Pro-violence abolitionist John Brown studied in NY

By Chris Carola | 12/9/2009, 7:46 a.m.


John Brown, leader of the historic raid on the federal arsenal and armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, is seen in this 1857 picture. Brown and his followers attempted to end slavery in the United States by armed force. The 19th-century abolitionist who advocated armed violence is drawing a diverse crowd in New York to study how his fight against slavery continues to play in America.

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (AP) _ John Brown, the 19th-century abolitionist who advocated armed violence, drew a diverse crowd last week to study how his fight against slavery continues to play in America.

A former Vietnam-era radical, a victim of human trafficking and an award-winning author joined academics, activists and a descendant of the anti-slavery leader for a two-day symposium. The event commemorated the sesquicentennial of Brown’s 1859 burial at his former Adirondack homestead just outside this tourist village in northern New York.

Organizers say the symposium, held last Friday and Saturday, examined the impact of Brown’s fight against slavery on America then and how it reverberates today. Speakers included Bernardine Dohrn, one of the best-known leaders of the 1960s radical group the Weather Underground; Maria Suarez, a Mexican immigrant who was virtually enslaved by a Southern California man after being lured to work for him in 1976; Russell Banks, author of the fictional Brown biography “Cloudsplitter’’; and Alice Keesey Mecoy, a Brown descendant.

The goal of the event wasn’t to glorify Brown, organizer Naj Wikoff said.

“We’re trying to get people to take a look at the use of violence in our country — why American culture uses violence to achieve an end,’’ Wikoff said.

Brown was hanged for treason on Dec. 2, 1859, at Charles Town in what was then part of Virginia, a few miles from Harpers Ferry, where he led an ill-fated raid on the federal arsenal earlier that fall. The attack failed, but it pushed the nation closer to the civil war that erupted nearly two years later. He was buried six days later.

Margaret Washington, a Cornell University history professor who was a keynote speaker at Saturday’s session, called Brown a “very significant catalyst of change, radical change.’’

“He represents the positive, in the sense that he was an abolitionist and egalitarian, and he also represents aspects of our culture that we wish were not there,’’ she said. “And that is the violence and the idea that the only way you’re going to bring change to humanity is to strike out violently.’’

The Connecticut-born Brown was raised in Ohio and pursued various jobs before moving with his family in 1849 to New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Here, they joined a community of former black slaves who had settled in the town of North Elba, where the village of Lake Placid was later established.

Brown left New York in the 1850s to join anti-slavery forces in Kansas. While there, he led attacks that included the slayings of five pro-slavery leaders in what became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre. Brown returned to his North Elba potato farm, where he hatched his plan to spark a slave rebellion in the South by seizing the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and arming the slaves.

Brown’s raid began on Oct. 16, 1859, when his force of 21 armed men took hostages inside the arsenal. The bloody assault ended two days later when U.S. Marines led by then-Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee captured a wounded Brown and 10 of his followers.