October 18, 2019
By MARTHA SWAN – John Brown Lives! , Lake Placid News
Twenty years ago, on Oct. 16, 1999, John Brown Lives! hosted its first solo event at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site.
It was the 140th anniversary of Brown’s raid on a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). But rather than focus on that seismic event, we marked the occasion with a slide show presentation on an English slave ship, the Henrietta Marie, that had sunk off the Florida coast in 1700 after unloading and selling its human cargo kidnapped from Africa.
We reasoned then that it was impossible to understand Brown, his actions in his time or his legacy in ours, without first understanding what James O. Horton, deceased emeritus American studies and history professor, described as “slavery’s diversity, longevity, complexity and centrality” to the American story.
In an afternoon talk at the farm, golden with sunlight and changing leaves, African American scuba divers Oswald and Marion Sykes from the capital region brought the vast reach of the slave trade and its brutal inhumanity into sharp focus as they described feeling as though they had touched “the souls of their ancestors” while holding iron manacles recovered from the wreck that had been pounded, deliberately, to fit around the ankles of a child.
The Sykes shared slides and emotional stories from their pilgrimage to lay a one-ton marker on the ocean floor that recognizes and memorializes “the courage, pain and suffering” of the many millions of Africans enslaved in the New World.
Unmasking the unspeakable realities of slavery and addressing its through-line linking past and present has been central to the John Brown Lives! mission ever since that event. But so has acknowledging the extraordinary resilience, ingenuity and immeasurable contributions of black Americans to the life, wealth and very existence our country, our democracy, even our economy, as we know it today.
When we first began, never did we imagine that our nation would be as perilously divided as it is today. On the one hand, white supremacy and racist violence are on the rise, and profound ignorance and willful disinformation about slavery stoke those divisions.
On the other hand, the New York Times 1619 Project “marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date”-and the public response to it-are just one indicator of the public’s hunger for information and conversation about this most “peculiar” and horrific of institutions and its many legacies today.
As the director of John Brown Lives!, I believe that engaging the truth and complexity of our history is the only way forward. And as painful, wrenching and uncomfortable as that enterprise may be, I have also found it to be joyful and privileged work for the friendships and alliances it forges, the hopefulness it inspires and the determination it fuels to carry on the best of our tradition to ensure that the moral arc of our times bends toward justice, freedom and equality.
We are tremendously fortunate to have here in the Adirondacks the homestead of John and Mary Brown and the final resting place of Brown, his sons and other black and white men who joined his raid at Harpers Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859, to strike a blow against slavery. Through their sacrifice at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, they breathed life into our founding ideals of freedom and equality.
God bless their eyes, and open ours.