May 10, 2019
In 1998, two years before the 200th anniversary of abolitionist John Brown’s birth, author Russell Banks released “Cloudsplitter,” his fictional memoir by Brown’s son Owen.
A year later, Banks organized a celebration at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site on the first Saturday of May, as Brown’s birth date – May 9 – has been honored for decades by busloads of African Americans coming to the farm seeking to reconnect with Brown’s spirit during their long struggle for civil rights.
Martha Swan, now a Spanish teacher at Newcomb Central School, attended the 1999 event, which crystallized in her mind that the spirit of John Brown not only lives on but has never been needed more than now. That fall, Swan launched John Brown Lives! and it has become the official “friends group” of the farm. More than that, John Brown Lives! has become a voice for the oppressed, an advocate for justice in many forms, and now annually presents the Spirit of John Brown Freedom Awards the first Saturday of May – John Brown Day.
Barbara Ransby, Janet McFetridge and Lewis Papenfuse put wreaths on the graves of John Brown and his followers on Saturday, May 4 at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site during John Brown Day activities.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)
Swan’s involvement in activist causes was sparked at age 20 by attending a lecture on the importance of being bilingual presented by the late Dr. Diana Balmori, an associate professor at SUNY Oswego. Swan, then a student, had no thought of learning a second language but left the lecture deciding to learn Spanish. This step lead to her volunteering for such agencies as the Syracuse Peace Council, which led to supporting refugees fleeing violence in Guatemala and El Salvador.
After a stint working in Central America and New York City, Swan came to the North Country in 1997 as a development director for the Adirondack Council, based in Elizabethtown. There, one day strolling about town, she was shocked to read from a historic site marker that abolitionist John Brown’s body had laid in state at the Essex County Courthouse guarded by locals en route to its burial at his farm in North Elba.
“I was flabbergasted,” said Swan. “I was excited and furious, furious that I was born and raised in New York state and I didn’t know anything about that history. I was livid to think that I had in my head, from my inadequate education, that John Brown was a marauding homicidal maniac and that slavery was “merely a peculiar institution.” I realized that the local history here on the ground in the Adirondacks presented an extraordinary opportunity to do anti-racist work.”
Swan began by learning all she could about Brown through Lake Placid-North Elba Historian Mary MacKenzie, then farm manager Ed Cotter, and such historians as Noel Ignatiev, Louis DeCaro Jr. and David S. Reynolds. Swan’s next step was launching John Brown’s Lives! with the mission “to engage Adirondack communities in the freedom history of their region and to promote social justice and human rights.” Early board members included Jeff Jones of Albany, Bill Kissel of Lake Placid, and Jerilea Zempel of Keene.
“John Brown Lives! is very important to the farm,” said Site Manager Brendan Mills. “They keep the history alive and relevant to modern times. Martha and the group have done a great job of that over the years. They’ve brought more color and texture to what we’re trying to teach here so people will realize that what John Brown fought for needs to be fought for in modern times as well. I can’t say enough of the good things they’ve accomplished.”
For many years, New York’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation wanted John Brown Lives! to be a more conventional friends group, but when the state announced plans to cut funding for the farm in 2010, they quickly discovered the value of John Brown Lives!. The state held a meeting of historic sites that stretched roughly from Canada to Westchester to which Martha and I attended – festooned with banners and placards. There, and in the media, we, in no uncertain terms, made the case that John Brown’s farm, though small, was the most important historic site in the state in light of the growing injustice in our nation and the world.
The immediate outcome was state funding for the farm was not cut, and a few years later, John Brown Lives! was welcomed as an official friends group, albeit not in the traditional mold. Further, the state has increased its investments in the site and applauded JBL’s non-traditional programming and outreach.
“This is a beautifully austere, historic, and resonate site,” said Daniel McKay, deputy commissioner for historic preservation at the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. “What you have here with John Brown Lives! is an extraordinary partnership that goes far beyond the support and programming that a traditional friends group provides. This is not a place that celebrates a historic moment in time but is absolutely critical to ongoing discussions and activism in 21st century society.”
JBL initiatives include; “Dreaming of Timbuctoo,” a permanent exhibit at the farm and a second traveling exhibit of abolitionist Gerrit Smith’s commitment of 120,00 acres of Adirondack wilderness to free black New York men might gain the right vote; Friends in the Adirondacks, a partnership with the Harlem-based Alliance of Families for Justice to support families impacted by the incarceration of loved ones in the North Country; and Harriet Was Here, which connects students and teachers of northern, southern, and Canadian schools to explore the life of Harriet Tubman artistically.
JBL founding board member and now president Jeff Jones organized busloads on inner-city youth from the Albany area to attend the 1999 event organized by Banks.
“When Martha came along and said she wanted to start an organization to keep it going it was easy for me to say yes,” said Jones. “I have loved working with her ever since. John Brown Lives! is a very local group trying to save a very local object that has national significance and at the same time be part of a national discussion about the fundamental history of our country.”
“Martha Swan got me involved,” said board member Bill Kissel. “It matched my historical interest in the site and also my activism and interest in civil rights and human rights. I knew that Martha was very involved in all the current issues and very much in the forefront of those fights, and that excited me. Martha is incredible; she’s tireless.”
Currently, John Brown Lives! has been a vital partner and compelling voice for the recent awarding of $250,000 to the Adirondack Diversity Initiative and was also pleased to learn at the 20th anniversary celebration that the state has agreed to make additional investments in the farm.
“I’m most proud that John Brown and the state historic site has a level of support and engagement in the current urgent issues of our time,” said Swan. “I think that the John Brown Farm State Historic Site has always had meaning and resonance as a spiritual ground zero if you will for many people on conscience and for many people deeply affected by racist oppression. I am proud that there is now an expanded awareness, that gathering at John Brown’s Day is not only a touchstone but for many of us, there is a tremendous urgency. To paraphrase Whitney Houston, we should strive to do what we can in our moment in time.”