Celebration of John Brown Farm as a NYS Historical Site
When you stand at the grave of famed abolitionist John Brown, you stand at the intersection of the timeless forest and the modern society that humans have created. Behind you rises the “Cloudsplitter” that has framed this view for as long as anyone has looked at it. In front of you looms the Olympic ski jump, and down the road are other signs of a busy human world: upscale summer homes, an airport, a major highway. Looking in one direction shows you history. Looking in the other shows you a modern world that may not seem to have much in common with the past…right? At John Brown’s Farm in North Elba, I don’t believe this to be the case.
In 2021, the state of New York will celebrate 125 years of being caretaker to this historical site. The John Brown Farm attracts between 45,000-50,000 visitors per year, per site manager Brendan Mills. Mr. Mills notes that the Farm is one of the oldest historical sites in the state parks system. Interestingly, 2020 was a record year for visitation to the Farm, with an estimated 70,000 visitors, mostly from within New York. This influx can perhaps be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, or perhaps the resurgence of John Brown in popular media, such as through the primetime TV show The Good Lord Bird.
Or perhaps we can gauge the renewed popularity of the Farm, or John Brown, or antiracist history in general as connected to contemporary politics. As a result of the renewed Black Lives Matter movement that spread across the nation over the summer, there have been world-wide conversations over public monuments and their relation to race and racism.
In the vast majority of these conversations, protestors have been speaking out against the continued display of monuments that commemorate the Confederacy and other racists institutions. In this context, it is more important than ever to examine the relevance of a historical site that is explicitly antiracist, and that commemorates a person who contributed significantly to events that lead to the Civil War.
John Brown’s crusade against the evils of slavery is memorialized in several places across the country. It is worth diving more deeply into how his Adirondack home in particular shaped the man that one New York historian said, “created one of the most enduring historical legends in the nation’s history.”
History of the Farm as a state site
There are many great places to learn about the history of the Farm itself. Nothing beats actually visiting this COVID-safe, mostly outdoors landmark, where helpful staff can give you a tour. You can also learn about why John Brown moved to North Elba via the excellent “Dreaming of Timbuctoo” exhibit provided by the non-profit John Brown Lives!. Brown came to the area to help recently freed slaves become farmers, because at that time in New York state, black men (and only black men) needed to own $250 dollars worth of land to be eligible to vote. Brown immersed himself in this new community of black farmers and participated in a wide variety of organizing. While he traveled across the country supporting antislavery causes, his wife and numerous children literally “held down the farm” for many years. The Farm served as the family’s home base for the entire last decade of Brown’s life. It was here that he slowly finalized the plans for his landmark raid on Harper’s Ferry. There is rich history to be learned about the Brown family and their experiences in North Elba. I’ve created a reading list at the end of this article to get you started if you’d like to learn more.
But why did the New York State parks system get involved in preserving the site? The short answer is that it was a popular place to visit even in the immediate years after Brown’s death. According to the application to make the Farm a National Historical Landmark:
“In 1870, the farm was purchased by a group of citizens led by the noted journalist and lecturer, Kate Field, marking the beginning of efforts to conserve and protect the gravesite and farm. The group deeded the property over to the State of New York in 1896. Although the property became the responsibility of the State and various improvements were made to accommodate increasing numbers of visitors and pilgrims, private interest in promoting the memory of John Brown did not end. In 1922, a new John Brown Memorial Association was formed and money was raised for a John Brown statue. The memorial statue was erected and dedicated in 1935 at a ceremony attended by more than 2000 people.”
It’s important to note that the designation of the Farm as a state landmark likely wasn’t universally supported. Lake Placid was a town where racism was openly embraced throughout much of the 20th century. Local historians have written and spoken on the history of blackface in the region, the widespread social segregation enforced by many institutions, and the general inability for African Americans to feel safe and welcome in their Adirondack communities. I recommend historian Amy Godine as a good resource for a primer on Black History in the Adirondacks. As she points out, there are many stories to be told about the lives of the African Americans in the Adirondacks that go far beyond their role in John Brown’s story.
A monument relevant to the modern day?
But once you build a memorial, especially for someone already so famous, of course that memorial will loom large in the minds of visitors and locals alike. As evidenced by how many people visited just last year, it seems that the Farm still has an important role to play in our modern discussion about racism and antiracism in America. The reason why this is the case is quite simple: the white supremacy that John Brown fought against and died to eradicate is still with us. Just because slavery no longer exists – and even that point is not entirely accurate – doesn’t mean that systemic racism has been eradicated in any place in America. There is no line that you cross upon leaving the John Brown Farm where you enter an America that is free of discrimination on the basis of the color of your skin.
Therefore, in a nation where so many parts of government, large and small, are still protecting monuments to the Confederacy, it is more important than ever that we celebrate monuments to antiracist struggle where they exist. Such monuments help us recognize in ourselves the ability to fight systems of violent oppression. They help us realize that even going back to the time of widespread slavery, there were Americans who recognized the evils of racism. If John Brown and his allies could fight in his time, so too can we fight in ours.
**With thanks to Martha Swan for research assistance and Brendan Mills for a helpful phone interview.
Pictured here: John Brown Farm in September 2020. Photo by Vanessa Banti. Image of John Brown from the Almanack archive.
There are lots of books written on the history of the abolitionist movement, John Brown, and African American history in New York. Here are some good recommendations to get started:
- John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. David Reynolds (2006).
- John Brown.E.B. Du Bois (1909).
- Primary Accounts of John Brown, Abolitionist. John Brown (pub 2015).
- “Fire From the Midst of You”: A Religious Life of John Brown. Louis A. Decaro, Jr. (2005).
- Allies for Freedom and Blacks on John Brown. Benjamin Quarles (2001).
- The Search for the Underground Railroad in Upstate New York. Tom Calarco (2014).
- North Star Country: Upstate New York and the Crusade for African American Freedom. Milton C. Sernett (2001).
- “Recalling Timbuctoo, A Slice of Black History.” The New York Times (2001). https://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/19/nyregion/north-elba-journal-recalling-timbuctoo-a-slice-of-black-history.html
- Blacks in the Adirondacks: A History. Sally E. Svenson (2017).
- Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War. Ira Berlin, editor (1993).