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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, July 21, 2017

In the News. . .Lake Placid, Charlestown, and . . . New Jersey?

Archaeological Dig at the John Brown Farm in Lake Placid, NY

"Students search John Brown’s NY farm site for artifacts.” The Washington Times, July 15, 2017

A view of the John Brown Farm at Lake Placid NY
(photo by Martha Swan, John Brown Lives!)
NORTH ELBA, N.Y. (AP) - Students at a New York college are searching John Brown’s Adirondack farm for artifacts linked to the 19th-century abolitionist.

The State University of New York at Potsdam has been conducting an archaeology field school at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site just outside the village of Lake Placid. The school’s archaeology students are hosting an open house at the historic site Saturday.

Brown and his family lived at the farm in the 1850s, when he opposed slavery in the United States. In October 1859, he led the attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in what is now West Virginia.  Brown and supporters were captured. He was executed the following December. His body was returned to the farm in North Elba a week later and buried there.

“Students will give archaeology tours at John Brown Farm.” Adirondack Daily Enterprise [Saranac Lake, NY], July 14, 2017 

The article notes that students from the Potsdam campus of the State University of New York had concluded their third week of a four-week field school at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid, N.Y., and opened their project to public viewing.

Sierra Club President Aaron Mair, on May 6, after laying a wreath at the
abolitionist's grave on John Brown Day, this past May 6
(Adirondack Enterprise--Antonio Olivero Photo
The article notes that there were about a dozen students working on the project, "looking for the archaeological record left by the Brown family and the people who took care of the farm after the Browns moved out west."  The project has the support of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation

 SUNY Potsdam archaeology students are wrapping up their third week of a four-week field school at John Brown Farm State Historic Site, and they invite the public to observe the archaeological dig.

"Archaeology students dig into John Brown Farm." Adirondack Daily Enterprise, July 19, 2017

This article provides the most extensive details about the archaeology field school project at the John Brown farm, led by Prof. Hadley Kruczek-Aaron of the State University of New York at Potsdam.

To no surprise, many of the students involved in the project had never heard of John Brown before they took this course.   "One student said he may have heard his name briefly mentioned in an AP history class."

Professor Hadley Kruczek-Aaron of SUNY Potsdam
(Enterprise photo — Shaun Kittle)
The article mistakenly states that Brown first came to the Lake Placid area in 1846.  Actually Brown was an enthusiastic supporter of the black settlements in Franklin and Essex counties, but did not relocate there until the spring of 1849.  At that time, the Browns settled in a rented farm--not the present site of the John Brown Farm--and remained there as tenants until 1851, when they relocated back to Akron, Ohio.   When Brown's work obligations came to a conclusion in 1855, the Browns returned to the Adirondacks, where they settled into the John Brown Farm, which had been built for them by son-in-law, Henry Thompson, from a large North Elba family.

According to the article, Hadley Kruczek-Aaron "has looked for traces" particularly of Lyman Epps (Eppes), a black settler who became particularly close to the Browns.  The Eppes family were perhaps the last of the black families to remain in the settlement, known as Timbucto.  As the article points out, the Timbucto settlement in Essex County, near North Elba, as well as another one dubbed Blackville, in Franklin County, were made possible by land grants to free blacks in New York State. The grants were given by the wealthy abolitionist magnate, Gerrit Smith, of Peterboro, N.Y.  Smith also gave land to others, but he had a particular interest in showing support to free blacks--something that got John Brown's attention in the 1840s and drew him to the location.
Brown in the late 1840s, when
he became enthusiastic supporter
of the Adirondack land grant program

Brown was seasoned in agricultural and livestock and knew how to adapt his skills to the cold mountain climate.  Knowing that the black grantees were city folk unaccustomed to agrarian life, he wanted to place himself in their midst as a mentor.   Smith thus provided him land, and a group of antislavery allies later raised money to pay for it while Brown was off fighting slavery in the 1850s.    Unfortunately, the black settlements were not a success.  From the onset, many settlers were fleeced and exploited by local opportunists, who thought nothing of taking advantage of black city folk, and no doubt racism was part of the difficulties they faced.  However, many of the settlers found that their plots were difficult, with property lines falling in areas that they were difficult to cultivate.

 Overall, the project was more idealistic than substantive.  Most city dwellers are not inclined to wilderness life, black or white, and the black land grantees naturally would have to labored and suffered in 19th century Adirondack wilderness, something that demanded far more than most of them were prepared to undertake.  Unscrupulous whites were ready to offer them money to buy them out, and others simply got weary of the thankless and difficult wilderness life and returned to life downstate in the thriving cities of New York.  Even Willis Hodges, one of the black leaders and a good friend of John Brown, had returned to Brooklyn, N.Y. by the mid-1850s.   Quite in contrast, John Brown himself loved Adirondack life and would have remained there, along with his family, had his life not ended on a Virginia gallows in 1859.

Mary Brown with daughters Annie and Sarah ca. 1851
Kruczek-Aaron is noted as saying, “When I think about this house, I don’t really think about it as John Brown’s house; I think about it as Mary Brown’s house."  This is certainly the case, since Brown was hardly there.  He brought his family back from Ohio in the spring of 1855 and left in May of the same year for Kansas.  He did not return home until 1857, and subsequently was only home for short visits with his wife and younger children.  Of course, in the summer of 1859, he relocated to a Maryland farm house using the pseudonym, Isaac Smith.  In a sense, that rented farmhouse in Maryland was more of John Brown's farm as it was the site of his residence, planning, and adventures in the months leading up to the Harper's Ferry raid.  Mary Brown refused to join him in the South and was upset when their teenage daughter Annie decided to do so.

As to the archaeological goals of the SUNY Potsdam expedition, the article quotes Kruczek-Aaron:
We, as archaeologists, are hoping to better understand their experience.  So we know a lot about John Brown, but we know less about Mary’s experience and the family’s experience, and so that’s our goal, is to use archaeology to better understand their Adirondack story. And we do that by using archaeological evidence, which is artifacts, that can speak to everyday life.
SUNY Potsdam archaeology students working
at the John Brown farm in Lake Placid
(Enterprise photo — Dana Hatton
As the article points out further, the project is looking into the everyday aspects of life on the Adirondack farm: eating and drinking habits and implements, or the use of tobacco and medicines. "They look for these artifacts in what they believe were high-activity or well-traveled areas on the property, such as near doorways or where a porch once was. Things they’ve found so far include plenty of glass, shards of ceramics, a tobacco pipe and embroidery scissors."

After working the dig with brushes, root clippers, dustpans and other carpentry tools, the students recorded their findings "by recalling the soil color and texture, what they found, at what depth it was found and what stratum or hole they found it in, and eventually bag the artifact."   Their artifacts are then taken to a lab at SUNY Potsdam to be cleaned and later analyzed during an archaeological lab techniques course.

scissors and ceramic fragment 
(Enterprise photo by Dana Hatton)
The risk in this project is not confusing the periods of the different artifacts discovered on the site. The article points out that in the 1950s, New York State restored the farm house to its condition and size at the time of the Harper's Ferry raid.  Mary Brown actually had invested money into expanding and improving the farm house in the 1860s, and these additions and changes were removed in the 20th century, when the State undertook the restoration.

The most difficult aspect is understanding what time period the artifacts belong to. In the 1950s, the state wanted to return the house back to how it looked when John Brown died, destroying an addition and filling the hole with sand to grade the land. By understanding this history, the class has been able to look at the soil to determine the dates of the artifacts found above or below the sand.

This 19th century postcard shows the John Brown farm as it
existed after being expanded by Mary Brown in the Civil War era.
Excavations of the site must take into account that the farm house
has a history that extends well past the time of Brown's days
Kruczek-Aaron was disappointed students didn’t find more artifacts from when the Browns lived at the farm, but perhaps this is no surprise.  "Other than a few isolated items dated to the mid-19th century, she said the oldest items were from the late 19th century when caretakers lived at the site."  The time that the Browns resided on the farm was actually brief in comparison to the existence of the house and site, since no Browns remained there after 1863.

A high point of the excavation was the participation of John and Mary Brown's great-great-great-granddaughter, Alice Mecoy, who traveled from the southwest to join the students on the site. According to the article, "Mecoy hopes that the community continues to be intrigued by John Brown, 'or him to be perceived as the visionary he was. He was for equality of all people, not just men, not just women, blacks and whites, Japanese; he didn’t care. He thought everyone was equal. He taught his sons women’s work and his daughters sons’ work. He was very ahead of his time. And it’s the way we should all be striving to live.'"

Renovation of West Virginia Court House Where John Brown Was Tried 

Richard Belisle, "Jefferson County Courthouse repairs cost $3M to date," Herald-Mail [Hagerstown, Md.], July 20, 2017 [excerpted]

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — An ancient furnace in the basement of the Jefferson County (W.Va.) Courthouse was replaced about 15 years ago by modern equipment, a move that signaled the beginning of a long effort to renovate the 145-year-old building. To date, that effort has cost $3 million, said Bill Polk, the county’s maintenance supervisor. The West Virginia Courthouse Facilities Improvement Authority has approved nearly $700,000 in grants for the work thus far.  The Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission has been advising the county to help ensure the building’s historic features are protected, Polk said.

The court house in which John Brown was tried
and convicted is now under renovation
(Herald-Mail photo)
Next, attention was given to the four columns in front of the building, which are among its most recognizable features. The columns, added when the courthouse was rebuilt following Civil War damage, “were made with rows upon rows of handmade bricks stacked all the way up,” Polk said.
When crews checked the condition of the bricks inside the cast-iron “boots” that surrounded the columns, they found crumbled bricks and piles of dust.  The boots were removed, and the columns repaired and covered in a fiber wrap, Polk said.

Next came landscaping work in front of the courthouse’s main entrance. Acting on a recommendation from the landmarks commission, the county removed a huge boulder with “1863” carved in it to commemorate West Virginia’s 100th birthday.  “People thought the rock was historic. It wasn’t,” Polk said. “It was put there during a 100th anniversary parade in 1963. The rock was removed and given to Wildwood Intermediate School to put on the lawn there.
A 19th century sketch of the court house

The stone wall along Washington and George streets had to be rebuilt, and the two large boxwoods on the front lawn were removed.  The work also included renovations to the large second-floor circuit-court courtroom, judge’s chambers and offices.

The first Jefferson County Courthouse was built on the current site in 1803. It was replaced with a new, larger building in 1836.  Abolitionist John Brown was tried in the first-floor courtroom in 1859.
In 1872, the Civil War damage to the building was repaired. It was enlarged, and the new courtroom was added to the second floor.

John Brown's Raid invoked in Case of Fired Palestinian Teacher in New Jersey

While this story does not deal directly with John Brown, the abolitionist's name popped up in a controversy that has made both local and national news for Raritan Township, New Jersey, over the past few years.

In 2015, Sireen Hashem, a history teacher at the Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, New Jersey, was fired after having a series of conflicts with the school district that seem to reflect local hostility toward her as a Palestinian and Muslim.

A December 2015 report by NJ.com stated that the school had ordered the history teacher not to "mention Islam in class," and reprimanded her for showing a movie about the young Nobel Laureate, Malala Yusufzai.  In an initial court hearing, Hashem stated that she was fired because her Muslim religion "causes 'trouble."

Sireen Hashem on CNN
According to another report in late 2015, Hashem's troubles began when a student was offended by her showing the movie about Malala Yusufzai, even though another teacher in the same school had also showed the same movie on the same day.  Based upon the available reports, it appears that Hashem was simply too frank in her political assessment of the Palestinian-Israel situation and religious leaders and parents in the district were reactionary and hostile toward her because she was a Muslim Palestinian.  Indeed, Hashem seems to have fallen prey to the tendency on the part of many people in this nation label any kind of criticism of Israel's policies as anti-Semitism.  There is no evidence whatsoever that Hashem was advancing racist views, and in a 2007 article, Hashem was even quoted as encouraging Jewish and Muslim relationships.   "We should get together. We eat halal. They eat kosher. What's the difference? We should work it out," she said.  It is hard to believe that a woman of such sentiments has been fairly accused of anti-Semitism.

It seems rather that unfortunately she fell prey to expressing the "wrong" political views as a Palestinian and Muslim.  Hashem's lawsuit, as reported in late 2015,  seeks lost wages and punitive damages for employment discrimination, disparate treatment, retaliation, conspiracy, constitutional violations, discriminatory firing and defamation.  We wish her the best given what appears to be a most unfortunate and unfair situation.

Hunterdon High School
According to an online report in February 2017,  Hashem's lawsuit against the school district "is inching its way through federal court."  Last month, an updated report stated that after reaching federal court, Hashem's case has headed into mediation by retired Superior Court Judge Lawrence Lawson, after which it will return to federal court in August for an update on the mediation effort.

The John Brown connection in the story is that Hashem was using the school curriculum which included a parallel between Osama bin Laden's 9/11 attack on the USA and John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.   According to Hashem, she did not draw a parallel between Brown and bin Laden since this seems to have been inferred or suggested by the curriculum.  Nor was this itself controversial, since many people in this nation are so besotted by the John Brown terrorist notion, and the supposed parallel between Brown and Muslim extremists has been made numerous times, including by Tony Horwitz in a New York Times Op-Ed in 2009.

While Brown remains a controversial figure in the minds of many whites, the school district has alleged that Hashem mismanaged the classroom discussion about Brown and the raid, and "editorialized" that Bin Laden "had no intention of killing as many Americans as he did" because he chose the attacks in the early morning of Sept. 11, 2001 "to minimize the number of people killed."
The school district also contends that Hashem said that Bin Laden "should be forgiven because he later apologized for the attacks and ought not to have been buried at sea but returned to his homeland for a proper burial."

Hashem seems to deny that she made such statements in class, and attributes them to the false charges of students and her critics.  Clearly, the real conflict between Hashem and the school district is probably more related to the political bias of people in the community, including both anti-Muslim bias and pro-Israel defensiveness.   Recently, the Committee to Support Sireen Hashem has asked the school district "to apologize to Sireen Hashem and to all Palestinians" for a statement made in legal papers that "Palestine is not a nation."  That such sentiments have been espoused by Hashem's opponents suggests that the political interests of pro-Israel supporters may have been a key factor in her firing.

Hashem has since gone on to become as a teacher at Ridge High School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.

It is most unfortunate that the fallback discussion about John Brown in this day and age has become one where the abolitionist is compared to domestic and foreign terrorists.  That the Harper's Ferry raid and "9/11" are even considered worthy of comparison in classroom discussions is a tribute to the deep misunderstanding and historical prejudice that persists in many sections of this nation.  Whatever the case with Sireen Hashem, this case indirectly reminds us that John Brown has been almost irreparably demeaned and degraded in the popular thinking of this nation.  

It is increasingly difficult to imagine how such historical and cultural bigotry can ever be erased when even our high school curricula continue to deny the evils of slavery, elevate and idealize racists, and disdain and condemn those few men like John Brown who gave everything for the sake of freedom and human rights.

Don Lemon of CNN interviews Sireen Hashem here

The Facebook page of the Committee to Support Sireen Hashem here

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