February 26, 2014
John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry
Black History continues by discussing one of the most important events in African American history: The Raid on Harper’s Ferry.
While this is one of the most important events preceding the U.S. Civil War, it is often overlooked, diminished, or failed to discuss in many U.S. history books. This is a serious mistake!
And it is a serious mistake for African Americans to fail to recognize the leader of this event: John Brown.
Following our Black History Month model, we will:
Remember: John Brown and the Raid on Harper’s Ferry
Many important African Americans like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman led the abolitionist movement in the early 19th century. But many white people were also involved and dedicated to the complete abolition of slavery. John Brown was one of those people. Others like William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe were equally dedicated to the abolition of slavery and to equality for all people.
One can argue how instrumental was the inclusion of non-Blacks in the abolitionist movement. I believe that they were essential to the abolitionist effort in both the non-violent (law-focused) approach and the armed campaigns needed to change the deeply rooted and protected institution of slavery in the southern states. John Brown chose the latter approach and he will be forever remembered for his dedication and self-sacrifice in the cause of freedom for the slaves. He has earned the right and privilege to be remembered during Black History Month and, indeed, in all American history books.
Who was John Brown?
John Brown was a white man born in 1800 in Connecticut to Calvinist parents. He was an ardent abolitionist from an early age. He planned to enter the ministry but, instead, took up numerous different vocations while working as an activist against slavery. Unlike William Lloyd Garrison, Brown believed that the only way to achieve abolition was through armed intervention. In fact, Captain Brown moved to Kansas during the conflict over whether the state would be a free or slave state and organized an attack on five southern (pro-slave) settlers in the area, killing all five.
He is most remembered for his attack on Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia. Harper’s Ferry was a federal armory. Captain Brown attacked it to collect guns and ammunition that would help slaves to escape to Canada. He attempted to enlist Frederick Douglass who declined because he felt that the mission was tantamount to suicide. He also contacted Harriet Tubman who declined due to illness. Still, he had a band of 21 men: 16 whites, 3 free blacks, 1 freed slave, and 1 escaped slave. The attack occurred on October 16, 1859 and lasted for three days. Most of the men were killed during the attack but Captain Brown and several others were captured, tried, and hanged.
Why was the raid at Harper’s Ferry important?
It was one of the major steps toward the abolition of slavery. At the time, the country was deeply divided about slavery and, as new states were added, the status of slavery was constantly debated. John Brown’s raid further polarized the country about slavery. The abolitionists became more abolitionist and the southern states supported slavery more fervently. War became inevitable. Notably, John Brown’s speech at the trial made the evils of slavery even more obvious and how the denial of freedom was contrary to the principles on which the country was founded.
John Brown has reached near mythical status in the annals of history. And the raid on Harper’s Ferry has nearly the same status. Yet the controversy remains active.
Many books and DVDs can be found about the raid on Harper’s Ferry and about Captain John Brown.
However, I must say that one of the best resources about the abolitionist movement as a whole is a DVD series called The Abolitionists. This 3-part series discusses the anti-slavery movement from its earliest times through the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. It discusses many different abolitionists, including John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison as well as some of the forces opposing abolition. Of course, Frederick Douglass is pervasive throughout the third DVD and some startling facts about Mr. Douglass such as his frustration over the difficulties and lack of support for abolition. President Lincoln is also discussed and presented as well as his ambivalence about freeing the slaves. This is a must-have collection for anyone interested in the anti-slavery movement or any of its formidable participants.
For anyone living in or near West Virginia, a visit to the armory at Harper’s Ferry is an absolute must! The armory has been completely restored and the tours are enlightening and engaging. It is like taking a step back into history. History should be brought to life so that we can understand and remember it. The historic site at Harper’s Ferry is for all ages and will teach about the bravery, courage, and strong principles of John Brown and the others who fought against slavery. If you cannot visit in person, the website has a virtual video and audio tour and reenactments. Just link to the website below for more information or a tour of this great historic site:
There are so many ways to celebrate Black History month by commemorating the fight for freedom at Harper’s Ferry. One way is to focus on abolition. John Brown is said to have presented one of the greatest speeches in American history on abolition.
- Read the speech.
- Read it to the kids.
- Encourage your (older) kids to read it.
- Act it out.
And it is a great way to remember that many whites fought for the abolition of the terrible institution of slavery and for equal rights for all people.
The full text of the speech can be found at:
Harper’s Ferry is an important part of American history! All Americans should learn about it, remember it, and study it as one of the heroic fights for freedom and equality. And we should certainly remember, study, and be grateful for courageous and principled Americans like John Brown who risked their lives so that others could be free.
Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments–I submit; so let it be done! ~ Address of John Brown to Virginia Court following his conviction, November 2, 1859
Finish the month with more knowledge and gratitude!
Remember. Study. Celebrate.