In Harriet’s Footsteps


Well, sort of.

We know that Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in Dorchester County, MD in 1849 at the age of 27; she later returned to lead many more enslaved people out of bondage.

What we often don’t know is exactly where things happened because these were enslaved people we’re talking about. Even Frederick Douglass’s exact birthplace near Easton, MD is unknown.

This is good to know before you follow the Harriet Tubman Byway on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Whether the Eastern Shore counties are truly trying to atone for the sin of slavery in their parts, or whether the name of Harriet Tubman is a tourist draw, it is sobering to be in the area where the fearless little woman was such a thorn in the white enslavers’ sides.

The Harriet Tubman National Park area is not a sop to tourism. It has been in the works for many years and was supposed to have been finished by now. The latest projected opening date is spring 2017.

My sister and I did most of the 125-mile Byway, which makes a huge circle unless you go to the end near the Delaware border. I had downloaded and put onto CD the free audio guide, which much enhanced the experience. The narrator and actors set the mood wonderfully, even though many of the stops on the Byway were guesstimates of where something might have happened or were “something like” something to do with Harriet Tubman.

We stayed in Cambridge, where the Byway begins, and went first to the Harriet Tubman Museum. The museum is a grass-roots project that is in need of money to help expand the exhibits and its hours (12 to 3 pm). Even so, the tiny storefront has a very good video about Harriet Tubman, murals of her painted by a descendant,, a large collection of children’s books about her, and memorabilia (yes, I got the T-shirt).


During the drive, we saw a one-room schoolhouse, the Stanley Institute, that had been built by black parents after the Civil War for their children and that was used until as late as the 1960s, when Maryland’s schools were desegregated.

We saw Parsons Creek, originally a canal built by enslaved people for Joseph Stewart to float lumber out to the bay to ships. Lumbering was a major business here. Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, worked for Stewart and so did Harriet. It is said that she learned her outdoor and navigational skills during this time. It is also possibly how she became so strong, as she had been a frail child.

We saw the Tuckahoe Neck Quaker meetinghouse, a center of Underground Railroad activity in Caroline County.

We saw the site of another of Harriet’s enslavers, Edward Brodess, in the town of Bucktown. Though she had several enslavers through the years, it was from Brodess’s farm that she escaped.

We saw the restored Bucktown Village Store, at which Harriet got caught in the crossfire and was hit in the head by a two-pound weight that a white man was throwing at his slave. It has been recorded that after this time, Harriet began having visions. This hearkens back to the experience of Julian of Norwich, who began having visions and messages from God after a serious illness.

We saw a restored cabin built by a free black man, James Webb. His enslaved wife and four children were allowed to live here with him. Basically one room with a sleeping loft, it must have seemed like a castle at the time to Mrs. Webb.

wmstillWe were very disappointed not to be able to see the William Still Family Interpretive Center, supposedly located at a 4H Park in Denton, MD. We drove and walked around the 4H Park but couldn’t even find a sign referring to William Still. His name comes up often in the Underground Railroad literature. A free black man, he lived in Philadelphia and was a major conductor on the railroad. His meticulous records helped him publish The Underground Railroad in 1871. That detailed work of the more than 1,000 escapees who passed through his station includes firsthand narratives and is still helping scholars’ research today.

A most poignant note about Mr. Still is that in 1850 his own lost brother, Peter, was one of the men he was assisting. Peter had been sold into slavery in Alabama years before.

Despite the disappointments, though, I’m so glad to have been able to follow Harriet Tubman’s footsteps and will certainly be returning when the National Park in her honor opens. I can’t even express how much I admire this woman, who went on to spy for the Union Army, be involved in the women’s suffrage movement, and opened her home to elderly blacks in Auburn, NY. It seems fitting to end with her own words:

“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”


The Moral Universe – A Sermon for Bloody Sunday, March 8, 2015


I take as my text Exodus: The Ten Commandments

God of wilderness and water, your Son was baptized and tempted as we are. Guide us through this season, that we may not avoid struggle, but open ourselves to blessing, through the cleansing depths of repentance and the heaven-rending words of the Spirit. Amen.

“Heaven-rending words of the Spirit.” For Moses and the Israelites, God’s voice coming out of a thunderstorm saying, “YOU SHALL NOT MURDER,” must indeed have been heaven-rending. Down through the millennia since that literally earth-shaking event, we have been reminded again and again, “YOU SHALL NOT MURDER.” And the response of God’s people has been, of course we won’t murder, since you tell us not to. We believe in you and we want to follow your commandments.

Then Jesus came and turned the commandment upside down; “I give you a new commandment,” he told His disciples the night before His own murder, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone shall know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And once again, for two thousand years followers of Jesus have said, of course we love one another because we believe in you and we want to follow your commandments.

Did we no longer murder? Did we, in fact, love one another, even as Jesus loves us? Or did we continue to murder, not only killing the physical bodies of others, but also killing the spiritual lives of those who didn’t fit into our society.

I hope that everyone knows that this weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, when hundreds of African-Americans were savagely and with impunity beaten by law enforcement officials and their deputized racist thugs for trying to cross a bridge and walk to the state capital in Montgomery.

What irony that that bridge was named for a Confederate general who, during Reconstruction, became grand wizard of a Ku Klux Klan klavern.

Congressman John Lewis and Amelia Boynton, survivors of Bloody Sunday, were on that bridge yesterday with the President. Both were severely injured in 1965; the now 97-year-old Amelia Boynton left for dead until an unknown person carried her to safety and an aid station. Mr. Lewis, 25 years old at the time, was already a survivor of many beatings during efforts to integrate lunch counters and bus stations and then, on March 7, 1965, as a leader of the march, one of the first to be attacked, his skull was fractured.

Though set in the context of the struggle for voting rights for African Americans, the immediate motivation for the march was the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 27-year-old church deacon in Marion, Alabama, who was engaged in a peaceful protest when state troopers attacked. Jimmie and his mother and his grandfather ran in Mack’s Café, hoping to get out of the maelstrom. Two or three troopers stormed the café, threw Jimmie’s grandfather to the floor and started hitting his mother. Jimmie intervened. He was unarmed. He was shot. He died several days later.

Would that we were celebrating this weekend the end of such acts by those who call themselves Christians against people who do not fit into their idea of what society should be.

Would that the Voting Rights Act that came out of Bloody Sunday stood today in its original form instead of having every important nuance removed from it almost a year ago.

Would that Selma has not been reenacted again and again in the last 50 years, yet without liberating legislation arising out of it.

Would that people of faith really believed in the commandment, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, and that white Christians really followed Jesus’ commandment to love one another even as Jesus loves us.

One hopes, no, I know that you don’t have to be a Christian to believe this is wrong. If we only believed this was wrong because we are Christians, we would be very weak Christians indeed. You don’t have to be a Christian to know right from wrong.

But, if we claim to be Christians, then we claim each and every day that we love one another. When we wake up and when we go to bed and every moment in between, we tacitly say that we believe that we should love one another; that we believe Jesus when He told us to heal, to feed, to cloth, to sustain, to nourish body and soul of all those whom society marginalizes.

Yet we have allowed the outrages of history to be committed in our Christian names. The first enslaved Africans were brought to this country in the early 17th century by white Christians. They were sold to white Christians. They were owned by white Christians. They were brutalized by white Christians. They tilled the soil of white Christian plantations and picked the cotton of white Christian fields. After Emancipation, they were tortured and lynched by white Christians, denied economic rights by white Christians, denied housing rights by white Christians and, ultimately, denied life by white Christians.

(At this point, I showed pictures of Jimmy Lee Jackson, George Stinney, Viola Liuzzo, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, and Trayvon Martin.)

The details in the report that came out of Ferguson this week are not peculiar just to Ferguson. Ferguson is a microcosm of cities and towns North and South, East and West, where such abuses are happening.

Did you know that right here in Berkshire County, confederate flag decals are appearing on trucks? Someone is putting them on children’s lockers at Monument Mountain and in other schools in the county.

All of my church life, I have been told that Lent is a time to resist temptation, as Jesus resisted temptation in the wilderness. But what, I have to ask myself, does my not having potato chips for 40 days do for the good of the world? I was also told, in my early catechism, that every time I lied or did not obey my parents or fought with my siblings (these were the stock sins) that Jesus’ cross became heavier. I was never taught to think of myself as a part of history, about collective guilt and collective responsibility and being part of atonement and repentance for the sins of all mankind. Shouldn’t this be as important a part of Lent as giving up meat or not watching TV. Would it not be more worth our while to think of our collective roles in the oppression of a huge population of our country, to ask God for forgiveness for the collective sins of the white race, and to show true repentance by take an active part in righting the wrongs of history?

Implied with the commandment YOU SHALL NOT MURDER is the commandment to do what one can to prevent murder. Implicit with the commandment to love one another as Jesus love us is the commandment to fight against whatever denies that love to another. We cannot obey one commandment without obeying the other.

If we are Christians, then we simply MUST be part of the Beloved Community that early civil rights leaders envisioned. We MUST join hands with everyone who would work to undo the systemic, institutionalized racism that still exists in our country and walk where we have to again and again and again until we do, truly, show that we are Christians by our love.

I chose the Battle Hymn of the Republic as the song of the day because before Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics we know today, the hymn was an homage to John Brown. Frederick Douglass called John Brown the only white man he’d ever met who really saw no difference between himself and a black man. During the Civil War, African-American contrabands who sought the safely of Union regiments starting humming a song about John Brown. The lyrics were made up as they went along, but the melody and the sentiment spread like wildfire among the African-Americans and then to Union soldiers. “His truth” referred to John Brown’s truth that a nation that enslaved people was a nation without a soul. Julia Ward Howe transformed the informal homage into a hymn that captures the thunderstorm out of which God spoke to the Israelites. YOU SHALL NOT MURDER. Amen.

Thomas Wiggins, Musical Prodigy


Jeffrey Renard Allen’s book Song of the Shank is an imagined life of a real person, the 19th-century musical prodigy Thomas Wiggins. It’s a slow-going book, not to be read at a gallop; much of it is stream of conscious, and there are times when it is not clear whose consciousness is streaming.

What makes the book important are the underlying metaphors Mr. Allen engages that depict the different kinds of slavery and imprisonment in which people can be held, mentally, physically, spiritually.
Why should we care about a long-ago musical prodigy? Well, Thomas was African-American, and that alone might make him stand out. In addition, he was born to a slave couple. If that’s not enough to whet the appetite, Thomas was blind and severely autistic.

Blind Tom Wiggins The unvarnished facts of his life, written about by Deirdre O’Connell in The Ballad of Blind Tom as well as on her website devoted to him, are these:

Thomas’s parents, Charity and Domingo, were slaves belonging to a Georgia man named Wiley Jones. Tom was born in 1848, blind and with severe developmental disabilities. According to Ms. O’Connell, Jones did not want to support a useless body and planned to sell the family off one by one. The chances of Tom’s being bought were slim to none, and there was a great likelihood that he would die of neglect.

Tom’s mother asked a neighboring slave owner, General James Bethune, to buy the whole family; on the day of the auction, he did this and life changed for the Wiggins family as well as for the Bethunes.

Without sight, Tom’s senses focused on sound. He had an ability to imitate any sound he heard. He would sneak into the Bethunes’ house and bang on the piano, fascinated by the different notes. He spent a lot of time in the woods, learning nature’s music. General Bethune eventually saw the musical potential of this odd child and brought him into his home to learn to play the piano as well as to learn manners and deportment.

Under the General’s management, Blind Tom, as he became known, performed throughout the state from the age of about 6. When he was eight, traveling showman Perry Oliver became his manager. By advertising his charge as little better than a beast, Oliver was able to boost audiences’ reactions to Tom’s mastery at the piano.

Oliver introduced Tom to many experiences and might seem like the perfect manager if we forget who Tom was and where he came from. Oliver brought Tom to Washington, DC, during the time when the country was in its first spasms of break-up after Abraham Lincoln’s nomination to the Presidency. Hearing the voices in Congress debating abolition and secession, Tom’s mimic abilities allowed him to repeat on stage what he had heard, to audiences’ great delight. After hearing Stephen Douglas at a rally, Tom not only brought his speech to life on stage, but also the cheers and heckling of the audience. Oliver scheduled Tom to perform at benefit concerts for the Confederate cause, and Tom became the first African-American to perform in the White House when President Buchanan invited him there.

After the Civil War began, Tom started composing; at the age of 15 he produced “The Battle of Manassas” (Bull Run), reproducing perfectly the sounds of marching feet, drum and fife, and muskets’ and cannons’ roar. It became famous, and the South believed it was an anthem in the rebel cause.

Tom eventually became a world-renowned phenomenon; Mark Twain and Willa Cather were fans. As might be expected, though, he was still a slave. When not performing, he was locked in hotel rooms. The vast amounts of money his concerts took in were never seen by him or his family, from whom he was entirely estranged. General Bethune’s son had taken over as guardian, and he lived sumptuously on Tom’s earnings. When he died, neither his wife Eliza nor Tom were left anything. Eliza found Charity and brought her to New York to engage in a legal battle for Bethune Jr.’s money; they won the suit, but Eliza dismissed Charity back to the South and she never saw Tom again.

Tom died at the age of 60 from a stroke and was buried in Brooklyn in an unmarked grave. Reportedly a Bethune daughter had his body disinterred and reburied in Georgia, but this has been disputed. There are two plaques for Thomas Wiggins, one in Brooklyn at Evergreen Cemetery and one in Columbus, Georgia.tom poster

Song of the Shank goes underneath all of these facts to present a different way to look at Tom’s life, as well as Charity’s and even Eliza’s. Tom as a toddler was accident prone, and Mr. Allen’s book suggests that these were not really accidents. How did Tom become dunked upside down in a barrel of water, nearly drowning? Were the bruises on his arms and legs a natural result of childhood tumbling or willfully inflicted? Was Tom really born blind, or in his autistic obsessive behavior scratch his own eyeballs to a point where severe infection set in? (I have worked with an autistic man who would bite his own hand to the point of having permanent teeth marks on it; when told “no,” he would beat his face and head.) This self-mutilation suggests that Tom did not want to see the reality of his life, his slavery, and deliberately took away the sense of sight so that he could put all his hope into the sounds of music.

Mr. Allen’s book also suggests that, because Tom did not know what being born black meant, and because he lived with the Bethunes, he became imprisoned in the evil of racism himself. He could tell “niggers” by touch and smell, and disdained them. When reunited with his mother, who despite now being free is in her own prison of guilt about letting Tom be taken away from her, his first instinct is to reject her. He hasn’t the concept of “mother” or “family” any more than he has of right and wrong. As he ages, he becomes overweight, selfish, and demanding, pampered yet locked into rooms.
The novel also introduces free blacks and now-free slaves. One Dr. Wire, the pastor and head of a Home for African Orphans on an island off New York, feels guilt that he has never suffered the way the freed slaves on the island have. How does he pastor to them when he has not experienced what they have been through? How does he pastor to the black soldiers who, after the Civil War, have encamped on Central Park because their service has now been forgotten and unrewarded?

And what about those freed slaves? How does someone who for most of their lives has done and said and often thought only what they were told to become their own person, a free person? What do you do with this freedom when you are looked down upon even by Northern Negroes? How do you begin to understand the wider world – American issues relating to Russia and China and England and France – when you never knew these places existed? How to comprehend it all?

Song of the Shank asks many, many difficult questions. Do we need to ask ourselves, let alone answer, such questions in the 21st century? Yes, says a reviewer in The New York Times. It is our history, and we have still not come to terms with it. We now living, white and black, are imprisoned by our history, and we won’t leave that prison until we look the ramifications of slavery squarely in the face. Books such as Song of the Shank can help us do that.


The Moral Universe – Slavery and Faith


Eternal Spirit,




Source of all that is and is to be,

Father and Mother of us all,

Heavenly God, in whom is Heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the Universe!

Your way of justice be followed by all the peoples of the world!

Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!

With the bread we need for today, feed us.

In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.

From trials too great to endure, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love.

From The New Zealand (Anglican) Prayer Book

The New Zealand Prayer Book was rewritten in the early 1990s in order to be inclusive and use language that would be relevant to the native Maori population. In the service material in the prayer book, English is on one page and the Maori language on the other. This version of The Lord’s Prayer speaks to me in a way that few other formal prayers do. I say it every day and, as I was mulling over my next posting, the sentence “Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!” shouted in my ear.

I knew I wanted to address the deep Christian faith of so many parts of the African-American community and how wondrous it is to me that people whose forebears suffered so much in this country, and who themselves must certainly know the pain of discrimination or worse, could be such faithful people. How could an enslaved people have set down the beginnings of some of the most beautiful church music ever written, as well as several types of popular music that have proven to be enduring? Since Emancipation, the black church has been known for its vibrancy and its very real authenticity in its relation to God.

And I thought, perhaps it is the idea of a commonwealth (ie a place where the common good is practiced) that has sustained their hope. We know it sustained Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was his dream, peace and freedom, and he gave his life trying to bring it to earth.

And I wondered, how did slaves become Christians? Who, on a plantation where life was as grim as it could be, would dare to tell people of the unconditional, eternal love of Jesus Christ? And how could slaves have believed it?

I pulled out The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois to see whether he wrote on this subject. And he did, in the chapter “Of Faith and the Fathers.”

AfricaWriting in the first years of the 20th century, DuBois reminds us that “the social history of the Negro did not start in America.” Africans who were brought here in chains had been part of complex societies that were ruled by the chief and the priest.

“His religion was nature-worship, with profound belief in invisible surrounding influences, good and bad, and his worship was through incantation and sacrifice.” Though the new rule of life in plantations saw ties of kinship disappear, a depth of learning from the old stories stayed within slaves and, DuBois says, someone would rise up as a priest or medicine-man within the slave community. Perhaps because families were torn apart, with a mother sent in one direction, father in another, and perhaps children in a third, it became even more important to depend upon the faith of the fathers to get one through the day.

“Thus, within the narrow limits allowed by the slave system, rose the Negro preacher, and under him the first Afro-American institution, the Negro church,” wrote DuBois.

It wasn’t a Christian church at first, but the rites and rituals were familiar and certainly paved the way for those who yearned for the transcendent to be absorbed into Christianity. If plantation owners gave any kind of Christian education to their slaves, it was as a way of keeping them passive and easier to control. As DuBois says, “The long system of repression and degradation of the Negro tended to emphasize the elements in his character which made him a valuable chattel: courtesy became humility, moral strength degenerated into submission, and the exquisite native appreciation of the beautiful became an infinite capacity for dumb suffering.”

With the rising abolition movement and then Emancipation, DuBois says, it must have seemed to the freedman as if the day of the Lord had come. However, when Jim Crow came instead, many, many freedmen continued to look to the Lord for deliverance and created a liberation theology. The faith of the fathers did not die, but brought an oppressed people into the 20th and now 21st centuries.

Falling Upward

Franciscan Richard Rohr, who has written many books about the deepest forms of spiritual practice, says in Falling Upward that, in effect, the truest, most mature faith comes out of having known suffering. Moving through pain brings us to a level of development where we are more readily able to commune with the divine inside and outside of us. A lot of traditional Negro Spirituals reflect this philosophy, and those spirituals influenced the poetry of the great black poets such as Langston Hughes.

There is a scene in the movie Amistad that, aside from the horrific scenes of the kidnapping of the Africans, has stuck with me over many years. Yumba has been given a Bible and sits in the courtroom day after day looking at the pictures. Cinque, the leader of the revolt, scoffs at him. But Yumba explains what he has learned from the pictures. When Cinque sees the picture of Jesus with His crown of thorns, he says, “Well, he must have committed some crime!” Yumba answers him, “Why? What did we do?” Then he looks back at a picture of the Ascension and talks about dying. All the fear has drained from his face and he smiles. By looking at the pictures over and over again, he has learned the very essence of Jesus’ message: Death has no victory over you. Live a righteous life and be not afraid.

This is not to romanticize suffering for suffering’s sake. Much personal suffering comes from not being able to move past a coping mechanism that was useful at one time but is no longer needed. Suffering that comes from outside one, though, that is inflicted by other human beings in an institutional way, is grotesque and obscene. Which makes it all the more miraculous that Emancipation was not followed by a bloodbath of revenge on the part of the freed slaves, but by yearning for education and land in order to sustain themselves. Faith must have played a very large part in encouraging freed men and women to persist in the fight for civil rights that still to this day have not been fully granted.

The Moral Universe – Slavery and the Second Amendment


So what does the Second Amendment, which gun rights advocates claim enforces their right to carry their guns, have to do with slavery?

It starts with New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, a passionate advocate of sensible gun laws. Mr. Nocera keeps a weekly tally of shooting incidents on a blog, and the numbers are mind-boggling.

His op-ed column last week was about a new book by Michael Waldman called The Second Amendment: A Biography. The book came out, with horrible irony, three days before Elliot Rodger went on his killing spree in California.

From what Mr. Nocera writes, Mr. Waldman set out to discern how an Amendment that for 200 years was taken to refer to militias has been subverted to refer to an individual’s gun rights since the 1970s. The book pretty much underscores what many gun-control advocates have been saying for years: that the Second Amendment does not have anything to do with private rights to own and carry, openly or otherwise, guns of any kind.

Why are we, as a society, willing to put up with mass shootings as the price we must pay for the right to carry a gun? – Joe Nocera

The amendment, according to Waldman, is strictly about the duty of a state to have “a well-regulated militia” and to be ready to serve when necessary. That was how the Amendment was read until the 1970s when, Waldman claims, the National Rifle Association was taken over by what he calls “Second Amendment fundamentalists.” Mr. Nocera points out that in 1972 the Republican Party favored gun control laws, but that by 1980 the NRA was endorsing Ronald Reagan for President (the first time it had endorsed a Presidential candidate), and the Republican platform was opposed to gun registration laws.

“A surprising discovery that Waldman found and points out in his book is that there was less debate on the Second Amendment by the framers of the Bill of Rights than any other amendment in it. In the little debate that there was, there was no mention of a citizen’s right to keep guns for any reason whatsoever, and the Amendment passed easily,” writes Mr. Nocera.

Here is where slavery comes in, according to a blogger who calls himself Mike the Mad Biologist. The blogger asserts that the Second Amendment arose directly out of the need to maintain slavery.

Mike argues that the Southern delegates were terrified that the new Constitution would do away with slave patrols. Patrick Henry, a Virginian, he says, argued that if there were a slave insurrection, the Southern states would have to go to Congress for permission to put it down. Heretofore those states had all had their own militias organized to keep an eye out for any kind of slave revolt. If the states had no say in the matter, their hands would be tied by free states who wanted to see an end to slavery.

 …slavery can only exist in the context of a police state, and the enforcement of that police state was the explicit job of the militias. – Mike the Mad Biologist

The reason for so little debate on the Amendment, Mike says in effect, was that without Virginia’s delegates, the Amendment would not have been ratified at all. This is why, he says, it refers to state militias rather than a federal militia. “The real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it says “State” instead of “Country” (the Framers knew the difference – see the 10th Amendment), was to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote,” he writes.

Does it have the ring of truth? I think it does, but one can’t help but wonder why Mr. Waldman’s research did not go into this aspect. He is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, which implies pretty good credentials.

Whichever way it goes, the argument that has been stated outright by gun rights advocates that their right to guns outweighs a community’s right to not be shot down is tantamount to the South’s argument that its right to own slaves trumps the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “all men are created equal.”

It is no coincidence that many of the gun rights folks that have been in the news call themselves militia and believe themselves not to be governed by the laws of the land. It is also no coincidence, to me, that most of the Internet postings I see about gun rights are written by members of the Tea Party, which have blatantly shown their racism since the creation of that party after President Obama’s election.

And finally, it is no coincidence that it is the extreme right justices of the Supreme Court who have been disabling gun control as well as voter rights, which hurts minorities most of all, since at least 2008 (hmm, why is that year significant?) in Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion in the court’s decision to strike down gun control laws in the District of Columbia.

That’s the bottom line for me. What’s yours?

You can read both Joe Nocera’s column and Mike the Mad Biologist’s blog at these links:

The Moral Universe – In Honor of the Birthday of John Brown, May 9, 1800


john brownThe original last line of what became the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was “His soul is marching on!” and was referring to John Brown, not Jesus Christ.

It was black soldiers who started singing about the executed abolitionist, according to David Reynolds’ biography of John Brown. There were many different versions but the same melody until Julia Ward Howe turned it into, basically, a white religious anthem. Stirring and beautiful as it is, it may have helped to bury the story of John Brown and the reverence in which he was held by African-Americans. Many portrayals of him in history books and textbooks in the century after his execution portray him as a fanatic, a self-absorbed maniac, and a misguided martyr.

To former slaves and freedmen, he was the only white person in whose sincerity they believed. Frederick Douglass met and worked with hundreds of white men and women, and yet he said that only with John Brown did he feel he had an authentic relationship of equals; Douglass called Brown “in sympathy a black man.”

In the introduction of W.E.B. Du Bois’s biography of John Brown, David Roediger writes: “In 1938, W.E.B. Du Bois remembered the years during which he wrote John Brown as a period of deep personal transformation. He specifically recalled 1906, when his growing political activism had led him to Harper’s Ferry, ‘the scene of John Brown’s raid.’ Members of the Niagara Movement, a recently formed African American group planning civil rights protests, had gathered there. According to Du Bois, they ‘made pilgrimage at dawn barefooted to the scene of Brown’s martyrdom [and] talked some of the plainest English that had been given voice by black men in America.”

Mr. Roediger goes on to cite Malcolm X and James Baldwin as 20th century admirers of the 19th century abolitionist. He relates the story that Baldwin was once asked which candidate he was going to vote for for President; Baldwin replied, “John Brown.” Baldwin also wrote of John Brown, “He attacked the bastions of the federal government – not to liberate black slaves but to liberate a whole country from a disastrous way of life.”

Many abolitionists of the Northeast, though no doubt sincere in their wish to see the end of slavery, could not help but treat African-Americans in a paternalistic way. While they wanted slavery to go away, having blacks on an equal footing was another story. Only Brown was able to live with blacks, and Native Americans, as a true equal.

A renewed interest in John Brown has seen the publication of new biographies of him, such as Reynolds’; a short overview of his activities in Kansas and Harper’s Ferry, Midnight Rising, by Tony Horwitz, and two novels about him: Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks is a fictionalized memoir by Owen Brown, who deserted his father’s cause at Harper’s Ferry; The Good Lord Bird by James McBride is a picaresque tale  of a young black slave whom Brown plucked from his master and took with him on his adventures. Recalling Twain, the book delivers a deeper message under some high comedy and searing tragedy. It won the National Book Award in 2013.

Perhaps John Brown was a fanatic. It is sure that he was a deeply religious man of Calvinist persuasion. His belief in the equality of all people, including women, however, does not square what we think of when we say “Calvinism.” He did believe he had a God-given destiny to fulfill and that that destiny was to put an end to slavery or die trying. His master plan to do that by taking the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, gathering up slaves from surrounding communities, and establishing free-black communities in the mountains may have seemed doomed (Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman could not, in the end, support the plan), tragically naïve, and suicidal. Yet there were many who believed, as I do now, that slavery would not have ended when it did if not for his actions. Politicians who were not necessarily abolitionists but also not in favor of slavery believed that slavery would die out of its own accord by 1900. Brown’s few months in prison before his execution were even more propitious for an earlier end to the abominable institution. His death on the gallows indicted the American nation, and from that time on, the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation were foreordained.

In 1859, when Brown’s raid took place, Harper’s Ferry was part of the state of Virginia. During the Civil War, the southwest part of Virginia seceded from the secessionists and became the state of West Virginia. It is a beautiful little village with breathtaking views of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers coming together. The people are very friendly there, and much of the town is part of the National Parks Service. The railroad station that was an integral part of the Brown raid now serves commuters to Washington, DC.


Dangerfield Newby was a freed slave who was still trying to get his wife and children free at the time of his death. His letters to his wife are heart-breaking.


Lewis Leary’s widow, Mary, remarried and became the grandmother of poet Langston Hughes.

North Elba, New York, today thought of as Lake Placid, is also a National Parks Service site of John Brown’s farm. A huge tract of land in the Adirondacks was given to free blacks and Brown by abolitionist Gerrit Smith to establish a free community. The farmstead still stands, and it is here that John Brown is buried. Most movingly, his family was able to gather the bodies of all who were executed with him or died at Harper’s Ferry, and in death as in life, Brown abides with black and white men. There are the sons who died in the firehouse, Watson and Oliver; and Brown’s “League of Gileadites”: William and Dauphin Thompson, Aaron Stevens, Albert Hazlett, Stewart Taylor, John Kagi, William Leeman, Dangerfield Newby, and Lewis Leary. Fifteen hundred people attended the interment when their remains were laid to rest.

The John Brown Museum in Harper’s Ferry is arranged as a series of tableaus from Brown’s life. It is in a narrow house and once you enter, you are in a sort of labyrinth. I went through it alone one morning in 2012, struck by the way each tableau of waxen figures and 19th century materials, told a whole story itself. Then I came to the last story, John Brown being led up the steps of the gallows. As I stared at the scene, his head suddenly moved upward and piercing blue eyes stared at me. The shock stunned me, and in disorientation I followed the maze back to ground level to check with the attendant that this was not a weird vision on my part. It wasn’t, but I can still picture that and recall John Brown’s last written words and prophecy:

“I, John Brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

Postscript: Apart from the importance of the story of John Brown, his story is full of historic trivia. Ulysses S. Grant’s father, as a young man, had lodged with Brown’s father’s family in Ohio. John Brown’s father was one of the first trustees of Oberlin College. In his work for the Underground Railroad, John Brown worked with Allan Pinkerton, the eponymous detective whose logo for his agency, a triangle with an eye in the middle of it, became the source of the term “private eye.” It was Pinkerton whose detective work found and foiled a conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on his way to Washington, D.C., after his election. The commanding federal officer at Harper’s Ferry was Robert E. Lee, and a witness to Brown’s downfall there was John Wilkes Booth, who had thought it would be great fun to borrow a militia uniform and get in on the action.