John Brown's place in history debated, celebrated

October 17, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. -- Was John Brown's raid on a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry in 1859 a direct cause of the Civil War?

The question popped up all weekend during the 150th anniversary of Brown's failed raid on Oct. 16, 1859.

The answer, at least a plausible one, came from a man taking part in a debate under a rainy tent Saturday afternoon at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, site of a four-day celebration honoring the fiery abolitionist. It was sponsored by Shepherd University's Debate and Forensics Team.

"It was cotton," the man said. "It was enormously profitable for the South. The plantation owners said, 'We're making tons of money on cotton. We will kill you all (abolitionists) if you don't back off.' If not John Brown, it would have been somebody else."

The debate was one of dozens of events planned for the four-day weekend.

The main streets into Harpers Ferry were blocked off in anticipation of the thousands of visitors who were expected, but who apparently were kept home by Saturday's cold rain and temperatures in the low 40s.


At times, the park's grounds appeared to be sparsely populated. The steady rain pushed what crowds there were under tents set up for various events.

"The crowd is greatly reduced," one park ranger said. "Even on a good weekend this time of year, people would be elbow to elbow along the sidewalks."

Buses from the visitors center drove patrons to what were well-organized celebration activities in spite of schedule changes and other inconveniences brought on by the weather.

One of the day's highlights was a one-man stage presentation of an 1881 speech on "The Legacy of John Brown" by Frederick Douglass, performed by actor/historian Fred Morsell. His resonant voice boomed above the rain pounding on the roof of the tent.

Douglass said he knew Brown, and had visited him at his home in a working-class neighborhood in Springfield, Mass., in 1848 and again a few weeks before the raid. At that time, Brown asked Douglass to join him, but Douglass declined. He told Brown he would not follow him into Harpers Ferry and a steel trap from which there would be no escape.

It wasn't Fort Sumter that started the Civil War, Douglass said. It was Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry that began the war that ended slavery, "that set the United States on the true path of becoming an Democratic republic."

Harriett Tubman became known for helping slaves escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Althea Gibson, sometimes called the Jackie Robinson of tennis, grew up poor in Harlem. She was the first black woman to win Wimbledon before winning nearly a dozen more world-class championships.

The two women were subjects of musical presentations Saturday by the Uptown Music Theater, an ensemble of 26 children, ages 6 to 11, from New Orleans. The children flew to Harpers Ferry to perform their opera-like productions before appreciative audiences.

The group was founded in 2000 by jazz trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis "to provide children with musical training," he said.

Uptown Music Theater cast members come mostly from New Orleans charter schools, Marsalis said. He wrote the scripts and music for both performances.

Later in the afternoon, Marsalis and his ensemble performed "Tattered Souls," a premiere performance of the John Brown anniversary celebration.

Marsalis is the son of pianist Ellis Marsalis and brother of jazz musicians Wynton and Branford Marsalis.

Also Saturday, the United States Marine Corps Band gave a concert, the U.S. Postal Service canceled a commemorative stamp, there were living history events throughout the day, book signings by Civil War authors and historians, and a production of "Sword of the Spirit," a play based on the letters from Brown to his wife during his final days.

Sunday's events begin at 8 a.m. with a descendants' breakfast. The Final Assault at 10 a.m. is about the Marines' assault on the armory. At 1 p.m., Stephen Vincent Benet's epic poem, "John Brown's Body," will be read by former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and others. Music will be provided by the Maryland Symphony Orchestra String Ensemble. At 2 p.m., William T. Coleman, a Presidential Medal of History recipient, will give the keynote address.

The anniversary celebration ends at 5 p.m. with a performance by the Shenandoah High School Choral Department.

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