"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

Search This Blog & Links


Monday, October 23, 2017

Mr. Quigley, We Will Not “Move On” Without John Brown

The Observer, an online publication that purports to bring an “irreverent” but “original take on the latest in news, culture, politics and luxury,” published a piece by Bernie Quigley (Aug. 22) entitled, “Civil War Tensions Brew as Vermont Celebrates Awkward Yankee History.”

Quigley’s piece was spawned by President Trump’s recent, ham-handed question about the Civil War, in which he audaciously inquired why the conflict between the Union and the slave states could not have “been worked out” without civil conflict.  In what likely will be counted as one of the most stupid presidential remarks to be made about U.S. history, Trump opined that Andrew Jackson might have prevented the war had he “been around to stop it.”  Quigley concludes that Trump was really “asking a question that needed to be asked, especially today.”

Quigley suggests that Trump (but more likely Steve Bannon, who at least reads, albeit probably only right-wing interpretations of history) was informed by author David Goldfield, who called the Civil War “America’s greatest failure.”  Then, quoting Goldfield quoting Tony Horowitz, Quigley concludes that since emancipation and reunion were “badly compromised,” the outcome of the Civil War—an “immense toll in blood and treasure”—-proved the war was not “worth it.”

Of course, Quigley is merely quoting an opinion that suits his politics, which is the real reason for this “cosmopolitan” tripe.  As to the opinion itself, including the views of Goldfield and Horwitz, we find an unfortunate and privileged revisionism in which white scholars reevaluate the cost of the Civil War and conclude that anyone, including Trump, are correct in contending that any compromise would have been better than the war.

“Justice Fatigue” Revisited

However, this top-down revisionism is deeply racist. Even superficially, it reflects the same spirit among white society that undermined Reconstruction in the later 19th century.  The prerogative of whites to revisit the cost and burden of liberation and maintenance of former slaves wore out the patience and interest of whites by the 1870s.  Even some who had lived through the Civil War eventually grew tired of worrying over the former slaves and wanted to get on with the business of nation-building.  This “justice fatigue” led to the selling out of blacks by the Republican party, the end of Reconstruction, and the beginning of Jim Crow oppression in the South.

Quigley and others are also exhibiting signs of “justice fatigue” in weighing the massive loss of millions of soldiers, most of them white, as having been too precious for the outcome of the Civil War.  The reasoning is that since black liberation and the reunion of the North and South were not well processed, it would have been better if the Civil War had never been fought in the first place. Apparently, Quigley would also prefer that enslaved Africans remain in bondage for another generation or two (or more) until white society could work out the best way for the issue of slavery to be resolved in a “win-win” manner.  All those white deaths just cannot be justified by the end of slavery in the United States.  This is quite a different view of things from what John Brown once opined, that it would “better for a whole generation to die a violent death” than for slavery to triumph in the nation.

Racist Wishful Thinking

The problem with the sort of wishful thinking expressed by Quigley and his ilk is that there is no basis to think that either emancipation or “reunion” could have been accomplished in any way better than it did, particularly given that white racism permeated the entire national context.  After all, the path to black liberation was fraught with many difficulties, and ultimately faced setback because of white society—-both the racism of former slaveholders as well as the racism of the prejudiced North.  Nor could “reunion” have been accomplished in any realistic manner since the whites of the South were both beaten and embittered and had no intention of yielding to black freedom and black equality.  In what historical scenario could Quigley possibly imagine that the South and the North would have been reconciled other than the way that it actually happened—by the selling out of emancipated blacks and the return of political and economic control to former slaveholders?

This argument is racist foolishness, the longing for an outcome that would have spared white lives and left black people to writhe in the chains of slavery for decades to come as the price of white satisfaction.

Practically, the idea that the North should not have prevented secession is ludicrous.  It was abundantly clear prior to the war that the South was expansionist and committed to an agenda of slavery’s advancement into new territory.  This was obvious in the terrorism that the South unleashed in undermining democracy in Kansas.  It was previously seen in the manner that the South was led into a war with Mexico, and the “filibustering” of some Southerner adventurers in Latin America.  Had the South been left to its own devices—if the North had chosen to spare its sons and let secession go unhindered, four millions of black people been permanently trapped in chattel slavery.  Furthermore, the South would have been free to invade the Caribbean and Central America to pursue its expansionist lusts. These were as clear as Belshazzar’s handwriting on the wall, and to say otherwise is simply to say that one’s commitments, even in the interpretation of history, are essentially racist.  Better to spare hundreds of thousands of white boys than to prevent the monstrosity of chattel slavery to devour millions of black lives.

Apparently to Quigley, black lives really do not matter, not even in retrospect.

As to John Brown, there is nothing “original” in the Observer’s presentation by Quigley.  Quigley goes on record as speaking of Brown as

* the “catalyst to the Civil War”
* “the trickster figure who brought the chaos moment that would turn the tide and reformulate history”; and
* the point of no return for the killing and maiming of “over a million Americans. . .on American soil.”

This is more or less old cracker mythology.

It was the habit of mind of “Lost Cause” and top-down historians to blame John Brown as either THE catalyst or at least one of the catalysts that brought a needless, avoidable war upon the nation.  Quigley shows the depths of his embedded racist rationale by attributing exclusive blame to Brown—as if nothing else happened that helped to foment the South’s desperate betrayal of the Union.  Even a reasonable conservative would have to admit that a number of issues acted as catalysts of the war, but not Quigley.

Second, that Brown is labeled a “trickster” is clearly a way of demonizing him.  In folklore, the trickster is an agent of evil whose literary DNA leads back to the story of Eden and the serpent.  Quigley here is appealing to some sort of religious white nationalist history, where God’s people are beguiled and led to a national fall by that devil John Brown.  But if Quigley thinks Brown a trickster, then it is clear that he also assumes that before Brown the nation was better off than it was after the Civil War.

Finally, it is simply not the case that after Harper’s Ferry the nation had reached a point of no return.  To the contrary, even a superficial reading of history shows that “the point of no return” was the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and this was to no fault of Lincoln.  The sixteenth president made it abundantly clear in his quest for the White House that he had no intention of ending slavery.  Lincoln’s only caveat in 1860 was that the South should not expand any further; unlike John Brown, Lincoln was a moderate when it came to black freedom.  He had no intention of emancipating blacks and would not have done so.  But the core political leaders of the South were determined to secede regardless.  Indeed, their sentiments in this regard dated back a decade, so that it is not incorrect to say that the most radical and influential leaders of the slave states were planning on secession as soon as circumstances allowed for it.  Those circumstances came when Lincoln was elected—-not when John Brown raided Harper’s Ferry.  Had a unified Democrat party put forth a candidate and won in 1860, there would have been no secession.  Indeed, there would have been no secession as long as the slave states maintained control of the White House.

To no surprise, Quigley’s article reveals that besides justifying Donald Trump’s revisionism and condemning John Brown, he is critical of the removal of Confederate statuary.  He asks not only if the Union followed the “right approach” by war in 1861, but if in 2017 it is the right approach to remove “monuments and memorials.”  Indeed, he asks, will “a new cycle of Yankee contempt” for the South also in the North?

With this as his burden, Quigley returns to Brown, to further slander and skew his story.  He writes that

* Brown failed to capture the U.S. arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in the hope of “upstarting the Civil War”
* That Lincoln considered the raid was so absurd that even ignorant slaves saw it was ill-fated from the onset
* Brown was a mad man and insane (quoting the 20th century Southern historian C. Vann Woodward); and
* that a Google search of “John Brown” and “terrorist” will produce articles that suggest Brown was a terrorist.

Like so many other anti-Brown screeds, Quigley’s facts are skewed in ways great and small.  First, Brown captured the entire armory (which included the arsenal) and held it for two days.  Second, Brown had no intention of triggering a Civil War; to the contrary, he wanted to defuse a full-scale war by launching a campaign that would largely attract, defend, and sequester runaways so that slavery would be destabilized.

As to Lincoln, he was no more informed or competent to judge Brown’s plan in 1861 than most other people since he had only the skewed reportage of the proslavery press (the antislavery press was prohibited from coming into Virginia, and only the New York Tribune managed to sneak in a secret reporter—whose account of Brown differs significantly from the proslavery press).

As to the old, tired allegations of Brown’s “insanity,” there is nothing of substance to them.  This was a plaything of 20th century historians, especially the “Lost Cause” set. There is simply no substance or evidence that Brown was mentally ill.  If anyone would have found it, Tony Horwitz would have had he been able to do so.  As it stands, the best he could manufacture in his book, Midnight Rising, was Brown’s possible bipolar disorder—a notion that is wishfully knitted of scattered phrases and circumstances to suit Horwitz’s enthusiastic Civil War readership.

Finally, as to Googling Brown and terrorism, this means nothing other than it will dredge up some of the worst, ill-informed and biased writings about John Brown by contemporary authors—most of whom approach his story with decided opinions and designs.  This is but froth and bubbles from an overflow of Quigley’s bigotry.

Quigley concludes that we are living in “a precarious, teetering moment,” in which the Republican senator from Nebraska has expressed concerned that “violence is coming.” He finally targets Vermont for recognizing and celebrating John Brown.  Isn’t it better to look to a pacifist icon, isn’t it better to get past the Civil War?  It is “time to move on,” Quigley says.

The obvious answer to Quigley’s question is “No,” because it has always been the posture of a racist society to “move on” when it comes to racial justice.  It was the desire of people like Quigley to “move on” that left black people to the violence of segregation and the terrorism and economic destruction of the Ku Klux Klan and Citizen’s Councils of the 20th century.  It has been the desire of a racist majority to “move on” that turned its back on racist constabulary violence against blacks and Latinos for a century, and even now when the murder of black people by racist officers can be viewed on video and posted on Face Book.  It has been the desire of far too many white people in this nation to “move on” that has led to counter-freedom mottos like “All Lives Matter,” or has allowed conservatives to cloud the point that Colin Kaepernick has clearly made by his example in refusing to pledge allegiance to “Old Gory.”  It was the desire to “move on” that resulted in Vice President Pence from moving on and out of a football stadium in Indianapolis this past Sunday.

No, I submit, it is not the time to move on from John Brown.  It is, rather, the time for white America to face the real facts of John Brown, perhaps for the first time in 150 years.

John Brown was neither a trickster nor a terrorist.  John Brown was a citizen who so believed in the claims and possibilities of justice in the United States, that he gave the whole of his adult life to justice.  It was John Brown who proved that every means of peaceful effort had been exhausted when it came to the end of a racist system that relied upon terror and murder to steal the labor and bodies of men and women simply because they were black.

Brown was among only a small number of anti-racists in proportion to the larger white population of the United States—and among them he was the only one in 1859 who had a plan that could undermine and destabilize slavery. 

It is not time to “move on” to suit the priorities and preferences of the white center.  It is for people—inspired and informed by John Brown’s example—to move into the center, dismantling white privilege, opposing white supremacy, and contradicting the real “fake news” put forth by this racist status quo. 

John Brown will not go away.  His stubborn audacity and unapologetic devotion to human equality and justice makes his memory one of the vital organs of anti-racist memory, one of essential models for the anti-racist present, and one of the prophets of the anti-racist future.--LD

The link for the Quigley article is:


Monday, October 09, 2017

BlogFriend Entry: Finding Mary Cook, the Wife of John Brown's Spy

Richard Smyth, BlogFriend Contributor 

           My hobby is researching and locating the final resting places of historic people. Standing at a grave you are six feet from history. For the last few years I have been looking for anyone connected with John Brown, from his days in Kansas to the raid on Harpers Ferry and beyond. This has been both challenging and rewarding and a whole lot of fun!  I have been successful in locating over four hundred graves, but there are some that have eluded me. On my hit list is Hayward Shepherd, the black baggage handler for the B&O Railroad, who was shot and killed by Brown’s men; Francis Jackson Merriam, one of the raiders who survived only to die in his hotel room in New York City after the Civil War; Jennie Dunbar Garcelone, the love interest of Raider Aaron Dwight Stevens; and lastly, John E. Cook’s wife, Mary Virginia Kennedy Cook, who was pregnant when she married him in Harper’s Ferry, prior to the raid.

There is no extant image of John Cook's wife, Mary
(Cook image, West Va. State Archives)

            The search for Mary Cook’s resting place proved to be one of the most difficult and time consuming. What was known about her is that she had moved around quite a bit after the death of her husband, who was hanged in 1860. First, she stayed with Cook’s family in Haddam, Connecticut, and then moved in with her sister-in-law in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Then she returned to Harpers Ferry to stay with her mother, but remained only a short time at the scene of the raid before spending the summer of 1861 with the Brown family in North Elba, N.Y.  Afterward, Mary moved to Boston where she obtained a job working for “Secret Six” member Dr. Samuel Howe. For a while she also worked for a weekly abolitionist newspaper edited by John Brown’s first biographer, James Redpath.1

            Mary had received her last touching, farewell letter from her husband on December 16, 1859, in which John wrote that he expected to be reunited with his young wife in the afterlife, writing that he was “going to meet my comrades, and wait and watch for You.” If he was successful in meeting his wife in the afterlife, Cook may have been surprised when she showed up with another husband and family tagging along.  In 1865, Mary had married a Union army veteran named George A. Johnson, who was of Scottish descent, born in New York, and two years older than her.
Cemetery record for Mary and her husband George.
Note children Minnie and Robert in the same plot

(R. Smyth)
        There was no further information about Mary until Katherine Mayo, who as an assistant was helping Oswald Garrison Villard prepare his book, John Brown 1800–1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (1910) interviewed Mary in Chicago in 1906. By that time she was a widow. One thing that created confusion for me was the variant spelling of her last name, as I searched for additional information about her life between the time she married George and the interview by Mayo. The 1900 census shows Mary as a widow, with her last name spelled as Johnston.  At this point she was living in Chicago with her daughter Grace, twenty-four-years old. The 1910 census contains the same information.
       After her death on May 8, 1916, Cook County issued a death certificate for Mary Johnston with the notation that her remains were sent to Bloomington, Illinois for burial. Mary was seventy-three-years-old.  Her death certificate identified her as “housewife” -- far different from her first husband John, whose occupation was listed as “Adventurer.”2
          I was aware of the problematic variant spelling of the last name, but thought that the death certificate ended the issue. I was wrong. Continuing to search for information on Mary, George, or Grace Johnston using census records and ancestry sites proved futile. I also contacted every cemetery in the Bloomington area that I could locate with similar results. For a while I thought that there just was not anything else to uncover and her final resting place may be lost to history.
        Moving on to other projects I finally revisited my Mary Cook file to take a second look. I decided to search for Johnson rather than Johnston, something I should have thought of earlier but neglected. This would prove very time consuming due to the commonality of the names, George, Mary and Johnson.  One day while searching the 1860 census, I lucked upon a George and Mary Johnson living in Virginia with two children; George M. Jr. (1866-?) and Minnie Eva (1867-1873)—although I was not yet confidant that I had located my Mary Cook.
          By 1870, the couple, still listed as Johnson, had relocated to Bloomington, Illinois, where Mary and her husband lived on Lincoln Street with George Jr. and Minnie, with two additional children, Grace (1874-?) and Robert (1876-1904). George was listed in various censuses as a clerk and a bookkeeper. Mary kept house. The Bloomington connection was exciting as the death certificate listed Mary remains as being sent there for burial, while the birth date of Grace coincided with later records.
Mary Virginia “Jennie” Kennedy Cook Johnson, grave,
Evergreen Memorial Cemetery – Bloomington, Ill.
The only writing on the marker is “Mother.” (R. Smyth)
            Now tracing this family through later census records, I found that by 1900, Mary was living on Oakwood Boulevard in Hyde Park, Chicago with daughter Grace, who was working as a hotel cashier.  By the time of her death on May 8, 1916, Mary had moved to 52 East 50th Street in the city.3

            Now that I had established a connection with this Mary and Bloomington, Illinois I again began once again checking that area. The census told me that the family lived on Lincoln Street. Checking Google Maps, I located the street and followed it west then reversed and followed it east where I discovered that a few blocks from their home was a cemetery, Evergreen Memorial. I called the cemetery office and spoke to Tina Crow, the manager. She said she would be back in the office in ten minutes and would call me. Exactly ten minutes later I received the call.  Yes, she told me, she did have a Mary V. Johnson buried there in section F, Lot 628. Needing to confirm that this was indeed Mary Cook, I asked if there was anyone else buried in the plot. Tina responded “Yes, a George A. Johnson, who had died on April 29,1876, along with Minnie Eva Johnson, listed as ‘child,’ and Robert Johnson.”4 This was it! There was now no doubt that I had located the final resting place of Mary Virginia Kennedy Cook Johnson or Johnston.5

Now, onto Hayward Shepherd, Francis Jackson Merriam, and Jennie Dunbar Garcelone!

Richard Smyth


1 Steven Lubet, John Brown’s Spy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 259-60.

2 The 1870 census has the family listed as “Johnson” and in addition to George A. and Mary V. there were two children, George M. (age 4) and Minnie (age 2). The 1880 census has not corrected the spelling of the last name and lists two additional children; Grace (age 6) and Robert (age 4).

3 The 1900 census shows Mary V. with the spelling of her last name as Johnston and “widowed.” By this time she was living in Chicago with twenty-four-year-old Grace. The 1910 census contains the same information.

4 The address of the cemetery is 302 East Miller Street, Bloomington, Illinois. The cemetery sits along East Lincoln Street where Mary and husband George raised their family.

5  Jefferson County Register of Deaths as reported in Lubet, John Brown’s Spy, p. 245. The Cook County death certificate lists her as Johnston.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Take Two, an online news and culture program of Southern California Public Radio in Pasadena, Calif., currently has a news feature entitled, "The strange tale of a missing grave marker in the Altadena hills," along with an audio report about the recovery of the Owen Brown grave stone.  Owen Brown (1824-89) was the third son of John Brown the abolitionist, undoubtedly named for Brown's pious antislavery father, who died in 1856 while John and several of his sons, including the younger Owen, were in Kansas.

Owen Brown's gravestone in its current, secret location
The audio report features some welcome sound bytes of an interview with our friend, Alice Keesey Mecoy, the great-great-great granddaughter of John Brown (through daughter Anne Brown Adams), but unfortunately the reporter makes the same tired reference to the killing of five proslavery people in Kansas--entirely without context, as usual.  The reporter also opines that Owen Brown ended up in California because he was fleeing the "violence" of his father's Harper's Ferry raid.  Of course, this is nonsense.  First, the Brown boys had their eyes on California from the 1840s.  Second, Owen fled nothing beyond his fortunate flight in escaping from Maryland after his father's failure at Harper's Ferry in 1859.  Owen managed to remain out of the reach of Virginia--a reach that was thereafter broken entirely with the coming of the Civil War and the defeat of the slave masters' rebellion.  In later years, Owen was not fleeing violence or anything else.  He lived with his older brother, John Brown Jr. for a time in Ohio, and finally settled on the west coast. 
A sketch of Owen Brown from
Hinton, John Brown and His Men
If anything from those dramatic years fighting slavery can be said to have impacted Owen in later life, it was in remembering hunger.  A reporter who interviewed him in California pointed out how he carefully gathered crumbs so that nothing of his food went to waste.   By all accounts, Owen was a kind and caring man, if not somewhat odd.  A bachelor all of his life, Owen suffered an injury to his arm as a child and lived out his days with little or no use in that limb. If the Take Two story provides lackluster background on John Brown, nevertheless its most important offering is to tell the story of the grave marker from Owen's burial site, which vanished but was located by an admiring neighbor.  The neighbor is now keeping the grave stone in a secret place where it will be safe from further abuse, and possibly returned to Owens grave someday.  Currently the land upon which Owen is buried is owned by a man with neither historical interests nor community sensibilities, and who preferred to keep people off his land, despite its historical significance.  Perhaps someday the land will come into the hands of someone who will want to replace the grave stone in its proper place.

"Funeral of Owen Brown." Pasadena Standard, 12 January 1889

Died, at the residence of his brother-in-law, Henry Thompson, in this city, on January 8, 1889, Owen Brown, aged 64 years, 2 months and 4 days.

Owen Brown was born at Hudson, Ohio, November 4, 1824, and was the third son of John Brown's first family, there being twenty children in all.

Owen was with his father all through the struggle between the free state men and border ruffians in Kansas in 1836 and following years, and took part in the first pitched battle at Black jack on the Missouri and Kansas border, and also at Ossawatomie where his younger brother, an unarmed lad, was deliberately shot down in the street. Jason was also in these battles.

Owen was with his father at Harpers Ferry, a participant in that memorable raid which struck the death knell of slavery, not only in the United States but throughout the civilized world. He was one of seven who escaped from there through mountain fastnesses and swamps and forests and sassafras leaves, and such things as they could possibly devour without making a fire to cook. For they were pursued by soldiers and citizens with dogs and guns, and a price was set on their heads. The Atlantic Monthly some 15 or 20 years ago published a narrative of their escape, which excels in thrilling pathos, and in plain matter-of-fact incidents of hardship, endurance, and apparently supernatural deliverances from discovery and capture, the most vivid conceptions of fiction. Two of them made reckless ventures to get food and were captured and hung. The remaining five escaped, Owen finally reaching his brother John's home on an island in Lake Erie.

Owen Brown Defends Chinese Immigrants
Summit County Beacon [Akron, O], July 27, 1887

About five years ago Jason and Owen Brown took a homestead on a bench of mountain land five or six miles north of Pasadena, at the settlement now called Las Casitas. This they subsequently sold and took land higher up the mountain side, built a cabin, cleared and worked a few acres, and lied there-two feeble old men, alone. (Jason was with his father in the Kansas struggle, but was not at Harpers Ferry.) They were much visited by tourists and citizens, some from mere curiosity and others from a warm sympathy with the historic career of the family. They had made a good wagon trail up to their mountain hermitage, and were continuing it as a donkey path to the top of the mountain known as Brown's Peak, but it is not completed yet. Owen had a desire to be buried on the top of Brown's Peak; and if Jason ever succeeds in finishing the trail he will try to have his brother's grave up there as he desired. But meanwhile he is buried on a lesser peak on their mountain homestead. Owen Brown was never married.

Last Days.-December 30th the aged brothers came down to the city to attend Col. Woodford's gospel temperance meeting in the tabernacle. We met them there both Sunday and Monday nights. But Owen was taken sick and had a chill after going to his sister Ruth's home from the meeting, and in a week he died of typhoid pneumonia. He had been failing for some months; this had been noticed by his relatives and friends. Monday he had worked pretty hard, then lay down in the bright sunshine on the banks of the Arroyo and slept. In the evening he went to the great temperance meeting, and being very deeply and ardently interested in the cause, he put his last cent of money into the collection; had nothing to pay street car fare with, and so walked over two miles to his sister's house, after the meeting. These over-exertions were probably the immediate cause of his last sickness, although he was out some on several days after the first attack, but was not able to attend the meetings any more.

At the women's meting on Tuesday he and Jason were elected honorary members of the W. C. T. U. He was much pleased with this, and said there was no cause he would more gladly contribute his $1.00 membership fee to aid. So he was buried with the W. C. T. U. white ribbon on his breast.

The last words he uttered that could be distinguished were: "It is better-to be-in a place-and suffer wrong-than to do wrong."

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Personal Note: Older Than John Brown

I started the serious study of John Brown in the later part of the 1990s, and while I was no longer a young man at the time, I was able to speak of him as the "old man" in a manner that corresponded to my own age.

I don't have the citation for this, but somewhere along the line I read that Brown was first called "Old Brown" in Kansas, to distinguish him from John Brown Junior.   But John senior also had aged in appearance by the late 1850s: his hair mostly grayed, and his long beard--which he wore from 1858 until his execution in December 1859 (although it was cropped much shorter at the time of the Harper's Ferry raid)--was quite gray.   He looked like a man in his late sixties, and this was probably more so because his complexion was worn, his health was beset by the ague, and he walked with a slight stoop in his later years.  So even in John Brown's lifetime, people took him for an older man and called him "old man" or "Old Brown" because he was older in appearance than many of his associates in the field.  This is nowhere more evident than his little army at Harper's Ferry.  Most of that brave association were young men, the oldest being Dangerfield Newby, who fell at the Ferry being no more than forty-four years of age.  The rest of the Harper's Ferry raiders were truly young men, and to them Brown was an old man, even if he was wiry, tough, and active.

For twenty years, my role as a "lifetime" student of John Brown has allowed me to speak of John Brown as "the old man" without a second thought.  But this week I turned sixty years of age, and now I'm older than John Brown, who is forever fifty-nine.  I know that I'm not alone in this experience, and a choir of witnesses have preceded me likewise in this experience, including the late Clarence Gee and Boyd Stutler, who exhausted their aged years by studying the "old man."

Still, when I blew out the candles on my birthday cake the other day, the Old Man crossed my mind for a second.  He did so last year too, when I turned fifty-nine, and being John Brown's age all year was sort of an aside for me throughout the year.  But as of this week, it's official.   I'm older than John Brown.

But don't get it twisted: there's only room on this blog for one Old Man.--LD

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Frederick Douglass in Columbus, Ohio, July 1850

This 1850 notice of an appearance of Frederick Douglass on July 22, 1850 appeared in the Daily Ohio State Journal (Columbus).  Although it would be great if a transcription of his speech was published, at least the journalist noted some high points of Douglass' speech, particularly his integrationist vision of the future, and his disdaining of any notion of black "expatriation" to Africa.  In the antebellum period as today, the black community was no monolith in regard to political opinions and programs.  Douglass had not only struck out on his own despite the criticism of paternalistic white Garrisonians, but clashed with the advocates of Black Nationalism in that era.

Douglass circa 1850 (Howard University)
As the scholar and documentary authority Paul Lee has observed, in the 19th century Black Nationalism was inclusive of black internationalism.  The dichotomy of Black Nationalism versus Pan Africanism was an unfortunate introduction in the 20th century, and tended to skew the fact that Black Nationalists had always been black internationalists.  Douglass would have nothing to do with the idea of blacks removing themselves to Africa, either by the racist sponsorship of white colonization (a movement that had been soundly beaten by Garrison's arguments) or according to black repatriation.

John Brown made no political statements as to this intra-community debate among African Americans, and probably took a pragmatic view of black solutions.  On the other hand, there are chunks of Black Nationalism in Brown's comfortable association with Martin Delany, Willis Hodges, and Augustus Washington (Delany made an exploratory trip to West Africa in 1859, and Washington actually relocated to Liberia).  Brown also studied the history of earlier black repatriation and maroons, and supported the experimental black agrarian community of "Timbucto" in the Adirondacks in the late 1840s.

It is perhaps an aspect of disappointment that Douglass was so intent on blacks staying put, that in his later years, at the demise of Reconstruction, that he would not even support black relocation to other parts of the United States--even when it was clear the black community was under assault in the South.1  Even in its most extreme form of argument, Douglass was always determined that black people should prioritize their identity as citizens.  In this he was the forerunner of the 20th century integrationist perspective, over against the Black Nationalist (and so-called Pan-Africanist) perspective, that prioritizes African identity over nationality.

This article, though brief, is also descriptive if not picturesque.  It describes Douglass as an orator and gives us a glimpse of the kind of racist mobs that Douglass regularly encountered when he spoke, in this case a group of white rowdies whose method was to stomp their feet during his speech.  The tone of the journalist likewise should give us a sense of the "antislavery" opinion in Ohio, which would acknowledged Douglass' abilities, but suggested his quest was impractical.

In haste--LD

Frederick Douglass. 
This black orator, who has attained so great notoriety for his bold assaults on our institutions, spoke in the State House yesterday at 3 and 7 P. M. Many of our citizens, induced by curiosity, went to hear him. In his first speech, he dwelt chiefly on the injustice of American slavery, and defended himself from the charge of treason brought against him for his speeches in England, and disunion sentiments, by saying, he had no country to which he could prove a traitor. At 7 P. M., he spoke on the future destiny of the African race in America, and argued that the prejudice against color would be gradually obliterated, and the two races would live on equal terms, as expatriation was impossible. 
Douglass has a fine voice for speaking, and uses excellent language, and we think if his talents were employed in some practical scheme for the improvement of his race, that he might effect much.  
At night, some half grown boys in the gallery endeavored to create a disturbance by stamping, which was however promptly put down by the orderly portion of our citizens. We detest this spirit of mobocracy, particularly when exercised against the weak, however obnoxious their sentiments are. If individuals do not wish to hear what is said at a public meeting, let them stay away, and not disturb those who wish to hear. Such conduct is a violation of the equal rights of a portion of the community. The public press, while condemning all such doctrines as those advocated by Douglass, ought to be equally prompt in rebuking the mob spirit, which in its fickleness may soon be turned against some better cause, and persecution will only strengthen a bad cause, as all experience demonstrates.

Source: Frederick Douglass,” Daily Ohio State Journal, Jul 23, 1850, p. 1
     1 See Frederick Douglass, "The Negro Exodus From the Gulf States," Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly (Jan. 1880).

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