LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — John Brown, the 19th-century abolitionist who advocated armed violence, is drawing a diverse crowd this week to study how his fight against slavery continues to play in America.
A former Vietnam-era radical, a victim of human trafficking and an award-winning author are joining academics, activists and a descendant of the anti-slavery leader for a two-day symposium. The event commemorates the sesquicentennial of Brown's 1859 burial at his former Adirondack homestead just outside this tourist village in northern New York.
Organizers say the symposium, on Friday and Saturday, will examine the impact of Brown's fight against slavery on America then and how it reverberates today. Speakers include Bernardine Dohrn, one of the best-known leaders of the 1960s radical group the Weather Underground; Maria Suarez, a Mexican immigrant who was virtually enslaved by a Southern California man after being lured to work for him in 1976; Russell Banks, author of the fictional Brown biography "Cloudsplitter"; and Alice Keesey Mecoy, a Brown descendant.
The goal of the event isn't to glorify Brown, organizer Naj Wikoff said.
"We're trying to get people to take a look at the use of violence in our country – why American culture uses violence to achieve an end," Wikoff said.
Brown was hanged for treason on Dec. 2, 1859, at Charles Town in what was then part of Virginia, a few miles from Harpers Ferry, where he led an ill-fated raid on the federal arsenal earlier that fall. The attack failed, but it pushed the nation closer to the civil war that erupted nearly two years later. He was buried six days later.
Margaret Washington, a Cornell University history professor who's a keynote speaker at Saturday's session, called Brown a "very significant catalyst of change, radical change."
"He represents the positive, in the sense that he was an abolitionist and egalitarian, and he also represents aspects of our culture that we wish were not there," she said. "And that is the violence and the idea that the only way you're going to bring change to humanity is to strike out violently."
The Connecticut-born Brown was raised in Ohio and pursued various jobs before moving with his family in 1849 to New York's Adirondack Mountains. Here, they joined a community of former black slaves who had settled in the town of North Elba, where the village of Lake Placid was later established.
Brown left New York in the 1850s to join anti-slavery forces in Kansas. While there, he led attacks that included the slayings of five pro-slavery leaders in what became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre. Brown returned to his North Elba potato farm, where he hatched his plan to spark a slave rebellion in the South by seizing the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and arming the slaves.
Brown's raid began on Oct. 16, 1859, when his force of 21 armed men took hostages inside the arsenal. The bloody assault ended two days later when U.S. Marines led by then-Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee captured a wounded Brown and 10 of his followers.
Brown went on trial that month, was convicted of treason and was executed. He had asked to be buried on his New York farm, and his body arrived in North Elba on Dec. 7. His body was laid out in a wooden coffin placed in his homestead's front room, where the original floorboards and some furnishings remain today.
Two of his sons, both killed at Harpers Ferry, lie in adjacent graves, along with the remains of nine fellow raiders.
Northern abolitionists considered Brown a martyr, while in the South he was reviled as a fanatic who tried to foment a slave insurrection.
"He stands out in the pantheon of rare white people who managed to stand up, really, by putting their lives on the line in the name of black liberation – in this case, an end to slavery," said Dohrn, who founded the Weathermen in the late 1960s with husband Bill Ayers.
The radical group claimed credit for explosions at the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon and more. In 1970, a bomb the group was making to use against an Army base exploded at a New York town house, killing three members. Dohrn surfaced in 1980 and later pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated battery and two counts of bail-jumping in connection with a 1969 anti-Vietnam war protest. She now heads the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University.
Symposium speaker Mecoy is a great-great-great-granddaughter of Brown, who fathered 20 children with two wives. The 50-year-old Texan said her family kept its link to Brown a secret while she was growing up.
"Our line is not real big on talking about the connection," she said. "You either consider him an evil man or a saint."
The symposium and a burial re-enactment are among the final events marking the Harpers Ferry raid's 150th anniversary in New York, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
On the Net:
John Brown commemoration: http://www.johnbrowncominghome.com
John Brown Farm: http://nysparks.state.ny.us/historic-sites/29/details.aspx