It’s John Brown’s birthday today, and I thought it’d be worthwhile to tell an old and largely-forgotten story about an effort to honor the radical abolitionist.
In late May of 1932, the N.A.A.C.P. held its annual conference in Washington, D.C. One day, the delegates made a pilgrimage 66 miles west to Storer College1 in the town of Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia—the site of Brown’s famous 1859 raid—and heard an address from the eminent historian W.E.B. Du Bois, who had a bone to pick with the administration.
“There is a tablet in that chair, a little thing of bronze,” Du Bois told his audience. “It was intended to be put here at Storer College. We are going to take it back with us. I am sorry.”
The chosen place for the memorial tablet was the old firehouse where Brown and his fellow insurgents had made their last stand. It had come to be known as John Brown’s Fort and then stood on the grounds of Storer College.
The tablet bore the following inscription, which Du Bois had written:
AIMED AT HUMAN SLAVERY
THAT WOKE A GUILTY NATION.
WITH HIM FOUGHT
SEVEN SLAVES AND SONS OF SLAVES.
OVER HIS CRUCIFIED CORPSE
MARCHED 200,000 BLACK SOLDIERS
AND 4,000,000 FREEDMEN
“JOHN BROWN’S BODY LIES
A-MOULDERING IN THE GRAVE
BUT HIS SOUL GOES MARCHING ON!”
This inscription proclaimed a view of the past to which America was not then awake. In so many words, it called slavery a crime of which all of America was guilty. It linked John Brown’s seditious raid, which had sought to seize weapons from the U.S. arsenal in Harper’s Ferry to arm a slave insurrection, with the glorious-but-vague cause of the Union in the Civil War. It called Brown’s execution, counterfactually, a crucifixion, linking his martyrdom with Jesus Christ’s. And it put front and center the role of black Union soldiers in ending slavery, a contribution that white mainstream historians had done so much to efface.
The college had initially welcomed the idea of a plaque, but once they saw Du Bois’s text, they backed out. DuBois read a statement from the N.A.A.C.P. explaining the situation at the end of his speech:
Upon submission of this wording and after the order for the tablet had been placed, the trustees of Storer College expressed a desire that no controversial matter be included in the inscription and that no idea or phrase be used which might give offense to anyone. It was suggested that a tablet bearing the words, “John Brown, 1859 — His Soul Goes Marching On,” would be all that the trustees would wish. The N.A.A.C.P. was unable to agree to such a wording in that it would not express what the Association wished.
In fact, the N.A.A.C.P. had intended, in this small way, to shake up the emerging Lost Cause consensus. One of their purposes in placing the tablet was, the statement said, “to make answer to the new copperheadism2 which has infiltrated into practically all of the writings of contemporary historians regarding the causes of the Civil War, the Reconstruction Period, and the Negro’s part in both of these.”
Du Bois defended every word of his text, and here it is worth quoting him at length:
We have been re-writing recently the history of the United States, and the children here in Storer College and you who are larger children, and the children throughout the United States, are being taught that after all slavery was not evil; that everybody connected with it was good; that every body was trying to to do the right thing; but unfortunately the wrong thing was done; so that all we have to remember is the Right that people wanted to do and not the Wrong they did.
And I was trying to aim a blow at that lie.
I know there are people here at Storer College and round about who believe in the Lost Cause; people who suffered in the Civil War just as much those who won. Nevertheless, their cause was lost, and it ought to have been lost; and it does not make any difference what Daughters of the Confederacy say here or elsewhere, it remains eternally true that you cannot make the defense of human slavery heroic. There is no way in which you can write history so as to make it heroic.
I am not only willing to admit, but I know it to be perfectly true that the guilt was not wholly in the South. There were men in the North who invested in slavery and defended it. The great mass of the people of the North never aimed to abolish slavery. I did not say John Brown was fighting against the guilty South. I said he was fighting against a guilty nation, and the whole nation was indeed guilty.
I come to the second matter concerning which there is even more controversy. I have been reading again the last few days the history of Emancipation—what men said and what men did. As you know and as students in school ought to know, there has been a concerted effort to minimize the part which Negroes themselves took in the emancipation of slaves. Just as an attempt was recently made to praise the few Negroes of Harper’s Ferry who did nothing, so there is a wider attempt to show that after all the slaves loved slavery. Therefore I sought to emphasize, in this inscription, the fact that slaves and persons descended from slaves, fought side by side with John Brown. There were Osborne Perry Anderson, Shields Green, Dangerfield Newby, John A. Copeland, Lewis Sherrard Leary, John Anderson, and Jeremiah Anderson. Two were fugitive slaves, three were free-born sons of slaves and two were grandsons of chattels. Four of them were killed, two of them were hanged, and one escaped; and not only that, but something like seventeen other Negroes of the neighborhood were killed at the time. Thus at least seven slaves and sons of slaves fought with John Brown.
There comes now a matter which is more or less one of sentiment. “Over his crucified corpse.” I might have said “Over his corpse.” Some people have the idea that crucifixion consists in the punishment of an innocent man. That is not crucifixion. The essence of crucifixion is that men are [k]illing a criminal, that men have got to kill him; that he has got to be a criminal; and yet that the act of crucifying him is the Salvation of the World. John Brown broke the law; he killed human beings, not only here at Harper’s Ferry but in Kansas. He intended to kill human beings. That was against the law, and he deserved to have had the law executed upon him; those people who defended slavery had to execute John Brown although they knew that in killing him they were committing the greater crime. It is out of that human paradox that there comes Crucifixion.
Then again, continually we forget or try to forget the black soldiers of the Civil War. They do not march in our current textbooks. I doubt if they march in the textbooks used here at Storer College. But there were two hundred thousand black soldiers that marched in the War that emancipated the slaves and at least one authority says that without them that War could not have been won: and that authority was Abraham Lincoln.
And over that dead body of John Brown four million freedmen also marched, — singing.
I am sorry that Storer College and its trustees and its President did not have the courage to have this memorial left here. I am not sorry for myself. I know about John Brown. I am sorry for these students here and the students that are coming. Because after all it is the Truth, in the long run, that makes us free.
Du Bois’ speech, and the controversy that animated it, were not covered in The New York Times. The paper ran a brief item about the “dedication” of the tablet on page 27 of the next day’s paper, but the reporter either didn’t notice or failed to mention that the memorial had been rejected and wouldn’t be staying in Harper’s Ferry.
In 2006, long after Storer College shut its doors, a replica of the tablet with Du Bois’ inscription was finally installed at Harper’s Ferry with the approval of the National Park Service.
Storer College had been founded after the Civil War, with funds from the Freedmen’s Bureau, religious groups, and private benefactors, as a primary school for former slaves. It had grown into a large, complicated, and state-subsidized institution. Just as the whole South lurched from Reconstruction to Jim Crow, the school seemed to lapse from its founding project and toward serving the resurgent resentments of the white community. Its student body was almost entirely black and its administrators and donors were almost entirely white. (The first black President of the school wouldn’t arrive until 1944). The students’ education was tuition free, and their housing was free as well, but they were expected to perform most of the manual labor to keep the campus running. Eventually, the local newspaper started using their labor too. And the school’s educational focus shifted over time from higher education to teaching vocational skills and manual labor. Nevertheless, as Du Bois notes in his speech, Storer College had hosted the first meeting of the Niagara Movement—the embryonic N.A.A.C.P.—to take place on U.S. soil. The college closed in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which prompted West Virginia to withdraw its funding.
The Copperheads were a faction of Northerners who opposed the Lincoln’s war policy and sought a negotiated peace with the slaveholding South.