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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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Monday, March 19, 2018

Defaced But Not Defeated: The Quindaro John Brown Statue and Its Heroes

Defaced: The John Brown Statue in Quindaro, Kansas City, Kan.
(photo by Keith Myers, Kansas City Star)
The Kansas City Star (Mar. 18) reports that a revered statue of John Brown in Quindaro Township, Kansas City, Kan., was discovered to have been defaced with racist Nazi graffiti.1  It is not clear when the the racist attack on the statue took place, but it was recently discovered by Fred Whitehead, a longtime admirer and student of John Brown.  Whitehead called it a "sickening sight" and concluded that "John Brown provokes a visceral reaction" in racists.  A local scholar says the statue was erected in 1911 and was thought to be the first statue of John Brown.

The Black Men Behind the Statue

According to newspaper reportage at the time, the plan for the Quindaro statue was announced in 1909, the fifty-year anniversary of Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry and subsequent execution in Virginia.  The statue was to "be erected upon the campus of Quindaro University by the negroes of Kansas," although the name of the school actually was Western University, the first black university west of the Mississippi.  One of the leading proponents of the statue project was W. W. Fisher (1865-1955?), who served both as the clerk of the First African Methodist Episcopal [AME] Church of Kansas City, Kan., and as the clerk of the Quindaro Post Office, which was relocated to the campus of Western University in 1909.2

Bishop Abraham Grant
However, perhaps the more influential proponents of the John Brown statue project were two notable AME clergyman, Bishop Abraham Grant and Rev. Dr. W. T. Vernon.  It was the former who apparently "went east to place the contract for the monument." (However, I have not been able to determine the sculptor thus far.  As always, I'd be pleased to include any further information provided by readers.)  Grant (1848-1911) was born into slavery in Florida, his mother having given birth to him in an ox cart.  Like all enslaved people, Grant's African identity and family name were lost to the oppressive forces of white supremacy, and prior to emancipation, he wore his oppressor's name.  After emancipation, the young man took his first name from Abraham Lincoln, and his last name from General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union army.  In slavery,  Grant was permitted to learn to read by his master; but his schooling was enabled after the Civil War by various AME bishops and elders that met him while working as a head waiter in  Jacksonville, Fl.   Grant lived for a time in San Antonio, Tex., and then made his way to Kansas City, Kan.  Subsequently, he traveled twice to Africa and several times to Europe, where he studied "the solution of the race problem." He was elected the 19th bishop of the AME Church on May 19, 1888, and ordained on May 24.  However, Grant died in 2011, only months after seeing the John Brown statue installed at Quindaro.3

Bishop W. T. Vernon, ca. 1920
Kansas City Sun
Like Grant, the Rev. Dr. William Tecumseh Vernon bore a name in tribute to a Union champion of the Civil War.  Vernon was born after the end of slavery to parents who had been victims of the so-called "Peculiar Institution" in the mountains of southwest Missouri.  Vernon's father had been an AME minister, but William first became a teacher before embarking upon his ministry vocation.  In fact, at the time of the launching of the John Brown statue project, Vernon was only three years out of serving as President of Western University.  At the time of the statue project and its completion, he was serving as the U.S. Register of the Treasury, an appointment made by President Theodore Roosevelt.  Vernon served in this capacity until 1914.  Afterward, he served as President of Campbell College for six years, then a pastorate in Memphis, Tenn., and culminated his life mission by serving as the 45th Bishop of the AME Church from 1920-1936.4

From Conception to Unveiling

When the project was first conceptualized, Bishop Grant "urged that it be built with money contributed by the colored race," apparently because "[t]he memory of John Brown" was "held sacred by the older colored people of Kansas."  These sentiments were taken up by the others promoting the project.5  W. W. Fisher thus told a reporter from the Topeka Daily Capital:
Not a penny towards this fund will be received from white people.  The negroes want to pay for it out of their own pockets.  They want to show their lasting love for the man who started the movement that resulted in making them a free people, and decided that the best way to do it was to erect a monument on the campus of their own university."6
When it was completed, the significance of the event was revealed by the make up of the audience that turned out to witness the unveiling.  On June 9, 2011, the grounds of the Western University were filled for the unveiling.  On hand were the sitting governor and assistant governor of the state, as well as a former governor and other "leading personages."  However, there were ten times as many blacks present as whites, the African American presence reportedly having reached three thousand.  As the Oskaloosa Independent put it: "The statue is the first ever erected to the memory of the man of Harper's Ferry and every cent that went into it was contributed by grateful negroes of Kansas."7

Inspiration and Memory

I have not sufficiently researched the subject to discern the genesis of the idea for the Quindaro statue.  Clearly, it was the brainchild of black leaders in Kansas, although the question remains as to what sparked or prompted the idea in the first place.  One suggestion that might be considered is that certain leading black men and women in Kansas had become aware of the newly published biography of John Brown by W.E.B. DuBois.  Indeed, DuBois' John Brown was first published in September 1909, so it may be that the excitement and interest that was stirred up in the black community by the DuBois book triggered reignited Kansas enthusiasm for the Old Man.  Of course, it is possible, that Grant, Vernon, and others were simply mindful of the fiftieth anniversary of the Harper's Ferry raid that fall of 1909, and that the statue was their way of paying tribute, especially in deference to the older black population that remembered Brown with affection.   However, it is quite possible that the DuBois book was the catalyst for the apparent fervor that drew the money and attention to support the statue project in Kansas.

Defaced, But Not Defeated

It is unfortunate that one or more low-life racists would think themselves clever in desecrating the 107-year-old Quindaro John Brown statue.  It is possible that some miscreant defaced it in reaction to the recent pulling down of Confederate statues, although it seems just as likely that the criminal who defaced the statue was simply acting out of a sense of self-justification and disdain. 

Regardless, the vile act of defacing the Quindaro statue certainly suggests the perpetrator's sense of history too, however warped and perverted.   The defacing of the statue proves that there is a deep and enduring bond between the legacy of John Brown and the freedom struggle.  As such, he is as hated by the enemies of black people as he is revered and appreciated by their friends and allies.  That black people no longer celebrate Brown is not a great surprise either.  Progress has been made over 150+ years; black men and women of great power and accomplishment have arisen as leaders--and some have fallen as martyrs.  It has naturally become more important that these heroes have been honored by succeeding generations instead of the 19th century figure of a white "monomaniac."  Indeed, I would argue that it is much more important today that whites celebrate John Brown, if only that he represents a positive figure whose life and actions can impact whites, perhaps even inspire them to oppose racism and strike at the root of prejudice in their own communities.

After all, the Old Man is not a marginal figure in the ongoing story of the struggle for justice.  As Larry Lawrence says, John Brown is still quite a contemporary figure.  That he still bothers and irritates the advocates of white racism should not only comfort us, but also prove that "his soul goes marching on."


    2 "John Brown Statue On Quindaro Grounds," Topeka Daily Capital, Dec. 16, 1909, p. 4; "First A.M.E. Church," National Review [Kan. City, Kan.], June 21, 1913, p. 3; "W.W. Fisher the Clerk in Charge at Western University," Gazette Globe [Kan. City, Kan.], Oct. 16, 1909, p. 1.
     3 "John Brown Statue On Quindaro Grounds"; "Colored Bishop Dead: Abraham Grant, An Ex-Slave Died Yesterday," Daily Republican [Cherryville, Kan.], Jan. 23, 1911; Jae Jones, "Abram [sic] Grant: Former Slave & 19th Bishop of the A.M.E. Church in Florida," BlackThen (May 22, 2017).  Retrieved from: https://blackthen.com/abram-grant-former-slave-19th-bishop-m-e-church-florida/.  Also see Grant's resting place at Find-A-Gravehttps://goo.gl/rZqZDy
     4 "John Brown Statue On Quindaro Grounds"; "Dr. W.T. Vernon," The Kansas City Sun, Apr. 24, 1920, p. 1; "Rev. William Tecumseh Vernon" at Find-A-Gravehttps://goo.gl/C1mNih.
     5  "Monument to John Brown," Arkansas City [Kan.] Daily News, June 9, 1911, p. 6.

     6  "John Brown Statue On Quindaro Grounds."

     7  "Negroes Honor John Brown," Oskaloosa Independent [Kan.], Jun. 23, 1911, p. 2; "Monument to John Brown."

1 comment:

J DeFilippo said...

The recent vandalism of his statue can not diminish the stand John Brown took to end slavery. Truly, his soul is marching on!