The Historical Legacy of Old John Brown

Members of United Youth of Boston, an activist youth organization, addressed the text book for the 11th grade American history classes.

They used the method of People’s History as their starting point.

We are examining, in this essay, the role of John Brown in American history. Any examination of the importance of an individual in social events or movements is of value to the extent that it is done for the purpose of better understanding the social events and movements. Important historical figures, great political leaders, and people whose impact was important enough to examine, usually become important to students of history because such examination will give us more clarity about the social atmosphere, the social forces pulling and pushing this or that era and determining the main content of the character of the given society.

This study came up for this group because one of its members was reading his history text one day, when he came across a “section” on John Brown. The textbook for all high school American History classes in the Boston Public Schools at that time (1996) was a book called the American Pageant. In fact, this had been the same textbook, unedited over time, for the last twenty years.

The student, Angelo Herndon, had been told numerous stories about the colossal figure of John Brown by his parents and grandparents. In its examination of the period leading up the “The Civil War,” The text spent one paragraph on this titanic historical figure. Angelo was upset. His parents were upset. When he brought this issue to his youth organization, there were other members of the group who had much more than one paragraph of information on this person because their elders had taught them.

At this juncture the group, led by Angelo, took up a full blown research of the role of this person’s activity in the history of this country.

We are not examining John Brown as a personality, nor do we endeavor to do a psychoanalysis of him. We will not try to read his mind, nor go into individual quirks of character. John Brown was an extremely important figure in American history. He was a great leader, and the present work will document his role as a reflection of one of the most democratic impulses among the American people in the history of this country — that is, the movement to abolish slavery. The Abolitionist Movement has indelibly influenced the basic nature of American society and we are examining John Brown because his social/political life was a reflection of the most clear and directed efforts of this movement, and therefore is an example of the greatest impact which this movement had on American society.

The group went through exhaustive political science tracts from scholars such as John Hope Franklin (2002), W.E.B. Du Bois (2001), Eric Williams (1994) and Walter Rodney, and activists such as Malcolm X (1992) , Frederick Douglass, Truman Nelson (2009) and Osborne Anderson (2000). They also conducted “field research.” They interviewed their elders; they spoke with elders in the community who had stories passed down from one generation to the other about John Brown.

They discovered that he represented the most committed, devoted and tireless of the anti-slavery population, White or Black. He distinguished himself among White freedom fighters as the most willing to organize the dispensation of arms to the beleaguered slave population. In concert with the most revolutionary sections of the Black population “Osawatomie Brown” brought his guerrilla group to the town of Osawatomie, Kansas, defeated the slave holders in battle, freed the slaves, armed them, and organized them into a guerrilla army.

As a leader he brought with him devoted White people who voluntarily became a part of the revolutionary uprising against slavery. Again, as the story of Brown unfolded, the freedom movement of a people unfolded before our researchers’ eyes. Far from being a savior who came in from heaven to rescue a helpless people, Brown’s leadership consisted of standing shoulders-to-shoulder with the revolutionary wing of the slave population who were rising up to destroy the evil system which relegated millions of people to labor as beasts of burden, millions who were regarded as nothing more than objects of labor- — not regarded as human beings.

John Brown’s goal was to eliminate slavery. His strategy was based on relying on White people of integrity and on the Black people, especially the slaves themselves. Tactically he believed that parliamentary activity was of no use, as the politicians were not concerned with solving the problem.

The wisdom of this strategy and tactics is proven by the fact that the Civil War to end slavery ensued immediately upon the close of his attack on Harper’s Ferry [a guerrilla raid designed to capture and distribute thousands of weapons to the slaves and set up a mountain strong-hold free state]. In particular, the Southern slavers were terrified at the prospect of a [generalized] slave revolt that would be supported by Northern Whites — by these Northern Whites giving up their lives for the freedom of the slaves.


“Virginia did not tremble at an old gray-headed man a Harper’s Ferry; they trembled at a John Brown in every man’s conscience.” (Wendell Phillips at the occasion of the hanging of John Brown)

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After establishing the place of Brown’s activity in historical perspective in their study, “The Historical Legacy of Old John Brown,” which they published in their newspaper, United Youth of Boston, they then zeroed in on their text book. Early on Angelo pointed out that the textbook, again while devoting one paragraph to the greatest of the White anti-slavery fighters, spent dozens of pages defending the slave system! “…There are, to be sure, sadistic monsters in any population…. But for financial as well as humane reasons, the typical planter did not customarily go out and beat to death a valuable field had before breakfast.”

It does not occur to our “historians” that the act of reducing a human to the status of a thing, when carried out society-wide, constitutes a “sadistic” and “monstrous” social order.

When discussing the anti-slavery movement in general the American Pageant asks the question: “When is evil so enormous that it must be denounced, even at the risk of precipitating bloodshed and butchery?”

Nowhere in the text has the slave system itself been described as “butchery,” yet when speaking of the movement to end slavery this is the paramount adjective ascribed to the latter.

It is in light of this perspective, at once apologetic and sympathetic to the slavers, that our text takes up the “analysis” of the giant figure of Old John Brown. John Brown was, according to tour text book, a “fanatical figure” who was “narrowly ignorant….” His raid of a Kansas slave plantation in which he freed the slaves and killed the slave owners is characterized in these terms: “This fiendish butchery, clearly the product of a deranged mind, besmirched the free-soil cause…”

From here our worthy historians turn into psychiatrists and apparently did an investigation into Brown’s family psycho-history: “Thirteen of his near relations were regarded as insane, including his mother and grandmother. Governor Wise of Virginia would have been most wise… if he had only clapped the culprit into a lunatic asylum….” (American Pageant)

So here we have a man who was regarded by the upstanding White social activists of his time as the most committed, virtuous and selfless of the anti-slavery fighters, by Africans in America as the single most heroic figure among the White population, characterized by my text book as a “lunatic,” a “culprit,” and a “butcher.”

Why, we must ask, has this text book failed to quote any African American sources on the figure of John Brown? In fact, in the 23 page chapter in which the preparation for civil war and John Brown (one paragraph) are studied we are offered no African American authors in the over 40 authors suggested for “Selected Readings.”

Our young activists conclude with this challenge to their overseers in the Boston Public Schools:

In today’s world, when it is of the utmost importance that African American youth be given information that helps us to fight for our freedom, any professor, school administrator, teacher or parent who sits and does nothing about a text book that is so manifestly prejudiced against our basic need for liberation is no different than those who stood by, arms folded, during slavery times and let the John Browns of the world do all the work.

The Empire Strikes Back After publishing this article in their newspaper the youth received a three page letter from none other than the author of the American Pageant, Mr. David M. Kennedy, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University. While this professor spent most of the letter defending his original version — that is, he continued to defend slavery — he praised the students, invited the main author to come to school at Stanford, and finally he admitted that he needed to rewrite the chapter (for the first time in twenty years!)

“…your piece … has caused me to take up with my new co-author (professor Elizabeth Cohen of New York University) a discussion of our entire treatment of slavery and the Civil War in the forthcoming edition…”

By honoring their experience with their elders, by honoring People’s History as passed down from grandmother to granddaughter, these young people were able to transform the American History textbook for the Boston Public Schools, which today is less offensive, contains a little more of the truth, and is less of an exercise in insult and torture than it was before these young people took action.