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John Brown Farm celebrates 125 years of NY ownership

From left, Curt Stager, Sandra Weber, Martha Swan, Aurora McCaffrey, Lavada Nahon, Martin Tyler and David Welch pose Saturday, March 27 at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

LAKE PLACID — On Saturday, March 27, 125 years after New York state designated John Brown’s farm as a historic site, John Brown Lives! held an event at the famous abolitionist’s grave to mark the occasion.

John Brown Lives! Director Martha Swan was joined by Lavada Nahon, interpreter of African American History for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which oversees the historic site; Aurora McCaffrey, Essex County historian and director of the Adirondack History Museum in Elizabethtown, home of the Essex County Historical Society; author Sandra Weber; and others. They outlined plans to celebrate what has been accomplished at the farm and announced a series of events addressing the ongoing ramifications of Jim Crow and injustice in American society.

It happened 37 years after Brown died in 1859 by hanging in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), for leading a raid at the Harpers Ferry federal arsenal. A law accepting the deed of gift from Henry and Lucy Madison Clews to the state of New York for the John Brown farm became law after Gov. Levi P. Morton signed the legislation on March 25, 1896. The law formalized that it would “continue to be dedicated and used for the purposes of a public park or reservation forever.”

By then, Jim Crow era actions and laws were becoming well established. The Southern states had adopted new laws and constitutions designed to disenfranchise Black voters. Ida Wells was ramping up her efforts to protest against the lynching of Blacks, 161 in 1892, and in 1896, the Supreme Court upheld segregation as legal. Also, by 1896, the Daughters of the Confederacy was well into erecting statues to honor the Confederate dead and the officers who led them in their effort to change the narrative of the Civil War from a battle to end slavery into a fight over state’s rights.

“I think of the farm as a signpost,” Weber told the crowd on March 27. “It bears evidence of the past and indicates what’s possible. For example, the Black and White comrades whose bones lay mingled here in a grave. They lived together, ate together, fought together, and are now buried together. They show its possible for Blacks and whites to live, fight, and die as equals.”

Martha Swan, founder/director of John Brown Lives!, speaks Saturday, March 27, next to John Brown’s grave. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

An often-overlooked signpost is Brown’s name and the date 1859 carved into the backside of the large boulder where he and several of his followers who fought and died at Harpers Ferry are buried.

In August 1866, a year after the Civil War ended, several veterans and their families came to the farm to make the carving. Participants included Col. Francis Lee of Boston, Massachusetts, and Westport, New York, who served in the 44th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and Judge George S. Hale of Boston.

“Black lives have always mattered at the John Brown Farm,” said Swan. “We are planning a series of commemorative, cultural, and educational programs to help us all do the work that needs to be done on many fronts. Work that includes the right to vote, the right to repair from centuries of stolen labor, and stolen lives. The right to fair, just, and human treatment before the law. And the right to live in peace, health, happiness, and harmony.”

Nahon spoke of the inhumanity of so many people not having a full presence in society today. She said Brown’s commitment to address that inhumanity and bring uncomfortable truths to the forefront was needed when he lived and is needed now. She said that it’s easy for us to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, but addressing it requires us to face uncomfortable realities.

Nahon said Brown and the others knew addressing injustice was hard, as exemplified by the soil filled with rocks and stones that the free Blacks in North Elba had to farm in order to earn the right to vote. She concluded by saying though those buried at the farm didn’t achieve their vision of a just and equitable society. She praised the commitment of those present and beyond who are working to achieve that goal through being aware every day of “what you say, who you ignore, or who you help, and to stay focused on the mission as it’s still in play.”

Upcoming events include a May 8 online panel discussion with historian Margaret Washington, Brown descendant Alice Kesey Mecoy, and Weber, facilitated by Nahon; a June 19 (Juneteenth) installation of an updated Memorial Field for Black Lives by artist Karen Davidson Seward; and a July 3-4 commemoration of the Black Raiders of Harpers Ferry highlighting raider Osborne Anderson’s visit to the farm on July 4, 1860.

(Editor Andy Flynn contributed to this report.)