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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, July 06, 2020

Three John Brown Statues

To my knowledge, there are three statues of John Brown in the United States (not counting smaller statuary, like busts and smaller pieces): First, and perhaps the most well known, is the statue of John Brown and a young black boy, situated at the John Brown Farm (a NY State Historical site) near Lake Placid, NY. It was sculpted by Joseph Pollia and unveiled in 1935. Pollia shows Brown walking with a young black youth, which some--both mildly and critically--have taken as a paternalistic image. However, it should be pointed out that this image could very well be taken to resemble Brown's actual relationship with black neighbors, including Lyman Epps, Jr., whose father was very close to Brown.  Lyman Jr. loved John Brown so much that he wrote in later life that he would not leave the cold Essex County, even after all his family had died, because he wanted to tend to Brown's grave at the farm. I prefer to see this statue in this light.
Pollia's 1935 Statue, located at the
John Brown Farm Historic Site, 
Lake Placid, N.Y. (photo by Kevin Stewart, flickr)

The same year, 1935, a life-sized bronze statue of Brown was dedicated in John Brown Memorial Park in Osawatomie, Kan.  It obviously reflects the Kansas memory of Brown as a militant free state fighter and hero. The Osawatomie statue was erected by the Woman's Relief Corps of Kansas and sculpted by George Fite Waters in Paris.  Both the Lake Placid and Osawatomie statues honored Brown's 135th birthday.  At the dedication, according to the Osawatomie Graphic News, the African American Bishop W. T. Vernon said: "Sleeping or walking, John Brown could not, and did not, try to shut out the vision of slavery."

Marble Statue of Brown at Osawatomie,
sculpted by George Fite Waters
(photo from KC Restoration, 2018)

However, the oldest is perhaps the most interesting, shown below, left, portrays Brown standing as a kind of statesman. This statue was unveiled in 1911, making it the oldest major statue of John Brown in the United States. It stands in the Quindaro section of Kansas City, Kan.  It is, for all intents and purposes, an African American production, although it was actually executed in the town of Carrara, Italy, known for both its white marble and its statuary.  The sculptor's last name, according to the Topeka Plaindealer (Jun. 16, 1911), is Chignelle, although I have not been able to find him elsewhere online.  

The idea of this statue was the brainchild of Bishop Abram Grant, of the African American Episcopal Church, the oldest black denomination.  Grant spearheaded this project but unfortunately did not live to see its presentation, having died only five months before its dedication.  This was no small production: its cost, $2000 in 1911, which is equivalent to about $55,000 with modern inflation.  It was entirely funded by African Americans, which not only shows the degree of admiration and support that black people at that time felt toward Brown, but should also be seen as "pushback" to all the racist statuary that was being erected in that period to commemorate proslavery figures.  While it is a salute to John Brown, it is perhaps even more an expression of black resistance.  

The Quindaro 1911 Statue of Brown,
Kansas City, Kan.
(photo by Donna, Roadside America.com)

It is no small thing, however, throughout a time of great crisis brought about by white racist betrayal in the North and brute terrorism and systematic racist assault in the South, many African Americans remembered John Brown as a beacon of hope.  It has been observed that when many African Americans fled the South because of white racist terrorism, they went west to Kansas because of its association with John Brown. Today, one would not expect black people to hold the same passion for Brown as their forebears did in the midst of the white supremacist assault upon them.  With the passing of time and the continuation of the struggle, the black community has gone on to commemorate and advance monuments both locally and nationally that recall African American leadership. 

Sadly, the Quindaro statue has repeatedly been subjected to racist vandalism, first in 2018, according to the Kansas City Star, when it was scrawled with swastikas and other racist graffiti, then in late 2019. According to KSHB in Kansas City (Nov. 20, 2019), the statue once more was intentionally damaged--fingers from the image having been cut off, and a scroll in the figure's hand having been stolen. 

Unfortunately, attacks on John Brown sites are not new.  In the mid-20th century, Brown aficionado Boyd Stutler observed that the local KKK had left burning crosses in front of the John Brown House in Akron, Ohio, in January and November, 1966 (Stutler to Gee, Nov. 27, 1966, in Hudson Library and Historical Society).

As a kind of coda, it is interesting to learn that at one point, Kansas advocates had attempted to install a statue of Brown in Washington, D.C.  In a letter to the Presbyterian clergyman and Brown admirer, John S. Duncan, Stutler wrote that about thirty years before (around 1900), authorization was gained to place a statue of Brown in the Capitol Building's Hall of Fame, known as the National Statuary Hall Collection.  In this collection, the states of the union are given space to place statues representing their histories. In the 21st century, a good many older statues have been removed and replaced with other statues (e.g., Nebraska's statue of William Jennings Bryan was removed and replaced by a statue of Chief Standing Bear).  According to Stutler, Kansas representatives wanted to place a statue of Brown in the collection, but "for some reason, perhaps largely political, the statue was not made and the places have since been filled by two others of lesser fame" (Stutler to Duncan, Feb. 15, 1928, in Stutler Papers, RP04 0120). 

There is yet no national statue honoring the memory of John Brown as being among the great liberating figures of the United States.  That day may yet come.

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