Martha Swan, John Brown Lives!

July 26, 2019
By ANDY FLYNN – Editor (aflynn@lakeplacidnews.comLake Placid News

Monday, July 15. Martha Swan sat down with the Lake Placid News at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site, underneath a tent a short distance from Brown’s grave.

She’s the executive director of the historic site’s friends group, John Brown Lives!

“In many other societies, where people are closer in some ways to their freedom struggles, their human rights struggles, it’s not uncommon for people to be remembered from a struggle when they passed, as their spirit lives on,” Swan said. “For example, Nelson Mandela lives. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador lives.”

Martha Swan, executive director of John Brown Lives!
(News photo — Andy Flynn)

Brown’s spirit has lived on – in various forms – since he was hanged by the U.S. government for treason on Dec. 2, 1859 after he led an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia). One incarnation of that spirit is John Brown Day, which has been celebrated close to the abolitionist’s May 9 (1800) birthday on and off for almost a century. The event, which became an annual pilgrimage for African Americans from Philadelphia to lay a wreath on Brown’s grave in the early 1920s, began again in 1999 thanks to the efforts of Keene novelist Russell Banks.

Later that year, Swan helped found John Brown Lives!

“We draw inspiration from the John Brown Farm and the fact that John Brown and his family lived here,” Swan said, “that he wanted to be buried here, and that he was a man very much of his time and in some ways not of his time because, as a white person, he believed in full human equality and parted company even as an abolitionist from many other abolitionists. … He did not believe in racism. And he dedicated his life to ending slavery and racial injustice in his time.”

The historic site is a few miles south of downtown Lake Placid, in the shadow of the 1980 Winter Olympic ski jumps. The property includes a trail system, farm house, barn with exhibit space and a graveyard – enclosed in a black, iron fence – where Brown and 12 of his followers, including two sons, are buried.

“We feel a tremendous obligation to serve the public, to serve history, to provide opportunities of many kinds for people to come and feel the power and spirit of this place,” Swan said.

A few years ago, John Brown Lives! became the official friends group of the historic site – operated by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation – and continues to present programs at the farm and in other communities to further its mission as a freedom education and human rights project.

“The purpose of the friends groups is to promote the site, to help support the site,” Swan said. “And I believe we’re considered a bit of a hybrid, perhaps because of the amount of programming we do and the breadth of programming that’s history related, that’s human rights related. But also this morning, we had a butterfly walk and a story hour with ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ by Eric Carle.”

In addition to programming, John Brown Lives! began giving away the Spirit of John Brown Freedom Award in 2016 at John Brown Day. The award has now honored 13 people from around the country, including actor Danny Glover and activist Soffiyah Elijah from the Correctional Association of New York.

In the barn there is a “Dreaming of Timbuctoo” exhibit curated by Amy Godine.

“One of the questions it answers is ‘Why did John Brown come here to begin with?’ And it was this land distribution to black New Yorkers in 1846 so that they meet a property requirement that only black men faced in order to vote,” Swan said.

As for the future of the site, Swan said she has thoughts on new buildings, such as a pavilion and a visitor center, and outdoor exhibits at the barn that will help “get a conversation going.”

“I really would like for the farm to be truly of use to the community in this way. When there are troubling, divisive, unsettling things that happen in the community or in the country, that the John Brown Farm is a place where people can come together for community conversations.”

Swan sees John Brown Lives! helping to direct conversations about controversial topics that offer different points of view.

“I’m not interested necessarily in persuading people that there’s one way to think about these things,” she said, “but let’s come and hear some points of view that maybe we hadn’t thought about and walk away richer for it, walk away better able to grapple with the tremendous complexity and urgency of our times because we’re talking with one another.”

In the end, Swan hopes that people who visit the historic site and attend the group’s programs walk away with a deeper understanding of the country’s history of slavery and white supremacy and the systems that are still in place that keep people disenfranchised.

“And that we’re able to create a new understanding of who we are and a new and better society. It sounds kind of pie in the sky, but I want this place … to be a site of conscience and a site of reflection and inspiration to go out and do good work in the world.”