work. Here's a link to a recent Lewis discovery.


- Marilyn Richardson

Donna Jackson said...

Thank you for posting this research! Rev. Joseph S. Attwell was my great-great grandfather. I was doing some genealogy research online and happend upon this post.

Living in Harmony Motherhood said...

You are correct the Rev. J. S. Atwell is my great-grandfather and was the rector of St. Philip's Episcopal at that time. His name should be spelled with two "t"s though.

Unknown said...

J.S. Attwell and his wife Cordelia and her parents (William and Mary MacFarland Jennings) were prominent early New York/Philadelphia activists in the cause of abolition and worthy of academic research in their own right. Joseph and Cordelia were my great-great grandparents.

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Dear Attwell descendants:

Thank you for your input. If you happen to have an image of your great forebear, I'd be delighted to include it in this post. Hopefully you're working on this research for publication. Best wishes and thanks--LD

Unknown said...

We would be delighted to provide an image. Please advise how.

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Thank you. If you can send a scan as an attachment, that would be fine. louis.decaro@nyack.edu

I will insert it in the blog article. Thanks--LD