Tuesday, October 20, 2009

John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry Commemorated

October 20

We have just passed the 150th anniversary of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. Some years back we had a rousing debate at my Ethical Culture Society over what John Brown was and what he did. Our leader at the time supported him as a freedom fighter, and a longtime member insisted on Brown as terrorist and criminal.

Here, is a fascinating account by an old friend about attending the commemorative events at Harpers Ferry last week-end.

Jeffrey Sokolow writes:

I have just returned from an amazing week at Harpers Ferry.

On the evening of October 16, from the front porch of the Kennedy Farm in Maryland, four and a half miles from Harpers Ferry, John Brown's great great great granddaughter read the words of her great great grandmother Annie Brown's account of the time she spent at the farm in the summer and fall of 1859, maintaining the pretense that a family was in residence rather than a provisional army about to launch a frontal assault on the Slave Power.

A park ranger read a passage from Isaiah that Brown read to his men that night 150 years ago (it's a passage from the selection from the prophets that is read in synagogues worldwide on Yom Kippur, urging us to let the oppressed go free) and his injunction to take no life needlessly, but if necessary to take life to preserve their own, to "make sure work of it."

At 8 pm, the precise hour these words had been uttered a century and a half ago, Harpers Ferry chief park historian Dennis Frye, dressed in a gray great coat and broad-brimmed hat, shouldered a Sharps carbine rifle and spoke these words Brown spoke that night before setting off into history: "Put on your arms. We will proceed to the ferry."

In a cold drizzling rain, weather remarkably like that on that night in 1859, several hundred people set off to recreate the march of John Brown's provisional army to Harpers Ferry, following a horse-drawn wagon. Along the way, Frye would stop the column to let us know what we were passing. Always he spoke of us as if we were the raiders, saying: "You are coming to make war on slavery."

As we approached the bridge across the Potomic some two and a half hours later, ghostly forms materialized out of the mist, living history reenactors posting sentry on the bridge. And as we approached our destination, the fire engine house known to history as "John Brown's Fort," in the flickering lantern light in front of the fort we saw Brown and his men, guns and pikes in hand, a spectral sight.

This is just one of a series of memorable events that took place at Harpers Ferry this past week. Other events included:

-- a four-day scholarly symposium with noted John Brown historians (look to CSPAN in the weeks ahead for the keynote speeches) and scores of academic papers presented

-- a recitation before 400 people in a giant tent sheltered from the pouring rain of the oration by Frederick Douglass first delivered at historic Storer College at Harpers Ferry in 1881, the speech that Douglass concluded with these words: "If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he began the war that ended slavery," remarks that triggered thunderous applause and a standing ovation

-- a walking tour of Harpers Ferry at which descendents of those who were there in 1859 read the words of their ancestors on the very spot that they fought and died, this as part of a two hour walk through the town led by a hugely eloquent park ranger steeped in the details of the events

-- a laying of memorial stones engraved with the names of the raiders at the Kennedy Farm memorial site, which were then ritually washed in cleansing water, this carried out by some of the 55 descendents of black Oberlin raider John Copeland who came to the Ferry for the commemoration

-- a play based on the letters between John and his equally remarkable wife Mary Brown in the months before his murder by the state of Virginia, culminating in their last meeting in his cell the night before his execution

-- a visit to the site where John Brown hung half way between heaven and earth after penning his immortal last words: "I John Brown am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood."

This was one of the most remarkable events I have ever attended. The Park Service is to be commended for what it has done to commemorate John Brown's raid, which truly began the war that ended chattel slavery of African Americans. Harpers Ferry in their hands is a shrine to Abolition, to the Niagra Movement, and to the spirits of John Brown and Dr. W.E.B. DuBois.

A particularly moving moment for me was a discussion I had with a native Southerner, a young Civil War history buff who had come to the academic symposium with the preconception that Brown was a kook and a terrorist, as he had learned in school. After hearing all Brown and his family had done, in New York and Kansas and Missouri before his raid on Harpers Ferry, this young man concluded that he had realized that "John Brown was right." You may recognize this phrase as the last in Reynolds's new biography of Brown; they are the words used a century ago by DuBois.

For those who want to honor one of America's greatest heros --- not a terrorist but rather a man who attacked a state-sponsored terrorist regime that had enslaved four million Americans on U.S. soil and had at the time a tight grip on the throat of all three branches of government --- another opportunity may be found here: http://www.johnbrowncominghome.com.

More information about this past week's activities may be found here under "pressroom articles": http://www.johnbrownraid.org/.

Yours for freedom,

-- Jeff Sokolow

Jeff also recommends these articles:
Another writer recommends a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewen. Also in this book, Woodrow Wilson's ties to the KKK and Helen Keller's strong involvement in the Wobblies and Socialist Party.

One of the great truths, it seems to me, is the obvious but worth-repeating fact that all of us human beings are mixes of many things: good deeds, high principles, jealousy, neurosis, evil deeds-- no wonder it's so easy for Christianity, say, to give evidence of human depravity.

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