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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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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Black People, Frederick Douglass, and the Grand Old Party

Conservative TV guru Glenn Beck has made much of “America’s black Founding Fathers” and has skillfully used his media role in putting a politically self-serving spin on the history of black Republican leadership in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. Apparently, this has been very exciting for white conservatives, probably because it has given them the thrilling illusion of finally being on the right side of history in the matter of “race.” Black conservatives have also jumped on the black Republican history bandwagon, particularly by hoisting up the banner of Frederick Douglass.

No Revelation

Glenn Beck's Black Revelation
The funny thing about all this conservative rhetoric about the forgotten history of black Republicans is that the only people who seem to have forgotten about it was white society in general, especially white conservatives. Black history studies, which conservatives have opposed for decades, have long promoted the study and awareness of African American leadership in the Reconstruction era. Truth be told, Leftist and liberal scholars have done more to promote a historically sound and informed understanding of early black Republican politics than have conservatives. It's a kind of straw man argument that Beck and his kind use when they make much ado about "discovering" African American Republicans. The question for Beck and his parrots is, "where have you been all this time that you're only talking about black Republican leaders now?"

Of course, there have always been black Republicans and conservatives, and it is not my intention to deny their right to a voice in the public square. Nor do I believe that just because one is black, one has to be a Democrat. (There have been black socialists and Communists as well as Republicans.)  Nor do I disagree with everything that black conservatives say, and I doubt that John Brown would either. On the other hand, my main objection to this black Republican-Frederick Douglass "revelation" is that as it is being portrayed it is historically inaccurate and certainly opportunistic. It is particularly wrong for political conservatives to appropriate the 19th century black Republican legacy in advancing their own agenda, especially by playing racial one-upmanship--imputing the guilt of the racist 19th century Democratic Party to the contemporary Democratic Party.

For instance, consider the white conservative blog, Liberty’s Army, which has a post (29 May 2010) celebrating “Our Black Founding Fathers and the Democrat Founders of American Slavery.” It includes this “historical” summary:

The Klu Klux Klan was founded as a Democrat proxy group. Many black Americans served in the U.S. Government in the 1800′s and beyond as part of the “Radical Republican” party. In 1912 the ‘Progressive’ Democrat, President Woodrow Wilson instituted racial segregation into the Federal Government. Many blacks were subsequently pushed out of the Federal Government. . . . Wilson was a Presbyterian and ‘intellectual elite’ of ‘Progressive’ idea and policies, he served as President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, where he denied entrance to black Americans. Wilson was elected President as a Democrat in 1912. Early in his first term, he instituted racial segregation in the federal government. Wilson worked with a Democratic Majority Congress to pass major ‘progressive’ legislation that included the Federal Trade Commission, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Federal Farm Loan Act, America’s first-ever federal ‘progressive’ income tax in the Revenue Act of 1913 and most notably the Federal Reserve Act. It was the Federal Reserve Act that privatized much of The Federal Reserve and some say took oversight of the monetary system of The United States away from the people. The new Democrats represent Institutionalized Racism.
This is an amazing historical sleight-of-hand. By pointing out the Republican roots of the black community in contrast to the racist Democratic Party, the author then slides from the racial prejudice of Woodrow Wilson to his economic policies, which must also be bad if Wilson was such a racist, right?

Whose Democratic Party?

Of course it is true that the Democratic Party in the 19th century was overtly racist and sympathetic to the slave master. However, the contemporary Democratic Party is not in denial about its racist roots, and anyone with a basic knowledge of U.S. history knows that the party of President Obama is not the party of James Buchanan and Stephen Douglas. Furthermore, it is no secret that the origin of the modern Democratic Party goes back to the liberal politics of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the late 1930s. In other words, it is disingenuous and self-serving for contemporary white conservatives to link the historic Klan with the Democratic Party, when in reality the Democratic Party of the 19th century was a conservative white supremacist party quite unlike the Democratic Party that emerged in the 20th century.

This kind of argument is historically dishonest and frankly ridiculous. Historically speaking, “Republican” and “Democrat” are labels, not precise instruments for reading political content. As such, there is little historical consistency between the Democrats of Frederick Douglass’ era and the Democrats of today. What is consistent and scientifically observable is the nature and pattern of white conservative politics, which has always privileged the priorities of the wealthy and played upon the fears and prejudices of the majority in the U.S.

Which Republicans?

Secondly, although the blogger of Liberty’s Army mentions that black Republican leaders at the time of Reconstruction were radical, there seems to be the presumption that all Republicans were so heroic. In fact, die-hard black Republicans at the time represented the left-leaning, politically radical side of the party who advocated for extreme government intervention on behalf of African American liberation and progress.

In other words, not only is the Democratic Party of Douglass’ era NOT the Democratic Party of today, but the Republican Party of the post-Civil War era as portrayed by Glenn Beck and other white conservatives is mere stylization. What Beck and other white conservatives have entirely overlooked is that even though Douglass was a die-hard Republican (and he was perhaps far more loyal to the Republicans than he should have been at times), in the Reconstruction era he was fearful that the conservative Republican element of his era were going to take over the party.
When Douglass spoke of the Republican Party, he was thinking of its most radical political manifestation, the party that had not only pushed for abolition of slavery and black suffrage, but also for a strong governmental presence in protecting and advancing the black community at the expense of their former white oppressors in the South.

Glenn Beck and other white conservatives have overlooked the fact that the Republican Party was actually tearing into two parts in the early 1870s. On one side were the Radical Republicans, black Republicans and their allies, who would frighten most of today’s white conservative Republicans. On the other side were the conservative Republicans, who are the political and social progenitors of the 20th century conservative movement in the U.S. For instance, conservative Republicans opposed unions that protected both black workers and poor whites and favored wealthy business interests. And even though the original Ku Klux Klan was a “Democratic” terrorist organization that assaulted black people in the South, it was conservative Republicans who abandoned them to face this terror alone. Quite in contrast to the “liberal” Radical Republicans, these conservative Republicans did not want the federal government to intervene by providing military protection to the black community. Conservative Republicans, including Horace Greeley, the turncoat publisher of The New York Tribune, thus betrayed blacks by calling for the end of Reconstruction—that is, Greeley and his Republican ilk wanted to forget the former slaves and move on with white nation-building, which meant ignoring the political, economic, and social crises of African Americans. This is further demonstrated by the fact that conservative Republicans opposed the Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner, who called for supplemental civil rights legislation in support of the black community. To the contrary, conservative Republicans wanted to advance the interests of big northern business interests in the South by cooperating with southern whites (the former Confederate rebels) at the expense of the black community.
Frederick Douglass versus Conservative Republicans

On November 24, 1870, Frederick Douglass thus wrote in The New National Era:
What do Republican Senators mean by refusing to give to the black people of the United States the same protection as any other class of citizens? For they do refuse by their actions in appointing committees of inquiry into the Ku-Klux matters, and giving more time to the rebels to be used in killing and intimidating colored voters. [my emphasis in italics—LD]
On March 23, 1871, the same publication contained this challenge from Douglass to black readers:
Colored voters of the South, you must not forget those who forget you and your rights. You must teach them that they are mistaken in considering you mere voting machines, ready and willing to vote for any man calling himself a Republican, who comes before you for your suffrages. . . . Do not vote for a member of Congress who does not aid in giving you ‘Equality before the law.’”
It is no wonder that African Americans followed Douglass in threatening the Republican Party under Ulysses S. Grant, warning that blacks would not “blindly follow the lead of any sham Republicanism.” The threat of losing the black vote kept Grant in line even though he was no friend of the black community.

Frederick Douglass is not a perfect paradigm of political judgment, and perhaps he has been justly criticized for losing touch with the black southern community for a period in his later years. Yet Douglass never lost sight of the Republican Party as he considered its true calling—to assume a radical, uncompromising posture toward the rights and needs of the disenfranchised and oppressed, and away from the selfish interests of the wealthy and powerful. As far as the role of government, Douglass was not against the increase of federal presence and power as long as it was functioning to the advantage of the poor. Douglass was passionate about the Republican Party, but he was also quite aware of the dangerous, lurking presence of white conservatism in the Republican Party and its goals of abandoning the black community and the poor in favor of revising white supremacy and the unbridled greed of the wealthy.

More Republican Party History for Glenn Beck

That Douglass was right to fear for his precious Republican Party is an understatement. It is a matter of historical record that the so-called Party of Lincoln was ultimately taken over by white conservative politicians, leaving blacks to languish without the political arm that once fought on their behalf. With the generation of Sumner and the “Black Republicans” dead and gone, the G.O.P. worked to undermine black progress from the late 19th century and into the 20th century. This is proven in the bitter testimony of Gen. James Clarkson, a Radical Republican who outlived the abolitionist generation and witnessed the Republican Party’s bitter betrayal of the black community. In 1910, eight years before his death, Clarkson lamented that the Republican Party “came into power as the champion of human liberty,” but had stopped “protecting the citizens of this country.” Clarkson said that blacks no longer owed any debt to the Republican Party, and advised the black man to “divide his vote” because “The Republican party has betrayed him, and is betraying him now.”1 Later that year, in August 1910, the National Independent Political League, an African American organization, convened its third annual convention in Atlantic City, N.J. Its leaders and guests, including the son of one of John Brown’s raiders) shared the common conviction of the organization’s president, who declared the Republican Party,
our erstwhile friend, seeing that it was popular to take a fling at the Negro notwithstanding that the Negro had been its most faithful ally, proceeded to give him an additional blow by eliminating him from the councils of the Republican party. It started at the county conventions, and this was followed by the state conventions, and finally the Negro was eliminated from the national committee, on which he had served since 1868.2

The same speaker pointed out how segregationist legislation had undermined the black community in the South, and that blacks had been told by their white Republican colleagues that “such enactments would prove a help rather than a hindrance,” and that they would do more harm than good by agitating “and that we ought to cease it.” Finally, he pointed out how the black community had been hoodwinked by the Republican President William Howard Taft, who came posing as an abolitionist scion and friend of the black community, but proved an enemy indeed. “Our belief in this fact was confirmed when in his inaugural address he indorsed the disenfranchisement laws of the south.”3

This little history lesson is only the tip of the iceberg. It would be well for Glenn Beck and his black choir of “Frederick Douglass” Republicans to study their history a bit closer rather than dealing in hollow, mythical generalizations about the Republican Party. The legacy of Radical Republicanism so attractive to African Americans was unfortunately a fleeting episode in the larger scheme of Republican history. The number of noble white Republicans—the classic Radical Republicans of a bygone era, have few real progeny in the Republican Party. They do exist, but they are so few as to be neither the voice nor the force of the Republican Party. They are certainly not represented by the myriad fuming, rabid crypto-racists who have made such a pastime of maligning President Obama in the name of freedom. The animating spirit behind the modern Tea Party movement may not be overtly racist, but its spirit is most certainly that of white conservatism revised, particularly in its indifference to the political and economic realities of the poor and the oppressed.

A Chat with Frederick Douglass’s Great-Great-Great Grandson

This past Friday I had the pleasure of enjoying coffee and conversation with Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., the direct descendant of Frederick Douglass (and also a direct descendant of Booker T. Washington). I was among a small number of friends and associates who were gathered at a nearby Starbucks to meet with Kenneth, who is the founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation, a modern anti-slavery organization.

Morris and Your Blogger
(photo by Ian Barford)
We were also pleased to meet Kenneth’s long time friend and colleague, Robert J. Benz, who serves as the executive vice president of the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation. Among the many points of interesting conversation, Kenneth mentioned his family’s frustration at the appropriation of Frederick Douglass’ name by this new generation of black political conservatives. The Douglass family descendants are particularly disappointed that one group of black conservatives have actually named themselves "The Frederick Douglass Foundation," although their political philosophy is not consistent with the Douglass family’s understanding of the Douglass legacy. While the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation is primarily devoted to opposing all modern forms of slavery going on in the U.S. and worldwide, it is not organizationally indifferent to the historical and political aspects of the Douglass legacy and they do not agree with or support the appropriation of their great forefather’s name by short-sighted, self-interested conservatives, whether black or white.

Before we parted, Kenneth encouraged me to devote some attention to this problem, at least in pointing out the historical inaccuracies underlying the contemporary “Frederick Douglass Republican” rationale. In so doing, I hope this is a salutary contribution in honor of one of the greatest liberators and leaders of the modern era. Of course it goes without saying that in this John Brown blog, there will always be room for anything, great or small, pertaining to Frederick Douglass.


      1 “Gen. Jas. S. Clarkson; The Retired Surveyor of the Port of New York Declares Negroes Owe the Republican Party Nothing,” The Chicago Defender (30 April 1910), p. 1.

      2“Negro Voters Are Aroused; Brave Stand Taken to Prevent Further Disenfranchisement; Republican Party Not True,” The Afro-American [Baltimore] (27 August 1910), p. 6.

      3 Ibid.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Harper's Ferry Hero Remembered:
Lewis Sheridan Leary

Lewis Sheridan Leary
The FayObserver.com, Fayetteville, North Carolina, reports that a state historical marker recognizing the life and abolitionist work of Fayetteville son Lewis Sheridan Leary was unveiled this past Thursday by the campus of Fayetteville State University (FSU). According to journalist Michael Futch, the new marker, “part of the N.C. Highway Historical Marker Program, stands at the corner of Murchison Road and Washington Street. That's at the southern entry to the historically black college.”

In the dedication speech, FSU Chancellor James Anderson declared: "Who would have thought that over 150 years ago, the actions of many individuals—but one in particular—would have such a distinct impact on history? Someone who is a son of Fayetteville, with bloodlines that run through the university.”

According to Kelli Walsh, an assistant professor of history at FSU, the exact location of the old Leary family home is unknown. But the advisory committee, of which Walsh is a part, recommended that the marker be placed on N.C. 210 (Murchison Road), giving it a connection to Fayetteville State. The roadside marker is on the same stretch of Murchison Road as historical markers honoring Hiram Revels, the nation's first black U.S. senator, and religious slave and scholar Omar Ibn Said.

The marker reads:
Lewis Leary


Free black abolitionist and conspirator in 1859 with John Brown in attack on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Killed in assault. Lived in Fayetteville.

FSU students admire the Leary marker
(Photo by Raul R. Rubiera, FayObserver.com)
According to FSU historian Bertha Miller, after being wounded in the Harper’s Ferry battle, “Leary died eight hours later, but not before dictating a note to his wife and 6-month-old daughter stating, ‘I am ready to die.’” Reading from the resolution, Miller further recalled that Leary had witnessed the cruel beating of a slave by a white man in Fayetteville in 1856. In turn, Lewis beat the white man before fleeing to Oberlin, Ohio, where his sisters had moved and married. It was there, according to Miller, that 21-year-old Leary joined the abolitionist community of Oberlin.”

“Leary is known to have been one of Brown's first recruits who committed directly to the raid. Sixteen of the raiders were white; Leary was among five African-Americans. . . . Whereas Lewis Sheridan Leary paid the ultimate price for freedom for slaves, and though the raid was not successful," Miller read, "the raid helped catapult the nation into the Civil War, which resulted in fulfilling Leary's quest for freedom for all slaves in America."

Source: Michael Futch, “Marker honors Fayetteville abolitionist Lewis Leary,” FayObserver.com (25 February 2011)

From the Archives—
Lewis S. Leary: The Katherine Mayo Interviews

Despite Oswald Garrison Villard’s success a century ago in the publication of his scholarly biography of John Brown, his popular book does not make use of half of the harvest of field research conducted by his associate, the author and journalist, Katherine Mayo. Fortunately for posterity, Mayo was able to move around the country and interview many people with direct relation to the John Brown story before they faded from this mortal scene. In keeping with the Fayetteville tribute to Lewis Sheridan Leary, I have provided a brief review of the materials gleaned by Katherine Mayo’s several interviews conducted in 1908-09. Perhaps it will be of value to those with a deeper interest in this unsung hero of the Harper’s Ferry raid.

     In 1908, Mayo met Henriette Evans, the sister of Lewis Sheridan Leary. In her notes, Mayo described Evans as "a small, bent, aged woman," dark skinned and wrinkled, with the appearance of "an Indian, not a negro." John S. Leary, brother of both Henriette and Lewis, was later a member of the North Carolina Legislature and dean of the Shaw University Law Department. Henriette's sister Delilah was the mother of Brown's other notable raider, John A. Copeland. "None of the men, on either side," Mayo noted, "were ever slaves." Julie named Lewis for a former boyfriend, Lewis Sheridan, a slave holder who "took his slaves to Liberia and manumitted them." [K. Mayo's interview with Mrs. Henriette Evans, Mother of Bruce Evans, March 5, 1908, Washington, D.C., Lewis Sheridan Leary folder, Box 12, John Brown-Oswald Garrison Villard Papers, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Hereinafter, OGV]

Lewis Leary's mother, Julie Mumrell, came to Fayetteville North Carolina in childhood when her parents emigrated from Guadeloupe. Julie married Matthew Leary, a saddler and harness maker who owned several plantations. Matthew and Julie settled on the edge of territory belonging to the indigenous Croatan people, and it was here that Lewis Leary and his siblings were born and reared [Mayo's interview with Mrs. Henriette Evans, March 5, 1908]. According to a 19th century historian, Stephen Weeks, the Croatan of North Carolina had some intermixture with English colonists on Roanoke Island dating back to the 16th century. Weeks described the Croatan people as "migratory in character, and of a whole range of colors from white to black," perhaps further reflecting mixture with people of both European and African stock. [See K. Mayo's notes from Stephen B. Weeks, "The Lost Colony of Roanoke," American Historical Society (Oct. 1891): pp. 107-46, Lewis S. Leary folder, Box 12, OGV.]

Lewis Leary's father was the son of Jeremiah O'Leary, an Irishman who had fought under Gen. Nathaniel Green in the Revolutionary War.  O'Leary married Sallie Revels, a woman of Croatan and black heritage, described as a large woman of extremely light complexion ("very white"). In fact, Sallie's family was entirely aloof from local blacks and she identified with and was recognized as Croatan. [K. Mayo's interview with Mrs. Henriette Evans, Mother of Bruce Evans, March 5, 1908]

Mayo notes that in the earlier 19th century, the North Carolina Legislature made provision for manumission by allowing enslaved people to work off the price of their purchase and then being made free by the state. "It was Matthew Leary's custom to buy slaves offered in the market, let them work out their purchase money, and then get the State to manumit them." But as Southern slavery became more hardened and reactionary in the 1830s, an act was passed repealing the power of manumission (1835). This put an end to Matthew Leary's practice. North Carolina also stripped suffrage from free men of color at this time. [Mayo's interview with Mrs. Henriette Evans, March 5, 1908].

Lewis' move to Oberlin was not entirely based on preference. According to his sister Henriette, Lewis was a passionate abolitionist who regularly moved among enslaved blacks on plantations around Fayetteville, preaching insurrection. "I would be no man's slave," he would declare. [Mayo's interview with Mrs. Henriette Evans, March 5, 1908]. Lewis' wife also recalled that he was always "preaching rebellion to the slaves round about" Fayetteville, "and finally was driven to fly. . .the place having become too hot for him." [K. Mayo's interview with Mary Patterson Leary Langston, July 27, 1909, Oberlin, Ohio, Lewis S. Leary folder, Box 12, OGV]. She may have been referring to a specific incident in which Leary had to flee to save his life. According to Lewis' sister, Henriette, the family was so concerned about Lewis' dangerous profession that they thought it best to send him to Oberlin, Ohio with her after her marriage. [Mayo's interview with Mrs. Henriette Evans, March 5, 1908].

In Oberlin, Lewis was fortunate to have a friend in James Henry Scott, his father's former apprentice back in Fayetteville. Lewis worked as a harness maker with Scott in his Oberlin shop. [K. Mayo's interview with James Henry Scott, Oberlin, Ohio, Dec. 7, 1908, Lewis S. Leary folder, Box 12, OGV]. Lewis also met Mary Patterson, whom he married in 1857. Mayo described her as "decidedly of an Indian cast of feature," with high cheek bones, "the Indian eye, nose, mouth." Mary was also from Fayetteville, North Carolina and had moved to Ohio when she was a teenager. She told Mayo that all of her family in North Carolina were "of Indian stock"; and like Lewis Leary, she was also born in a free family. In 1909, when Mayo interviewed her, Mary had long since been widowed and had married Charles H. Langston, the notable orator and activist (Mary thus also being the grandmother of Harlem's great author, Langston Hughes). Apparently the interview yielded little else because Mary "had very little to say." [K. Mayo's interview with Mary Patterson Leary Langston, July 27, 1909]

Recruited by John Brown
(Jacob Lawrence)
As to Leary's involvement in the Harper's Ferry raid, he did not tell Mary the purpose for his trip to the South, but expressed the hope that "it would benefit his health, which had not been good." Mary thought he might be going to see his family, but had some suspicion about the emotions he showed in regard to his departure. "He wept like a child over their baby" Lois, taking the infant in his arms and pacing the floor with her, apparently shaken with grief." Mary found this strange, yet Lewis never revealed the nature of his trip or the possibility that he would never return. [K. Mayo's interview with Mary Patterson Leary Langston, July 27, 1909]. But on the day of his departure, Lewis told his employer, James Henry Scott, that he was going to join Brown in a raid on the South "to free the slaves." He asked Scott to explain this to his wife in case he did not return. [K. Mayo's interview with James Henry Scott, Oberlin, Ohio, Dec. 7, 1908]

Further online reading:

Jean Libby, Hannah Geffert, and Jimica Akinloye Kenyatta (James Fisher), “Hiram Revels Related to Men in John Brown's Army,” Allies for Freedom website

Lewis Leary in Ohio History Central—Online Encyclopedia

Joshua B. Howard, “Tarheels at Harpers Ferry, October 16-18, 1859,” North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennialblog

“Remembering a Tarheel in John Brown’s Raid,” North Carolina Miscellany [University of North Carolina] (25 February 2011)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Haitian Writers Remember John Brown 

The Center for Research on Globalization’s website, The Global Researcher, features an open letter to the leaders of South Africa in acknowledgement of South African support of Haiti. The authors, Jean Saint-Vil and Darlène Lozis, address President Jacob Zuma and past President Thabo Mbeki, expressing thanks, not only on the basis of a “shared African ancestry” but also “for the common experience that our two nations share in over 500 years of struggle against white supremacist violence.” In keeping with “an age-old Haitian tradition of paying due gratitude and homage” to those who “have stood firm and constant in the revolutionary fight against injustice and barbarism, any and everywhere,” Saint-Vil and Lozis recalled Haiti’s memory of anti-slavery freedom fighters in the U.S.A., such as black leaders Gabriel [Prosser], Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner, all of whom were inspired by the Haitian liberation Revolution under L’Ouverture and Dessalines.  Not restricting their tribute to “race” or color, Saint-Vil and Lozis write the following:

Back in the 1800s, while so-called “white liberals” in the Americas and Europe were paying lip service to the cause of human brotherhood and universal freedom, with “la société des amis des Noirs” agitating for an extra day of rest for the millions of enslaved Africans, there stood in the United States of North-America, a beautiful human soul named John Brown who, contrarily to the self-styled “liberals”, had refused to advocate for “slavery light”. Rather, Brown took up arms, joined his African brothers and demanded that racial slavery - the absolute evil - be immediately and forever eradicated from the face of earth. . . . History records that, following Brown’s December 2, 1859 hanging, Haiti went to great lengths to express her gratitude to this sincere revolutionary leader who was willing to shed away white privilege and commit race and class suicide for the benefit of humanity. During three days of national mourning for John Brown's execution, flags in Port-au-Prince were flown at half mast. A solemn mass was held in the cathedral, with the active participation of President Fabre Nicholas Geffard. It is also then that the main boulevard of Port-au-Prince was named Avenue John Brown. The Revue de Commerce, which declared "the death of John Brown to be a crime against humanity,” wrote “while waiting the happy day of the regeneration of our enslaved brethren, let us raise in our hearts our altar to John Brown, the immortal benefactor of our race, the holy victim of our cause, and let us adopt, as our sister and friend, his worthy and unfortunate widow.” Indeed, all over the island, collections were made and subscriptions started in behalf of the widow of John Brown. They collected twenty thousand dollars for Brown's family.

Citing an old Haitian proverb (“When you see old bone by the road, be mindful that it had once carried flesh and muscles”), the authors proceed to discuss Haiti’s aspirations despite ongoing struggle against poverty and political turmoil, and their concern that former President Aristide be suitably treated in his return to Haiti. They continue by referring to the “strange collection of modern-day missionaries who are busy spewing out prophesies of gloom and doom in certain North-American and European publications whose “hateful message” in opposition to Aristide’s return “is nothing new or out-of-character. “They know all too well why ‘this return’ represents a major blow to the face of white supremacist racism and a serious defeat of global banditry.

Indeed, in December 1859, while the multitude mourned the passing of a great human being, there were strange folks who met the killing of John Brown with celebration. Back then, the famous European writer, Victor Hugo wrote a thoughtful letter of condolences and sympathy, addressed specifically to the People of Hayti, in which he stated: “ I have been sadly deceived in that fraternity of races, the Southern States of the American Union. In killing Brown, they have committed a crime which will take its place among the calamities of history.”

See Jean Saint-Vil and Darlène Lozis, “Haitians Say Ngiyabonga (Thank You) South-Africa!” GlobalResearch.ca (24 February 2011)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Most students of history have engaged in the “what if?” scenario at one time or another, and “counter-factual history” can be a powerful means of reflecting on history and its actual outcomes. But like the work of history itself, “counter-factual history” also conveys political perspectives, even prejudices. For instance, at the onset of the Civil War sesquicentennial, some historians have been lamenting the great loss of life in the Civil War and using “counter-factual history” in extended discussions about how the war might have been avoided. Some “counter-factual” scenarios suggest the use of “non-violent” Civil Rights strategies—the notion being that the crisis over slavery might have been resolved without the loss of all those (mostly white) soldiers.
This kind of rationale tends to reflect a racially privileged mentality, one which assumes that the most important counter-factual outcome would involve the priorities and well being of whites, not the four millions of enslaved blacks whose freedom was ultimately wrought from the Civil War. Of course, this kind of counter-factual judgment assumes, for instance, that Lincoln had peaceful options that could have worked better had he tried them, or that the abolitionist movement might have been more successful if they had employed the tactics of the Civil Rights movement, like non-violent marches and protests, etc. That is, if only we could have done without John Brown.

When “counter-factual history” functions this way, it is not simply asking what outcomes might have taken place if C or D had happened instead of A or B. Rather, “counter-factual history” becomes a means of suggesting a negative political viewpoint while allegedly remaining “on the right side of history.”

A recent example of this kind of “counter-factual” revisionism is found in a conflict resolution program entitled, “Kansas Settlers Try Again,” led by Thea Nietfeld. Nietfeld is a minister who teaches nonviolence and serves a Unitarian Universalist community in Salina, Kansas. According to the Morning Sun of Pittsburg, Kansas, Nietfeld has developed her program in part to “consider what would have changed” in antebellum Kansas “with modern dispute resolution techniques.” Nietfeld was struck by the bloody history of the Kansas territory particularly after she drove past the site of the Marais des Cygnes Massacre in Linn County, where five free state men were gunned down in cold blood by pro-slavery terrorists.

“Walking around the site, I was learning all about people like John Brown,” Nietfeld said. “This land is bloody. No wonder it’s a part of this state. It made me wonder what life would have been like otherwise. What if the early settlers’ intentions had been to settle differently?”
Some white folks' "counter-factual history":
Kansas could "enter as a slave state but phase
out slavery."  Really?

This week Nietfeld had groups of people role-playing early Kansas characters, including John Brown.  Participants were directed to follow steps toward conflict resolution laid out by Nietfeld. Each group was directed to develop their own solutions to the historic crisis of “Bleeding Kansas.” One group’s solution was “to have a series of annual meetings to get all the early leaders together twice a year.” The next group’s “solution included the state establishing a legal system that everyone could respect,” and the third group “proposed the state enter as a slave state, but phase out slavery and phase in women’s suffrage.”

Nietfeld acknowledged that the exercise was “counterfactual theater,” but felt it could help people in reaching solutions to contemporary political crises. “I wanted us to recognize that the people who made early Kansas had choices,” Nietfeld said. “They did things the way they did, but it could have been otherwise. Just like we have our own choices in our own lives. We need to be conscious of our power to make history.”

Clearly, this kind of “counterfactual” reflection goes beyond the basic “what if” question of history. In Nietfeld’s case, not only do we have a person who privileges pacifist ideology, but also someone who clearly thinks within a kind of bubble of white priority. It is evident enough that this kind of “counterfactual theater,” like some academic counter-factual arguments along these lines, does not prioritize the victims of slavery. What’s going on here is an exercise in white privilege—that is, white people freely imagining the past “as it could have/should have been,” and doing so as if their concerns over “violence” are at the center of history—not the issue of black enslavement with all of its violence, racism, and exploitation.

By emphasizing “choices,” and by saying “that it could have been otherwise,” Nietfeld is also implicitly saying that John Brown and other free state militants were wrong, and that they could have resolved the crisis of territorial Kansas without the shedding of blood—a notion that is untenable. This kind of imagining is not counter-factual as much as it is politically self-serving historical denial. Nietfeld is implying what should have been; she’s saying that whites should not have killed each other over slavery because they could have worked out a solution that would have been mutually agreeable—to themselves. One of her groups thus personified this thinking by concluding that Kansas might have entered the Union as a slave state, but phased out slavery over time. Obviously, this gradualist approach clearly subordinates black freedom to white expedience. This is not merely counter-factualism: It is denial and revisionism.

It is one thing to ask, what would have happened if the South won the Civil War, or what would have happened if John Brown had successfully escaped with his men to the mountains and launched his liberation effort. It is another thing to use counter-factual thinking to insinuate that white society might have served itself better in the process of dealing with the thorny question of slavery.

See Andrew Nash, “Speaker leads group to resettle Kansas.” Morning Sun [Pittsburg, Kan.], 16 February 2011. Copyright 2011, Morning Sun. Some rights reserved.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

John Brown and Norman Marshall

When abolitionist John Brown led a group of fighters to storm the federal armory of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., he single-handedly wrote a page of American history that is still discussed a century and a half later. Brown’s radical actions of Oct. 16, 1859, were intended as a well-armed insurrection to end all slavery. Instead, he was charged with treason while the nation was pitched into an even deeper slavery debate that a year later led to secession and eventually the Civil War.

Norman Thomas Marshall in “John Brown:
Trumpet of Freedom” (Photo by Robert Rattner)

“John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom” is a drama that explores, through historically accurate words from “the Old Man” himself, the inner life of a man who commits himself to the destruction of slavery. The thespian who recreates this history possess a unique story also. Norman Thomas Marshall was born in Richmond, Va., the son of a Klansman and grandson of a slave owner. His colorful life includes a stint as an offensive tackle for the Richmond Vikings, a civil rights activist, and a center of a 1960's Supreme Court case involving his expulsion from college for his political activism. Marshall moved to New York City in 1966, became deeply involved in the Off-off Broadway theater movement and spent 11 years as the artistic director of the No Smoking Playhouse. Over the years, Brown historical contributions have been weighed by his murderous and treasonous actions to his benevolent commitment to ending slavery.

Norman Thomas Marshall
“The sad fact is that the story of John Brown is not well-known,” explained Marshall. “The broader knowledge of the man has derived from such overstated, simplistic and ill-intentioned garbage as the Hollywood movie, 'The Santa Fe Trail' starring Ronald Reagan in which Brown was given a shameful portrayal by Raymond Massey as a pop-eyed, lunatic mass murderer. Discussions of Brown, including a somewhat recent PBS program about him, invariably deteriorate to a fixation on his pathology. It is inconceivable that a similar discussion of someone such as Robert E. Lee would focus on the degree of his insanity simply because he was complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Nor do we seem to care to discuss the insanity of the millions of impoverished, young white Confederate men who bled and died for a social and economic system that kept them in poverty.”

The play challenges the tradition of Brown’s role in history as that of a mentally unbalanced fanatic and argues that he is, in fact, a uniquely heroic figure.

“John Brown deserves an important place in American History,” notes Marshall. “To paraphrase William C. Davis of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, the most widely published Civil War historian of our time, one cannot really understand American history without understanding the role played by a John Brown, that Brown is a crossroads through which passes all of American history. History aside, Brown is a character who is well-suited to the dramatic form. The story of his life naturally and easily fits the form of Greek tragedy. Theater audiences are inevitably deeply moved by the story of his dedication to the plight of his despised fellow creatures.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Harper’s Ferry Raider Osborne P. Anderson Returns in Dramatic Portrayal

Feb. 09--Osborne Perry Anderson came right from the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry to a West Virginia University classroom Tuesday.

Joseph Bundy, dressed in period costume, portrayed Anderson in front of a West Virginia University honors class. Anderson was the only survivor of John Brown's raiding party.

Osborne Perry Anderson, survived
the Harper's Ferry Raid and wrote
an account that most scholars have
overlooked and disregarded
During the hour long presentation, Bundy told the students about the raid. In 1859, Brown led others on a raid of what is now the West Virginia town of Harpers Ferry to free slaves and get weapons from the armory. The event helped show the country's emotional split over slavery. Most of the raiders were killed or captured.

"Even though the raid itself was not successful, it did a couple of things," Bundy said, while in character.

The raid, he said, showed that the slave population was able to fight. It also unified those who lived on free soil and the abolitionists, which led to Abraham Lincoln's election.

Bundy used vivid details, saying it was "cold, wet and damp" as he fled from Harpers Ferry to Canada. He spoke of using the Underground Railroad to aid in his escape.

In 1860, with the help of abolitionists Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Martin Delany, Anderson published A Voice from Harpers Ferry, the only firsthand account of the raid by an eyewitness and participant.  Although A Voice is no perfect record (no historical record is), its flaws are minor and can be reconciled to the overall facts, as Jean Libby has shown.  More importantly, by ignoring Anderson's recollections, scholars have conveniently ignored his witness as to the support and involvement of enslaved people around Harper's Ferry during the raid 
You can view and read a digital copy of the original version on Google books by clicking here, or a transcript provided by the West Virginia University Libraries by clicking here.--Ed.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Side Note
A Mad Waste of Time

Although I appreciate Robert McGlone’s important and extremely helpful biography, John Brown’s War Against Slavery (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009), it is a shame that he devoted so much scholarly effort to exploring the various aspects of mental health issues in his work.  On one hand, I understand that McGlone did so in responding to academics and others who have presumed Brown’s mental illness and treated it as an established fact.  On the other hand, I wonder whether entertaining it at such great length actually dignified this gossip—as if the question of John Brown’s sanity has ever been anything more than a vehicle of unstudied prejudice and political malice.
John Brown likely suffered with Bell's Palsy,
Not "Insanity" (Boston Atheneum)
No serious student of the life of John Brown has ever considered the “insanity” or mental illness theme as substantive.  There simply is no evidence or basis in the entire record of the man to believe that he suffered from mental illness of any kind.  Furthermore, students of Brown’s life know that notions of his alleged insanity, though varied in their sources, originated in relation to the Harper’s Ferry raid and its aftermath. In various ways, these "insanity" themes were appropriated and disseminated by later writers, particularly people with minds and spirits alienated from the principles of liberation that John Brown embraced and exemplified.  
Insanity Business
First, we know that the moderate North, which abhorred Brown’s raid, tended to dismiss it as a “mad” effort.  Second, we know that Brown’s friends—especially from Ohio’s Western Reserve—contrived a series of “insanity” affidavits with the intention of winning a commutation of an expected death sentence from Governor Wise of Virginia.  Third, we know that Southerners included the charge of insanity in their arsenal of insults against Brown from the onset.  Down through the years, Brown’s critics have drawn from these sources of propaganda to establish their own jaded interpretations of his life.  Representations of him as an unstable, violent fanatic were cemented in popular (i.e., “white”) culture in the 20th century, both in cinema and in the broadly published but speculative assessments of Civil War scholars like Allan Nevins.
I have often said that for all of the Lincoln adoration that goes on in this nation, it is interesting that the same accusations of mental illness do not hound the legacy of the 16th President—especially because there is a greater chance that he suffered from some form of mental illness.  For instance, we know that in his younger days, Lincoln had great apprehensions about going mad, and there are episodes of deep depression and possibly evidence of tremendous mood swings.  I’m not saying Lincoln was mentally ill or bipolar specifically, but I am saying that the academy, and society at large, has been quite selective in sparing Abe Lincoln from the same kind of “psycho-historical” inquisition that has so steadily hounded the memory of John Brown.
Terrible Swift Diagnoses
Most scholars, journalists, and writers who invoke the theme of mental instability in Brown’s case are presumptuous “knowledge production specialists” with little or no biographical expertise.  Sometimes they are fundamentally malicious (one or two essays of this kind can be found in Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown.  But some people just think they’re stating the facts of history.  Regardless, their renditions of John Brown appear here and there, in books and articles, blogs and novels, sustaining the myth of mental instability—always feeding off of and into the assumptions that have long been seeded in popular culture.
A good example of this seeding is an internet advertisement by a group called Help Us Heal (Helpusheal.org) regarding bipolar disorder.  The ad discusses bipolar disorder as being “characterized by drastic changes in energy, behavior and mood.”  The ad goes on to say that bipolar periods consist of highs and lows, often called "manic" and "depressive" episodes.
The apparently well-intentioned advertisement publishes a long list of prominent cultural and historical figures, from actors and artists to statesmen and from astronauts to political figures.  The very last on the list is “John Brown, abolitionist.”  I cannot speak authoritatively about the others so named, but I can say that it is completely wrong to include John Brown in a list of people allegedly suffering or having suffered from bipolar disorder.  There is simply no basis for such an assumption.

The ad provides “signs” of “manic” and “depressive episodes” allegedly derived from the National Institute of Mental Health.  In both categories, I find nothing reminiscent of John Brown’s recorded description.  Furthermore, the “manic” “signs,” taken individually, would describe many people who are not considered bipolar, from needing little sleep to talking fast to spending sprees. In Brown’s case, none of this has resonance, except that Brown did not sleep much as a matter of course so that he could work more.  Some people simply don't need as much sleep as other people, and taken by itself this adds no weight to the claim that he was bipolar.  There is even less resonance regarding the “signs” of a “depressive episode.”  As I said, Abe Lincoln would be a better candidate, but not John Brown.

Not Only Sane but Wise

Brown was no more or less “normal” than most of us.  He had his peculiarities, but having an ultra-quiet laugh, a stoic temperament, a deeply religious belief, or a passionate desire for justice does not constitute bipolar issues.  For most whites in his era, the only thing they found inordinate or extreme about John Brown was his “monomania”—a phrase that bespoke an extremist position—about slavery.  In fact, a careful historian will observe that the “insanity” affidavits that were compiled by his friends in Ohio reveal quite the opposite: if Brown really had evident psychological issues, the affiants would have had plenty to discuss and we would have almost twenty different testimonies with ample witness to psychological issues.  In fact, the most these affiants could say with a clear conscience was that Brown had some “insanity” among relatives (whatever that meant in 1859), and that he was “monomania” on the subject of slavery.  Governor Wise of Virginia was on the wrong side of history and it was clearly his objective to see John Brown hanged.  But he was not wrong for rejecting the insanity appeal: none of the affidavits—nothing in any testimony proved the notion of mental instability.

Speaking for myself as a biographer and student of the man, I have no intention of getting bogged down in extensive discussions in defense of Brown’s sanity.  It seems to me that the impossible burden of proof is upon his detractors, not upon the students and biographers of the man.  Brown once wrote to his wife, “Let our motto still be action, action—for we have but one life to live.”  Likewise, those of us who seriously engage the story of Brown and his legacy have only a measured time to work before our files and papers are passed onto another generation.  Let us not waste our time with foolish speculations, but rather concentrate our actions upon studying the life of John Brown, a man who was not only sane, but wise beyond many of his contemporaries.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

John Brown News
"History Detectives" on John Brown's Trail (Again)

The popular “History Detectives” program has previously pursued John Brown, when they featured a letter by Brown and a photographic image that was held by a descendant of a Brown family friend in California.  This episode (no. 6, 2003 season) can be explored by visiting the “History Detectives” website, which also features a transcription of the Brown letter segment.  Now, the “History Detectives” are hot on John Brown’s trail once again.  According to Kaitlin McCallum, editor of the Farmington Patch [Farmington, Conn.], appraiser Wes Cowan has been poking around Unionville, Conn., as part of an investigation involving a pike with the mark of “C. Hart &Sons.”  According to McCallum, the “History Detective” investigator consulted the President of the Unionville Museum after being contacted by the pike’s owner (who lives in the Midwest).

McCallum reports that “C. Hart” was a local blacksmith named Chauncey Hart, owner and proprietor of Hart Manufacturing Co. in Unionville from 1857 until the 1880s.  Cowan also learned that Hart’s establishment produced 1000 pikes in keeping with an order made by John Brown.  It is a matter of record that Brown intended to put these pikes in the hands of liberated people that he hoped to rescue from captivity in the South, enabling them to defend themselves and thus extending the liberation movement farther into the South.

Pike and Sharps Rifle engraving from
James Redpath's Life of Captain John Brown (1860)
Like so many “authentic” Civil War bullets, John Brown’s Connecticut-made pikes have also been replicated over the years.  McCallum quotes a producer of “History Detectives,” who says that the pikes became symbols of the start of the Civil War and the anti-slavery movement.  However, very few people can distinguish the authentic, original pikes from these opportunistic, if not well-intended imitation pikes.  Fortunately, Clifford Alderman, President of the Unionville Museum has the expertise to identify an original John Brown pike.

McCallum describes the pikes appropriately as “a kind of long-handled spear with a metal blade,” but points out that when Brown ordered them, he did not reveal his intention to place them into the hands of liberated black people.  McCallum does not say so, but the ostensible purpose of the pikes when Brown ordered them was to place them into the hands of white free state people fighting pro-slavery thugs in the Kansas territory. In fact, one of Brown’s sons referred to them as “Kansas butter knives.”

In retrospect, it is entirely understandable that Brown had to use this ploy about the intention he had for the pikes.  First, to reveal his actual intentions would have been to reveal his plan to enter Virginia and assault the slave system in the heart of the South.  Second, to reveal his intention of arming blacks would have been an anathema in 19th century racist society like that which existed in Connecticut and the U.S. North overall.  Recall that even Lincoln dragged his big feet in arming enlisted black soldiers during the Civil War.

It is no surprise too, as McCallum further points out, that after the Harper’s Ferry raid, “Hart was not proud of the part he unwittingly played in the movement and that he was ultimately brought up on charges himself. The charges were dropped, but his great-great-great-grandson, Tom Hart, said the pikes were never mentioned in the family.”

The pikes serve as a reminder of the dynamics of race and politics that permeated the North, including, perhaps especially, John Brown’s home state of Connecticut.  Significant work has already been done to expose the roots of slavery and racism in Connecticut (see “Complicity: How Connecticut Chained Itself To Slavery,” a feature of the Hartford Courant.)

But we should keep in mind that throughout the North, Brown’s raid was condemned and excoriated by white society, foremost being the future, so-called “Great Emancipator” Abraham Lincoln, who stumbled into the right line only after pretty much every well-meaning white man and woman in the North had preceded him.  That Hart was shamed and nearly indicted for the role his factory played is consistent with the real lack of commitment to black liberation that the overwhelming number of northern whites really manifested.   Had the Civil War not started out as a war to save the Union, it is doubtful it would ever have started at all. That it ever became a war "to end slavery" was a fortunate but inevitable necessity, given the determination of slave holders to expand slavery beyond the confines to which moderate Republicans had assigned it.  Regardless, the story of John Brown's pikes is an interesting aspect in the dramatic story of the Harper's Ferry raid.  It's too bad that in delaying in Harper's Ferry to his own ultimate disadvantage and defeat, the Old Man was not able to see them used as he had intended.  The stubborn myth of Virginia's contented, loyal "slaves" would have no place in today's discussion about John Brown's raid.

See Kaitlin McCallum, “PBS Show Follows Mystery to Unionville Museum,” Farmington Patch [Farmington, Conn.], 1 February 2011

Postscript from Jean Libby, John Brown Documentary Scholar

The lady who was on "History Detectives" in 2003 (Lori Deal) is still encouraging public use of her artifacts of a letter and a photograph.  She donated the materials to the Bancroft Library at the University of California in 2005.  I went with her to the library.  She did not receive any funds, nor was she offered any expenses funding for the archival care she had made.  The Bancroft Library has done a very poor job of describing the collection or making the letter public, as she asked.

Jean Libby