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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

In Remembrance of Free Spirits:
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and the John Brown Story

I. A Journalist Finds Her Resting Place

Journalist Annette John-Hall recently did a column about her experience as a volunteer in the clean-up of historic Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, in the Philadelphia area. According to John-Hall, Eden is a historic black cemetery where a number of notable African Americans now rest: Marian Anderson (1897-1993), freedom fighter Octavius V. Catto (1839-1871), abolitionist William Still (1821-1902), architect Julian Abele (1881-1950), and track-and-field gold medalist John B. Taylor Jr. (1882-1908), “along with hundreds of other notable African Americans whose achievements left an enduring mark on the world.” Unfortunately, Eden has suffered from vandalism—the defacement of headstones, trash dumping, and even graceless dog owners who have left their pets’ excrement on the burial grounds. As if that were not bad enough, arsonists burned down the cemetery’s administrative offices twice. In response to these problems, Mina Cockroft, the general manager of the cemetery, put out a call for volunteers through the media for assistance in cleaning up Eden. A hundred volunteers, including John-Hall, showed up to clean headstones, plant flowers, and prune trees, answered the call.

Annette John-Hall
John-Hall interestingly describes how she accompanied Cockcroft to a section of the cemetery located on a southern ridge to “a section of the cemetery named for revolutionary abolitionist John Brown.” Given the importance of Philadelphia in the 19th century as a center of African American life and activity, perhaps it is no surprise that a black cemetery would have a section named for the Old Man. Many African Americans today have no idea how highly Brown was revered by the black community in the aftermath of the Harper’s Ferry raid and well into the 20th century. After all, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since those days—the progress of the black struggle and the rise of modern black martyrs of great stature have understandably mooted the reverent attachments of past generations. Yet people with a historical memory retain a sense of loyalty to the Old Man and happily are willing to defend his name and legacy.
Annette John-Hall at the gravesite
of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

The story comes to a beautiful conclusion at the burial site of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911), one of the great black activist orators and literary figures of the 19th century. As John-Hall describes it, she had inadvertently come upon the grave of “one of my cherished role models. . . . The visionary who fearlessly refused to give up her seat on the horse-drawn trolley in Philadelphia, a century before Rosa Parks.”

John-Hall then mentioned Watkins Harper’s beloved poem, “Bury Me in a Free Land,” the message of which resonated as she realized this was where the poet was actually buried. She closes the story by interspersing her narrative with Harper’s memorable verse:

Make me a grave where'er you will / In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill. . . .

Cockroft [the cemetery manager] asked if I would like to keep up Harper's plot as part of a new adopt-a-grave-site program the cemetery has started. I'd be honored, I said.

Make it among earth's humblest graves / But not in a land where men are slaves.

"Don't worry Mrs. Harper," I thought as I grabbed a bucket and wiped down her headstone, along with the adjacent one of her daughter, Mary. "I think you'd be mighty pleased with your resting place."1

II. Epistles of Comfort

Following the Harper’s Ferry raid and the aftermath of its trial and judgments, Frances Ellen Watkins (she had not yet married Fenton Harper) coincidentally found herself in Philadelphia in November 1859, probably in her capacity as a traveling anti-slavery lecturer. According to William Still’s epic Underground Railroad, “Mrs. Harper passed two weeks with Mrs. Brown at the house of the writer [Still] while she was awaiting the execution of her husband, and sympathized with her most deeply.” At the moment I cannot date this more precisely, but her stay certainly dates to early November.

Mary Ann Day-Brown,
the "noble wife of the
hero of the 19th century"
Mary Brown had left her Adirondack home, traveling first to Boston, where anti-slavery friends greeted her during the first week of November. Leaving Boston, she proceeded southward; but when Brown heard that his wife was coming to Virginia, he panicked for fear that she would face Southern hostility and appealed to friends to send Mary back home. Mary did not return home, but she did turn around at Baltimore and returned as far as Philadelphia, where she seems to have first taken refuge in the home of William Still at 107 Fifth Street. Apparently, it was during this time that she met Frances Ellen Watkins and formed a bond of friendship with her. (Mary Brown stayed in the Philadelphia area for the rest of the month, making one visit to the home of Rebecca Buffum Spring in New Jersey, but otherwise remained in Philadelphia, staying in the home of Lucretia Mott until—with Brown's permission—she went to Virginia on December 1, the day before the execution.)

By the second week of November, Frances Ellen Watkins had continued on her speaking tour, but was still carrying the burden of Mary’s imminent loss in her heart. Writing from Farmer Centre, a town in northwestern Ohio, Frances reached out to the woman who would soon become the widow of John Brown:

Farmer Centre, Ohio, Nov. 14th.

My Dear Madam:

In an hour like this the common words of sympathy may seem like idle words, and yet I want to say something to you, the noble wife of the hero of the nineteenth century. Belonging to the race your dear husband reached forth his hand to assist, I need not tell you that my sympathies are with you. I thank you for the brave words you have spoken. A republic that produces such a wife and mother may hope for better days. Our heart may grow more hopeful for humanity when it sees the sublime sacrifice it is about to receive from his hands. Not in vain has your dear husband periled all, if the martyrdom of one hero is worth more than the life of a million cowards. From the prison comes forth a shout of triumph over that power whose ethics are robbery of the feeble and oppression of the weak, the trophies of whose chivalry are a plundered cradle and a scourged and bleeding woman. Dear sister, I thank you for the brave and noble words that you have spoken. Enclosed I send you a few dollars as a token of my gratitude, reverence and love.

Yours respectfully,
Frances Ellen Watkins
"Yours in the cause of freedom":
Frances E. Watkins Harper
(Moonstone Arts Center)
In postscript, Frances noted that all correspondence should be directed to William Still in Philadelphia. She added:
May God, our own God, sustain you in the hour of trial. If there is one thing on earth I can do for you or yours, let me be apprized. I am at your service.2
As she continued lecturing, Frances now turned her focus directly to John Brown, to whom she wrote about ten days later from a town in northeastern Indiana:
Kendallville, Indiana, Nov. 25.

Dear Friend:

Although the hands of Slavery throw a barrier be¬tween you and me, and it may not be my privilege to see you in your prison-house, Virginia has no bolts or bars through which I dread to send you my sympathy. In the name of the young girl sold from the warm clasp of a mother's arms to the clutches of a libertine or a prof¬ligate, — in the name of the slave mother, her heart rocked to and fro by the agony of her mournful separations, — I thank you, that you have been brave enough to reach out your hands to the crushed and blighted of my race. You have rocked the bloody Bastile ; and I hope that from your sad fate great good may arise to the cause of freedom. Already from your prison has come a shout of triumph against the giant sin of our country. The hemlock is distilled with victory when it is pressed to the lips of Socrates. The Cross becomes a glorious ensign when Calvary's pale-browed sufferer yields up his life upon it. And, if Universal Freedom is ever to be the dominant power of the land, your bodies may be only her first stepping stones to dominion. I would prefer to see Slavery go down peaceably by men breaking off their sins by righteousness and their iniquities by showing justice and mercy to the poor; but we cannot tell what the future may bring forth. God writes national judgments upon national sins; and what may be slumbering in the storehouse of divine justice we do not know. We may earnestly hope that your fate will not be a vain lesson, that it will intensify our hatred of Slavery and love of freedom, and that your martyr grave will be a sacred altar upon which men will record their vows of undying hatred to that system which tramples on man and bids defiance to God. I have written your dear wife, and sent her a few dollars, and I pledge myself to you that I will continue to assist her. May the ever-blessed God shield you and your fellow-prisoners in the darkest hours. Send my sympathy to your fellow-prisoners; tell them to be of good courage; to seek a refuge in the Eternal God, and lean upon His everlasting arms for a sure support. If any of them, like you, have a wife or children that I can help, let them send me word. . . .

Yours in the cause of freedom,
F[rances] E[llen] W[atkins]3
In Her Later Years:
A Representative Figure
(Moonstone Arts Center)
I will leave the reader to contemplate Frances Ellen Watkins’ words to Mary and John Brown, but certainly they reflect the preponderant feeling about Brown in the African American community. Although the high-minded renderings of the New England literati are often cited with respect to the apotheosis of John Brown, it is important to point out that blacks did not need the Emersons and Thoreaus of this world to portray him in heroic terms. From Frances Ellen Watkins to Harriet Tubman, there is an ample store of tribute sufficient to secure the Old Man’s reverential place in history.

III. The Martyrs’ Poet

“Not forgetting Brown's comrades,” writes William Still,” who were then lying in prison under sentence of death, [and] true to the best impulses of her generous heart, she thus wrote relative to these ill-fated prisoners, from Montpelier, Dec. 12th.” Scholars of Frances Ellen Watkins have placed her in Montpelier, Vermont, when she wrote this letter, although it is worth noting that there is also a town called Montpelier in eastern Indiana, and it is possible that she wrote the following words to an ally (Still?) while on a Midwestern speaking tour. The text, likewise provided by William Still, includes his editorial remarks in parenthesis:
Montpelier [Indiana?], Dec. 12th.

I thank you for complying with my request. (She had previously ordered a box of things to be forwarded to them.) And also that you wrote to them. You see Brown towered up so bravely that these doomed and fated men may have been almost overlooked, and just think that I am able to send one ray through the night around them. And as their letters came too late to answer in time, I am better satisfied that you wrote. I hope the things will reach them. Poor doomed and fated men! Why did you not send them more things? Please send me the bill of expense. . . . Send me word what I can do for the fugitives. Do you need any money? Do I not owe you on the old bill (pledge)? Look carefully and see if I have paid all. Along with this letter I send you one for Mr. Stephens (one of Brown's men), and would ask you to send him a box of nice things every week till he dies or is acquitted. I understand the balls have not been extracted from him. Has not this suffering been overshadowed by the glory that gathered around the brave old man?. . . Spare no expense to make the last hours of his (Stephens') life as bright as possible with sympathy. . . . Now, my friend, fulfil this to the letter. Oh, is it not a privilege, if you are sisterless and lonely, to be a sister to the human race, and to place your heart where it may throb close to down-trodden humanity?4
Brown was hanged on December 2 but there was still a great deal of attention paid to his men, black and white, who followed him to the gallows in mid-December (black raiders Green and Copeland and white raiders Cook and Coppoc) and mid-March 1860 (Hazlett and Stevens). Evidently, Frances had written similar words of comfort in corresponding with the raiders--although too late for her to write back to some of them before they were hanged in December. Frances thus turned her attention to Stevens and urged her correspondent to do whatever possible to send comfort to him in the final weeks of his life in Virginia. (Recall that after mid-December’s executions, the only other surviving raider in captivity besides Stevens was Albert Hazlett, who went under the name of "Harrison" from the time of his capture in the hopes of escaping conviction. Brown and the other raiders had pretended not to know him in the hope that he might escape condemnation since there was insufficient evidence of his presence at Harper’s Ferry. Although the effort failed and “Harrison” went to the gallows along with Stevens, he used this pseudonym in correspondence throughout his incarceration. This may explain why Frances mentions only Stevens by name, since he was the only acknowledged raider yet alive in the hands of Virginia authorities after December 15, 1859.5)

Raider Aaron D. Stevens:
Copied "Bury Me in a Free Land"
by hand while awaiting execution
(Dickinson College image)
Along with her obvious generosity in sending gifts to the raiders and paying expenses for every possible kindness, Frances tells Still that she had a letter to Stevens [mistakenly rendered as “Stephens”] sent in his care. Unfortunately, correspondence between Frances Ellen Watkins and Aaron Dwight Stevens is not extant, but there is one strong piece of evidence that her letter[s] indeed reached the doomed raider. According to researcher Jean Libby, Albert Hazlett, who was hanged with Stevens on March 16, 1860, sent a copy of Watkins’ poem, “Bury Me in a Free Land,” to Rebecca Buffum Spring.6 Spring was a Quaker abolitionist who visited John Brown during his incarceration in Virginia and afterward became something of a mother to the raiders as they awaited execution.7

Excerpt of Aaron Dwight Stevens' handwritten copy of
"Bury Me in a Free Land," perhaps sent to him by the poet herself
(John Brown-Villard Papers, Columbia University)
Although Frances Ellen Watkins did not compose the poem in response to the Harper’s Ferry raid, she may have shared it in writing to Brown’s men in Virginia because Hazlett had a copy of “Bury Me in a Free Land” and sent it to Rebecca Buffum Spring prior to his execution. In fact, it is likely that the copy that Hazlett sent to Spring was copied out on two pages by Aaron Stevens, the original of which is now in the Villard Papers.8 In preparing his 1910 biography of Brown, Villard somehow acquired a number of letters from Spring’s possession, including the Watkins poem in Stevens’ handwriting.
Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.

I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.

I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother’s shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.

I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.9
It often strikes me that the story of John Brown’s raid and last days, along with the final days of his noble young men, is a world of study in itself. As even this brief episode demonstrates, the story has depth and dimension—even more, it has the tissue, ligaments, and nerves of a living narrative that continues to move, even as it moves upon us in reflection. Surely, the Harper’s Ferry raid and its aftermath was not merely the prologue to the Civil War as many historians assume, but also the prophetic watershed of generations and the spiritual meeting place where men and women of profound character and conviction found common fellowship in their opposition to slavery—as it were, in the sacrifice of John Brown and his noble young raiders.


      1 See Annette John-Hall, “Community Cleanup at Historic Cemetery.” Philly.com (24 May 2011). Originally published in the Philadelphia Enquirer.  Also see Annette Hall, "Maintaining History in the Garden of Eden," Blinq (a blog at Philly.com), 24 May 2011.

      2 William Still, Still’s Underground Railroad Records [revised, 1879 version entitled, The Underground Railroad] (Philadelphia: William Still, 1886), 762-63.

     3 Francis Ellen Watkins to John Brown, 25 November 1859, in James Redpath, Echoes of Harper’s Ferry (Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860), 418-19. Redpath probably received the letter from Mary Brown after her husband’s death, and when he reprinted it in this book, along with many other letters to Brown, he was careful not to reveal the names of the writers by using only their initials.

     4 Still’s Underground Railroad Records, 763.

     5 See Stephen B. Oates, To Purge this Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970), 328-29 (also see note on p. 329), and 350.

     6 Jean Libby, notes from the Rebecca Buffum Spring Papers, Stanford University, 2001.

     7 W. H. Harrison [sic] to “Dear Mother” [Rebecca Spring], 15 March 1860, in R. B. Spring file, Box 16, John Brown – Oswald Garrison Villard Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, Columbia University Library.

     8 Ibid.

     9 “Frances E. W. Harper, “’Bury Me in a Free Land’ (1858),” under “The Poetry and Poetic Legacy of Frances E. W. Harper” (2010), Moonstore Arts Center website (Philadelphia, Pa.).

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