Written by V. Chapman-Smith,
Regional Administrator, National Archives at Philadelphia
2009 marks the 150th Anniversary of the Harpers Ferry Raid (October 16th) and the hanging of John Brown (December 2). This year is also the 160th Anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s flight to freedom and arrival in Philadelphia. Harriet Tubman and John Brown were both contemporaries and colleagues in the struggle to end slavery and bring equality to black people. John Brown reverently called Tubman “General,” while his men, Tubman, and others called him “Captain Brown”. Both individuals rooted their work in a strong spirituality and framed their efforts as “God’s work.” The two greatly admired each other, and if not for other circumstances, Tubman would have been with Brown at Harpers Ferry. Tubman nonetheless helped Brown with recruitment and some tactical planning. As a result of this ill-fated raid, John Brown became one of the most controversial figures of 19th Century America, viewed as a fanatic by some and a martyr by others, while Harriet Tubman was largely consecrated as a heroine in the American freedom struggle.
U.S. Marines storming the armoury at Harpers Ferry, Va. (now in West Virginia), after its capture by abolitionist John Brown on Oct. 18, 1859.
While the Harpers Ferry Raid is a landmark event, what is not always widely presented or discussed is the connection of the Raid to the larger African American experience in Philadelphia or the meaning of the Raid to black Americans and their allies in the city before the Civil War. No other white abolitionist worked as closely or as intimately with blacks as John Brown did. By the early 1850’s Brown’s credibility and relationship within the black world was solidly established. During the first fifty years of his life, Brown helped finance the publication of David Walker’s Appeal and Henry Highland’s “Call to Rebellion” speech. He gave land to fugitive slaves. He and his wife agreed to raise a black youth as one of their own. He also participated in the Underground Railroad and, in 1851, helped establish the League of Gileadites, an organization that worked to protect escaped slaves from slave catchers. In 1849, Brown moved to the black community of North Elba, New York, established with the philanthropy of Gerrit Smith, who donated tracts of at least 50 acres to black families willing to clear and farm the land. Brown, knowing that many of the families were finding life in this isolated area difficult, offered to establish his own farm there as well, to assist the developing black community.
In the eyes of a majority of black Americans both Brown and Tubman were viewed in much the same way: as front line soldiers for freedom and equality. This was particularly true in Philadelphia. As the largest free black community in the North before the Civil War, Philadelphia became an important center for black political and social life in America, as well as a major hub in the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad. It is within this context that Brown and Tubman loomed as large figures and symbols, and their stories are connected in this region through their allies and supporters. Tubman arrived in Philadelphia from Maryland in 1840 and found allies in the abolitionist community who helped her as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. William Still’s diary even marks the day that Tubman brings members of her family to Philadelphia from one of her many trips back to the slave south. John Brown and his family also had allies and supporters among such blacks leaders and notables as Robert Purvis, William Still, Thomas J. Dorsey (caterer), David Bustill Bowser (painter), Elizabeth Greenfield (known as the Black Swan), and Shiloh Baptist’s Rev. Jeremiah Asher, as well as white abolitionists such as Unitarian minister William H. Furness, Presbyterian minister James Miller McKim (a Union League founder), and Lucretia and James Mott. Brown spent time in Philadelphia in the years between “Bleeding Kansas” and the Harpers Ferry Raid, staying in homes of black abolitionists such as painter David Bustill Bowser and engaging in discussion with individuals like William Still.
With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the years 1856-59 became a time of great national tensions over slavery and abolition; however, following the Raid in 1859 it became an even more contentious and bad time for abolitionists, particularly in Philadelphia. Acts of compassion and support for John Brown drew the anger of pro-slavery forces and also boiled up concerns from those who abhorred the use of violence. Philadelphia’s “good” citizens, numbering over 20,000, came out to voice their solidarity with the actions of the State of Virginia and support for the South. Conversely, these actions drew the concern of abolitionists. Members of the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia began coming to church armed with pistols out of fear of being attacked by proslavery forces during church services.
Despite the mounting dangers, the black community in Philadelphia and abolitionists, both black and white, took on honoring Brown and his men, as well as providing support for Brown’s wife, Mary. Following the failed Raid and while waiting to hear word of her husband’s fate, Mary Brown stayed in the homes of several sympathetic Philadelphians, among them Thomas Dorsey and Lucretia and John Mott. Multiple Philadelphians also attended the hanging to give support and comfort to Mary Brown and accompanied her in transporting her husband’s body via Philadelphia to New York State. Blacks in the city observed his execution day as “Martyr Day” by draping their homes and businesses in black and participating in public prayer meetings at Shiloh Baptist and Union Baptist. Black abolitionist Robert Purvis spoke in praise of Brown at a gathering at National Hall with William Furness, who had met Brown’s body at the Broad and Washington train depot along with many black Philadelphians.
In the years following, black Philadelphians and white reformers (who included former abolitionists and those supporting the Equal Rights Leagues and Reconstruction) continued to honor Brown and to give ongoing support to his family with tribute concerts, and Emancipation Day commemorations. Painter David Bustill Bowser created one of the earliest memorial portraits of Brown, which is now held by the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia. Bowser’s work is among the first of a long line of black artists’ memorials to John Brown extending into the 20th Century. In 1902, Eden Cemetery created the John Brown and Harriet Tubman sections at the historic black burial ground.
These and other historical connections demonstrate that the Harpers Ferry Raid 150th Anniversary is a meaningful time for Philadelphians. It provides a moment for us to discover and explore these stories, as well as other little or unknown aspects of the defining years before the Civil War. It also offers us an important opportunity to gain greater understanding of our region’s place in the national narrative around race and slavery, the legacy of which still lingers today.
‘Yes, sir; I am the man who saved Fred. Douglass’ life when Old John Brown was captured at Harper’s Ferry. I suppressed a dispatch addressed to the sheriff of Philadelphia, instructing him to arrest Douglass, who was then in that city, as proofs of his complicity in the memorable raid were discovered when John Brown was taken into custody.’
‘At that time I was a telegraph operator located in Philadelphia,’ continued Mr. Hurn, ‘and when I received the dispatch I was frightened nearly out of my wits. As I was an ardent admirer of the great ex-slave, I resolved to warn Douglass of his impending fate, no matter what the result might be to me. The news had just been spread throughout the country of the bold action of John Brown in taking Harper’s Ferry. Everybody was excited and public feeling ran high. Before the intelligence came that Brown had been captured, the dispatch I have mentioned was sent by the sheriff of Franklin county, Penn., to the sheriff of Philadelphia, informing him that Douglass had been one of the leading conspirators, and requesting that he should be immediately apprehended.’
‘Though I knew it was illegal to do so, I quietly put the dispatch in my pocket, and, asking another operator to take my place, started on my search for Fred. Douglass…’
Frederick Douglass (photo) and statement by John White Hurn ca. 1860-1861, Philadelphia from the book by Jean Libby, which is a catalogue of the exhibit currently up at the National Archives of Phila.
“Some 1800 years ago, Christ was crucified. This morning, Captain Brown was hung. He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light.”