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Vermont to Honor Abolitionist Brown

  • This 1857 file photo shows John Brown, leader of the historic raid on the federal arsenal and armory at Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Brown, an abolitionist, and his followers attempted to bring attention to the plight of slaves in the United States, using armed force in the raid on Oct. 16, 1859. (AP Photo, File)



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, August 18, 2017

Woodstock — Thanks to the efforts of a local history teacher, Vermont is about to become the first state to formally celebrate the life of John Brown, the radical abolitionist who was hanged for treason in 1859.

“I’ve been an admirer of Brown for a while,” said Bradley Archer, the teacher who successfully petitioned state legislators to recognize Oct. 16 as John Brown Day. “It’s important to recognize that we’re the only state to celebrate John Brown.”

The Connecticut-born Brown waged a long-term, and sometimes violent, campaign against pro-slavery forces in the American South, culminating in a raid against a federal armory at Harpers Ferry in Virginia that failed to accomplish its immediate goal: the initiation of an armed slave revolt — but has been recognized as one of the key incidents leading up to the Civil War.

In May, the Vermont Legislature approved the formal declaration of John Brown Day, months before white supremacists protesting against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Va., resulted in a series of violent acts that culminated in the death of Heather Heyer.

The resolution was sponsored by state Sens. Dick McCormack, D-Bethel, and Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock.

Archer said Charlottesville and the resolution are both part of a larger battle in American culture over which figures in the country’s past should be celebrated as American heroes, and which should be relegated to the proverbial dustbin of history.

“It’s strange to me that John Brown was executed for treason for his failed uprising at Harper’s Ferry, when Robert E. Lee, who actually committed treason against the United States, was freed and is celebrated with statues and monuments,” said Archer.

During the weekend leading up to John Brown Day, Archer and other members of the Woodstock Social Justice Initiative, a nonprofit activist association that he is a part of, plan to host a conference featuring activities and lectures related to Brown, his legacy and continuing issues of race and social justice.

Archer also said that he is working with colleagues at the Woodstock Union High School and Middle School to develop a Brown-based curriculum that will use the abolitionist as a subject to teach students about history and politics.

Today at noon, Archer and other members of the Woodstock Social Justice Initiative are hosting a demonstration in the Woodstock Green against white supremacy.

He said it’s important to make a symbolic gesture to help define the community’s values.

“They’re here,” he said of white supremacists. “People in Vermont of course hold those views. The idea behind the vigil is to really show who cares. I want to send a message that we care and that we think that peace is important and that free speech is important.”

Though Brown is usually associated with New York, where he founded a community of free black men, and Kansas, where he and followers fought violently with pro-slavery forces, he also has some Vermont ties.

Civil War historian Howard Coffin said that Brown used to leave the Lake Placid, N.Y., area to shop.

“He did that because the railroad came up the Vermont side, so the stores had more and better goods than the stores on the New York side,” Coffin said. “Information I found in the library of Vergennes indicated he may have been a fairly familiar figure in Vergennes in the latter to mid-part of the 1850s.”

Coffin also found that, prior to setting out for Kansas, Brown spent time in Cavendish, Vt., and he thinks he knows why.

“At the time, the governor of Vermont was Ryland Fletcher,” said Coffin. “Fletcher was an abolitionist, and he had gotten the Legislature to appropriate $20,000 to support anti-slavery settlers in Kansas, and quite a few Vermonters were going out there. Cavendish was Fletcher’s hometown. And so he was there, surely, to meet with Fletcher and try to get his hands on some of that $20,000. I don’t know if he did.”

Coffin said that the record shows Brown was already one of the leading voices in the abolitionist movement at the time, and drew large crowds talking about the evils of slavery.

Donald Wickman, a New York-based historian and museum director with Vermont roots, has documented the path that John Brown’s body took through Rutland and other Vermont communities after his execution.

“Bardwell House is the hotel where his widow stayed,” Wickman said. “It faces the Rutland Plaza. After staying overnight in Rutland, he got an early start and went to Vergennes, where a large crowd came as they took him by ferry across to New York.”

Brown was buried in New York, along with several other men who fought alongside him at Harper’s Ferry, which is now in West Virginia.

Archer said that, though Brown used violence to achieve his goals, his goal of ending the institution of slavery justified his actions.

At the same time, more communities across the country are challenging traditions associated with Christopher Columbus, whose legacy has become more controversial, but who is still celebrated one week before Vermont’s John Brown Day, on Columbus Day.

“It’s important that it’s a week after. We can draw the contrast between the two,” he said. “Columbus was fighting for the enslavement, torture and kind of degradation of indigenous people and his own greed. John Brown was the yin to Columbus’ yang. He is what we should aspire to and what Columbus is rejecting.”

Coffin said he agreed that monuments of Confederate figures such as Lee should be taken down, if only for the sake of the country’s African-Americans.

“It symbolizes the worst of their American experience. It’s the American Holocaust. If they want those Southern monuments to come down, God bless them. The more that come down, the better,” he said.

Coffin said that Brown, by contrast, gave his life for the noblest of causes, at a time when public sentiment was bitterly divided.

“He was on the right side of things. Absolutely,” Coffin said. “Slavery was evil. And John Brown saw that.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.