Adirondack Daily Enterprise
LAKE PLACID — Thirty-seven years after abolitionist John Brown died by hanging in Charles Town, West Virginia, for leading a raid at Harper’s Ferry Federal Arsenal, the State of New York acquired his farm in North Elba, formalizing that it would “continue to be dedicated and used for the purposes of a public park or reservation forever.” In front of a large, enthusiastic crowd, that event was marked by a flag-raising, a military rifle salute, and speeches by local and state dignitaries.
By then, Jim Crow era actions and laws were becoming well established. The Southern states had adopted new laws and constitutions designed to disenfranchise Black voters. Ida Wells was ramping up her efforts to protest against the lynching of Black people, 161 in 1892, and in 1896, the Supreme Court upheld segregation as legal. Also, by 1896, the Daughters of the Confederacy was well into erecting statues to honor the Confederate dead and the officers who led them in their effort to change the narrative of the Civil War from a battle to end slavery into a fight over state’s rights.
This past Saturday, 125 years to the day after New York State-designated John Brown’s Farm as a historic site, leaders from the state, authors and historians outlined plans to celebrate what has been accomplished at the Farm, and announce a series of events addressing the ongoing ramifications of Jim Crow and injustice in American society.
“I think of the farm as a signpost,” author Sandra Weber said. “It bears evidence of the past and indicates what’s possible. For example, the Black and white comrades whose bones lay mingled here in a grave. They lived together, ate together, fought together, and are now buried together. They show its possible for Blacks and whites to live, fight and die as equals.”
An often-overlooked signpost is John Brown’s name and the date 1859 carved into the backside of the large boulder where Brown and the raiders are buried. In August 1866, a year after the Civil War ended, several Civil War veterans and their families came to the farm to make the carving. Participants included Col. Francis Lee and of Westport, and Judge George S. Hale of Boston, coordinators of the 54th, the first colored regiment organized in a northern state.
“Black lives have always mattered at the John Brown Farm,” John Brown Lives! Director Martha Swan said. “We are planning a series of commemorative, cultural, and educational programs to help us all do the work that needs to be done on many fronts. Work that includes the right to vote, the right to repair from centuries of stolen labor and stolen lives. The right to fair, just, and human treatment before the law. And the right to live in peace, health, happiness and harmony.”
Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History for the NYS Dept of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, spoke of the inhumanity of so many people not having a full presence in society today. Nahon said John Brown’s commitment to address that inhumanity and bring uncomfortable truths to the forefront was needed when he lived and is needed now. She said that it’s easy for us to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, but addressing it requires us to face uncomfortable realities.
Nahon said John Brown and the others knew addressing injustice was hard, as exemplified by the soil filled with rocks and stones that the Free Blacks in North Elba had to farm in order to earn the right to vote. She concluded by saying though those buried at the Farm didn’t achieve their vision of a just and equitable society. She praised the commitment of those present and beyond who are working to achieve that goal through being aware every day of “what you say, who you ignore, or who you help, and to stay focused on the mission as it’s still in play.”
Upcoming events include a May 8 online panel discussion with historian Dr. Margaret Washington, Brown descendant Alice Kesey Mecoy, and Sandra Weber facilitated by Lavada Nahon; a June 19 (Juneteeth) the installation of an updated Memorial Field for Black Lives by artist Karen Davidson Seward, and a July 3-4 commemoration of the Black Raiders of Harpers Ferry highlighting raider Osborne Anderson’s visit to the farm on July 4, 1860. These and other events will be published in the local media and on John Brown Lives! Facebook page.
(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Brown died in Charlestown, WA. The place was Charles Town, which then was in Virginia and is now part of West Virginia. The Enterprise regrets the error.)