We often celebrate extraordinary people, but often it is the ordinary person who does the extraordinary that really deserves our praise the most. And sometimes they are the most ordinary of ordinary people.
The young men who gathered in Harpers Ferry, and women related by birth or marriage to John Brown, as well as African-American women, names not on any honor roll or for whom books and statues were never made, meet that test.
They had a sense of duty that in many ways is hard to comprehend.
Author Russell Banks reads John Brown’s statement prior to the abolitionist’s Dec. 2, 1859 hanging during the John Brown Day ceremony Saturday, May 10 at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site. (Photo — Naj Wikoff)
Not the duty of a cop, or a fireman, or a soldier, or some other who has signed on for a high-risk occupation in service of the public welfare, but of the everyday person who plants seeds in the garden, churns milk into butter, spins wool, or teaches kids how to read and write who felt they had a duty to sacrifice everything they hold most dear to free from bondage another whom they have never met.
This May's well-attended celebration of John Brown organized by Martha Swan, director of John Brown Lives!, had a richness and a depth rarely matched. The events truly began down at the Tannery Pond Community Center in North Creek, the closest community venue of any size to Minerva, where Solomon Northrup was born. He was the free black who authored "12 Years a Slave," a harrowing account of his abduction and forced servitude on a Louisiana plantation that served as the basis of an Academy Award-winning film this year. Here activities began with a screening of the film last Friday morning at Northwood School that was attended their students and others from the National Sports Academy and several area public schools.
"The film was hard to watch," said Northwood student Rachel Raffield. "It makes me feel really sad. You can read about slavery and hear stories about it, but to actually watch it, when you watch the skin breaking on Patsy's back, it's moving. It's such an awful thing, and it's not even the half of it that we see. It makes me think how awful it is for the young girls in Nigeria. They have been taken from their families. They don't know when's the next time they will see them, if ever. Solomon was lucky in that he got a chance to go back to his family, and that's unlikely to happen for those poor girls."
Strong stuff echoing a post-screening discussion that evening led by SUNY Plattsburgh professor J.W. Wiley, director of the Center for Diversity. On Saturday morning, Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz led a workshop at Heaven Hill Farm for educators on how to use as teaching tools source materials about John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry and letters written by his raiders and their loved ones.
"I brought letters from raiders found in archives over the years that provided a new perspective as to why these young men were willing to make such a sacrifice," said Laughlin-Schultz. "They were true believers. They write these eloquent letters before and after the raid, those who were captured and those who escaped, talking about their willingness to make the sacrifice for liberty. Only one of them is above the age of 30, besides John Brown. They are from a variety of places, Iowa, Kansas, New England, and here in Lake Placid. The most moving part of the John Brown story is that these young men knew what they were doing. They write how they were willing to sacrifice themselves. They used words like duty, and they mean it in a way that we do not - that we find hard to accept. I have to do this. I cannot live in a world where slavery exists unless I do something about it. John Brown would say everybody is the same. He would say that he would make the same sacrifice for the person he doesn't know who is in the cotton fields in the deep South as for his own child. That is an interesting and mindboggling thought, and he acted on those beliefs."
As an illustration, that afternoon at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid, Renan Salgado read a letter Watson Brown sent to his wife Belle up in North Elba.
"Dear Belle. I think of you all day and dream of you all night. I would gladly come home and stay with you always but for the cause that brought me here, a desire to do something for others. ... Oh, I do want to see you and the little fellow (their new born son) very much, but I must wait. There was a slave near here whose wife was sold off south the other day. He was found in Thomas Kennedy's orchard hanging dead the next morning. I cannot come home as long as such things are done here. I sometimes think that perhaps we will not meet again. It is not quite a reality to me yet. We leave this afternoon or tomorrow for the last time. You will probably hear from us very soon after this. ... There was another murder near our place the other day making for five murders and one suicide within five miles of our place since we have lived here. They were all slaves too. Give my regards to our friends and keep up the courage, there is a better day coming. I can't but commend you to yourself and your friends if I should never to see you again. Believe me, yours holy and forever in love, your husband, Watson."
At the laying of wreaths, Larry Lawrence, president of the John Brown Society said, "John Brown and the men who lie with him at this precious spot covered themselves in honor and glory at Harpers Ferry. They are the yardstick by which we can measure commitment to the cause of justice to the poor. They placed a value on the slave that was above gold, and they lifted high the lamp of racial equality to light the pathway of mankind."
"We are really trying to bring out the importance of ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and indeed, the raiders were ordinary people," said Cornell professor and author Margaret Washington. "These were not people like Wendell Phillips, who for all his contributions was the son of a former mayor of Boston. These were ordinary people who were farmers, laborers, and artisans who rose to the occasion and their stories are often forgotten or never told."
"It is inspiring for today," I replied. "People need to understand that they shouldn't sit and wait for our president or somebody else to make a difference."
"Yes, you are the person that you are waiting for," said Washington.