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Connections with the Past:
Reflections on John Brown
page 1

Recent Letters from Jean Libby and other scholars

May 9, 2006
Louis A. DeCaro to Corrine Innis

May 9, 2006

Ms. Corrine Innis
Congress of Racial Equality -- CORE
817 Broadway, 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10003

via email

Dear Ms Innis:

As a scholar of the life and letters of John Brown the abolitionist, I am writing to thank you for remembering him and his efforts on behalf of the anti-slavery cause. I have devoted much of my scholarship to studying Malcolm X and John Brown, and currently am preparing my second book on Brown which I hope to expand into a larger project of collecting and editing Brown's letters. As you know, in the 19th century, African Americans often remembered Brown by doing what the leadership of CORE is doing today in laying a wreathe on his grave in Lake Placid, New York. Perhaps with the passing of years and the rise of many notable black leaders it is only natural and progressive that the focus of the black community has largely moved beyond Brown to their own freedom fighters and leaders.

Yet John Brown occupies a unique position, being much more a part of the black community than perhaps any other "white" man in the history of this nation. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to separate him from the bosom of black history and the black struggle against slavery in particular. As Brown said in his final statement to the Virginia court that sentenced him to death in November 1859, he and his sons had all willingly "mingled their blood" with the oppressed African in the United States. For centuries, white slave masters had "mingled their blood" with blacks only through rape. John Brown was thus the personal and complete antithesis to such racist criminality, for he lived with the intention of union with the oppressed in life and in death if necessary. This devotion was ultimately realized on a southern gallows.

John Brown remains a point of controversy in this nation today because many people remain unwilling to admit the gross injustice and systemic criminality that sustained black chattel slavery, and the extent to which the oppression of African people has enriched this nation and perverted the God-given order of human equality. He is defamed as a lunatic, dysfunctional brigand, and now "terrorist" by academics, journalists, and television producers because he threatens the fiction and duplicity that is still embraced as "American history" by far too many people in this nation, particularly people in positions of influence.

It is highly instructive that the people of Haiti named a thoroughfare after John Brown in the capital city of Port Au Prince, while this nation would rather glorify slaveholding presidents and tolerate the traitorous flag of the Confederacy. No single individual in the record of this nation is so suspect and despised as Brown, not even the official traitors of record like Benedict Arnold, or the romanticized, glorified traitors like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, who used all their might and ability to tear this nation apart and defend the rights of slave holders over the oppressed.

John Brown was a Christian man, a man devoted to family and community, and a patriot in the biblical sense of the word--one who loves his country enough to stand against it when it is wrong, and to give his life in the hope that it might be otherwise spared from the divine judgment that looms overhead. To be sure, he was hardly a porcelain saint, and there is room for historical criticism in the appreciative work of historians. But in the commerce of human rights and justice, Brown was an even greater figure--pound for pound--than even Abraham Lincoln, whom history has inaccurately crowned as the "great emancipator." Recall the words of Frederick Douglass in 1876, who acknowledged that his friend Lincoln "shared the prejudices of his white fellow countrymen against the negro," and that the 16th President "was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model." Lincoln finally advanced the cause of the anti-slavery movement and consciously employed John Brown's methods of arming black men. But his glory is derivative of Brown, just as the moon shines with the reflected light of the sun. With 2009 coming, the bicentennial year of Lincoln's birth, this nation will undoubtedly zealously rehearse the legend of Lincoln's humanitarian greatness even as it eschews and dismisses John Brown.

Perhaps someday the people of the United States will have sufficiently matured in their collective understanding of humanity and human rights to appreciate John Brown. For it is not simply that his "soul goes marching on," but that his soul goes marching in advance of most of our countrymen's understanding. When southerners cried out for secession and slavery, and northerners cried out for compromise and "whites-first" policies, John Brown cried out for freedom and justice for all. Thus, we who celebrate freedom and human equality will proudly celebrate Brown's life and legacy, and continue to express our warm gratitude to those like CORE, who remember his life and render a worthy tribute.

Yours in truth,
Rev. Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., Ph.D.

Author, Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown (NYU Press)
Professor, The Alliance Theological Seminary, New York City
Interim Pastor, Fellowship Chapel, Bronx, New York

May 9, 2006
Jean Libby to Corrine Innis

Dear Ms. Innis -- I would like to add my appreciation for CORE's remembrance of John Brown on the 206th anniversary of his birth to that of my friend and fellow Brown scholar Lou DeCaro, Jr.

Parenthetically I would add my credentials as an active member of CORE, MidPeninsula Branch (California, San Francisco Bay Area) during the Movement (1963 - 1970) and editor of the branch newsletter from 1963 - 1965. My associations from CORE in that period, which include Cozetta Gray Guinn, Henry P. Organ, Cliff Boxley (Sercesh Al-Heter Boxley) and NAACP's Stan Puryear (Muata Weusi-Puryear) on the John Brown Scholars list serve, continue to be meaningful and constructive.

My claim to fame re: John Brown is finding primary evidence supporting the statements by Osborne Anderson and Frederick Douglass that he did have the support of local slaves on October 16 - 18, 1859.

The second area of my research is a chronology of John Brown daguerreotypes, which I can't publish online because the images are owned by historical societies. However, one of the findings was that Brown was in the habit of having his photograph taken on his birthday in early May each year. He would give these daguerreotypes and prints as gifts, including to his wife and children.

One of those gift portraits, to his wife, Mary, was passed down through the family of Lucy Higgins, who was a friend of Sarah Brown in Saratoga, California. Lucy's descendant, Lori Deal, has just donated that photograph and an original letter from John Brown to his wife, Mary, in Akron, Ohio in 1854 to the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Her only receipts for these documents was the promise that the scanned images would be catalogued well and readily available to students and scholars.

Thank you, Lori Deal -- Happy birthday, John Brown!

Jean Libby, editor
John Brown Mysteries 

May 10, 2006
Jean Libby to Bryan Prince

Dear Bryan Prince and scholars,

It is Lori Deal who has done the sharing, by making this historical treasure--it is indeed authentic, with an addressed envelope--available for research through the Bancroft Library. She has done it in the spirit of "John Brown's place in history is a story which still resonates today. It speaks of the passion for freedom and the fight for equality that still raises it voice today." (this is quoting Lori)

I am planning to revise the little pamphlet about John Brown's Family in California that was used as a course reader for a class conducted through the California History Center at De Anza College entitled "Women abolitionists of Santa Clara County."

Lori's great grandmother, Lucy Higgins was (with Sarah and Ellen Brown Fablinger) a progressive woman abolitionist of the late 19th century. One of the family treasures was an original print of Sarah Brown and Lucy Higgins by Alice Hare, a photographer whose work is online at the Bancroft Library. Lucy Higgins and Alice Hare were founders of the Women's Club in Santa Clara, an organization that supported women's rights and and protested the discrimination against Chinese and Japanese workers in the orchards and fields of Santa Clara County. Sarah Brown, who learned Japanese in order to teach English to farm workers, was given a gift of a handmade garden by grateful Issei. Sarah Brown was an orchardist, and some of the trees are still there because her property was next to the Fablingers (sister Ellen Brown). The Fablinger property is the site of the present civic center of Saratoga, California. There is not even an historical marker of this fact!

Lori Deal has given both the Saratoga Historical Foundation and independent scholar Jean Libby permission to publish scans made of the treasures she has donated to the Bancroft Library. Don Armstrong made beautiful scans for her, which was also brought to the Bancroft. I have photographed other materials before they were donated, and accompanied her.

I am planning to include the documented story of the Lucy Higgins and Sarah Brown friendship in the republished work "John Brown's Family in California" -- and the story of the Keesey family that Alice Mecoy wrote to you about yesterday. I interviewed and photographed Alice's grandmother, Beatrice Keesey, in 1976. Alice's father, Paul Keesey, and her brother, Jim, came to the Madronia Cemetery in May, 2000, where Dr. Herbert Aptheker spoke in honor of Mary Brown.

The publisher is Allies for Freedom, who produced John Brown Mysteries in 1999. Allies for Freedom is nonprofit, and it is unfunded. Authors include Hannah N. Geffert (research professor, Shepherd University), Evelyn M.E. Taylor (chair of the landmarks Commission of Charles Town and histories of African American congregations in Jefferson County), Louis S. Diggs (the Baltimore County African American communities historian), Eva Slezak (the African American Room, Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore), Henry P. Organ (longtime civil rights activist, a school board member in San Mateo County, and regular writer on human rights issues), Jimica Akinloye Kenyatta (founder of the NAACP in Charlottesville, curator and designer of exhibitions of African American photographs, artists, in Charles Town and Martinsburg) and Judith Grevious Cephas (active in many organizations in Carter Woodson's original church in Washington D.C. and a resource teacher for gifted students in Maryland), Katherine Bankole of the West Virginia Archives, as well as Jean Libby, editor and publisher (just completed the entry on Technological Transfers for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Africa and the Americas by ABC-CLIO).

If anyone among the scholars who is moved by Lori Deal's generosity and strong, loving compassion for humankind that is manifested in this donation can recommend us to a specific grant source to tell the stories of women abolitionists in Santa Clara County, California, and their families, please do so.

My sincere regards and thanks to all the John Brown scholars,
Jean 1



1. Correspondence, Jean Libby to Afrolumens Project, 10 May 2006.

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This page was updated June 26, 2006.