History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Wednesday, August 24, 2022

A Douglass Descendant, W.E.B. DuBois, and the John Brown Memorial Association



This is taken from a letter written on stationary used by Fredericka D. Perry, a granddaughter of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, dated March 31, 1930. The letter was written to W.E.B. DuBois and can be found in the DuBois Papers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
There are various points of interest presented here. The first point is the John Brown Memorial Association (JBMA), an African American group that was founded in 1922 by members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Starting in 1922, the JBMA had begun to conduct annual pilgrimages to Brown’s gravesite at North Elba, near Lake Placid, New York, to celebrate the abolitionist's birthday on May 9. The founder and leading spirits of the JBMA were J. Max Barber, a leader in the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, who had led the first pilgrimage to Brown’s grave in 1922. Other leaders were T. Spotuas Burwell and William Lloyd Imes. The latter, a clergyman, was still advancing the JBMA well into the 1960s. According to a note in the papers of the late Edwin N. Cotter, Jr., a supervisor of the John Brown Farm and gravesite, the JBMA continued until about 1981.
Secondly, Fredericka Perry is shown here as the "organizer of Chapters [of the JBMA] in the Western and Southwestern parts of the United States." This is not only interesting in showing that there was interest in the black community sufficiently to have chapters in other parts of the country besides New York and Pennsylvania, but also because the woman advancing the JBMA was a direct descendant of Frederick Douglass. Interestingly, only months before the JBMA's 1930 pilgrimage, a letter from Perry to W.E.B. DuBois, editor of the NAACP's publication, The Crisis, was published. Perry informed DuBois that she had finally obtained a copy of his 1909 biography of John Brown and had read it with much interest.
Its eloquent tribute to John Brown transcends anything on the subject I have thus far read--and I have been fortunate in securing much good material. The interpretation of the Soul of John Brown--the thought behind the act--could come only from a man of the race with real understanding.
Perry further opined:
I have for some time been convinced, Dr. DuBois, that the Negro has not done justice to the memory of John Brown and whatever his excuses may have been in the past, they can no longer remain in the face of his boasted intellectual and cultural advancement. (see letters in The Crisis, May 1930, p. 160)

These are rigorous words, especially coming from one who might more easily have given herself to the memorializing of her own great forebear, Frederick Douglass. It also suggests that well into the first half of the twentieth century, many African Americans sustained a robust appreciation of Brown, something that is born out in the work of certain contemporary writers, poets, artists, and scholars in that era. At any rate, Perry felt strongly about John Brown and her reading of DuBois' 1909 biography further steeled her conviction about the abolitionist. To no surprise, that May, she traveled to Lake Placid, N.Y., to join in the JBMA's annual pilgrimage to the gravesite of John Brown. Interestingly, that same year of 1930, Boyd B. Stutler, the foremost John Brown aficionado, was invited to speak for the JBMA program at Lake Placid. The primary speaker for the event was A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black-led labor union. On his way home, traveling by train, Stutler later wrote that he had occasion to travel with Fredericka Perry. As Stutler recounted it, during the train ride home, Perry showed him a package that had been sent to her from Ethel Chamberlain, a granddaughter of John Brown (through Brown's son Salmon). She had evidently received the package at the John Brown Farm and opened it the first time during the train ride. When Perry opened the package, Stutler observed, she found a lock of John Brown’s hair and a piece of the scaffold upon which he was hanged. (Stutler to Fred Lockley, Jan. 9, 1938, p. 2, RP02-0156C, Stutler Papers) The rich banner illustration on the JBMA stationary, featuring the heading, "Lest We Forget," portrays Brown's trial before a court of Virginia slaveholders and includes a portion of his spontaneous "statement to the court" at the time his guilty verdict was read. Brown is pictured as lying down, although he actually was tried while lying on a cot that was carried back and forth from his jail cell, Brown walking behind when entering and leaving the courthouse. The Virginians were in such haste to hang Brown and his men that they refused to grant adequate time for the preparation of their legal cases and likewise insisted that wounded men like Brown and his raider, Aaron Stevens, appear in court without the opportunity to recuperate from their wounds. The judge and the prosecutor would later write accounts of Brown's trial, portraying their conduct as fair. But it is evident that Brown was rushed through, as were his men, and was it not for their own State code restricting instant executions to the time of "insurrection," Brown would have been hanged almost immediately. Those with an interest in this phase of Brown's story should read Brian McGinty's John Brown's Trial and my book, Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia.
Lastly, as noted, W.E.B. DuBois is remembered for his enduring and impacting biography, John Brown, published in 1909 and republished in 1962, the year before his death. I am not aware that DuBois ever spoke at the JBMA's annual event, although Oswald G. Villard, his associate in the NAACP was invited to speak. Villard, whose influential biography of Brown was published in 1910, was not kind toward DuBois' biography when it appeared, the year before his own book was published. Villard, who had ownership of influential publications in New York City, had his editor chasten DuBois because his book had many small factual errors and slips. DuBois was an academic and his biography of Brown was undertaken without great resources of time and money, so it is understandable that his reliance on older published sources would result in republishing errors. To be sure, Villard financed and published a great deal of important research on Brown in his biography, which won great praise in the papers while DuBois' biography was largely overlooked. However, a century-plus after the publication of his John Brown, DuBois' work has been reprinted and appreciated widely, despite its flaws in historical detail, yet for its profound reflection upon and interpretation of the abolitionist. Quite in contrast, Villard's much-lauded book has rarely been republished and has served mainly as a reference work for scholars. His writing is dense, dry, and uninspired. Worse, his vision of Brown is conflicted, the product of rarefied liberalism--a blend of his own personal and ideological biases. Indeed, Villard's biography often has been more useful to Brown's enemies in the long run of history than it has been to the cause of justice. Even with its historical flaws in detail, it is rather DuBois' biography of Brown that has captured the minds and hearts of generations, especially for its grasp of the man himself:
Was John Brown simply an episode, or was he an eternal truth?" DuBois writes. "And if a truth, how speaks that truth today? John Brown loved his neighbor as himself. He could not endure therefore to see his neighbor, poor, unfortunate or oppressed. . . . From this he concluded--and acted on that conclusion--that all men are created free and equal, and that the cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.
DuBois first wrote these words in the midst of the ruthless tyranny of Jim Crow segregation and racist terrorism being perpetrated upon black people in the South, and at a time when de facto segregation also defined life in the North. By the time his biography of Brown was republished in 1962 by International Publishers in commemoration of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, it had only grown more precious--the fermentation of history having made his lyrical and insightful interpretation of the abolitionist all the more relevant for the Civil Rights era. So Fredericka Perry was quite correct in her 1930 assessment: "The interpretation of the Soul of John Brown--the thought behind the act--could come only from a man of the race with real understanding."
"The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression."

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Side Note: She Got Him Right--Prof. Stephanie Coontz's Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Times (Aug. 14, 2022) features an op-ed by Prof. Stephanie Coontz entitled, "Op-Ed: American History is a Parade of Horrors — and Also Heroes."

Coontz, who is professor emerita of history at Evergreen State College in Washington, makes this sound and robust assessment of Brown.

And then, of course, there was John Brown, the devout Reformed Evangelical whose militia battled slavery proponents in the Kansas territory and who led an attack on a federal armory in Virginia in 1859 in an attempt to arm slaves for an uprising. He was tried for insurrection and hanged. Yet his stand against slavery inspired later Union troops to march into battle singing “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on.”

Of course, I take issue with the familiar but flawed claim that Brown raided the armory "to arm slaves," something contradicted by the evidence, including Brown's words and tactics while at Harper's Ferry. Still, I greatly appreciate Coontz identifying Brown as a "Reformed Evangelical," which is precise and all too rare when he is described, particularly as a radical religious reformer.--LD