Harpers Ferry looks back

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HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. -- The steps of John Brown and his fellow revolutionaries were retraced here this weekend during a landmark conference revisiting the famous insurrection on its 150th anniversary.

"John Brown Remembered: An Academic Symposium" drew 200 participants to this small town on the Potomac River, a remarkable turnout for a remarkable event featuring presentations from historians and a six-mile walk from the Kennedy farm into town, following the route of the men whose uprising is now considered the first spark of the Civil War.

The legacy of Brown, the controversial white abolitionist, was revisited on National Park Service land, owned by the same government that quashed his uprising. Long a hero of the black community, Brown now is considered an important figure in the abolition movement by scholars of all races -- and the sesquicentennial commemoration reflected deep changes in both the current political atmosphere and in the nation's historic view of slavery and the struggle that eliminated it.

Indeed, the reinvention of Brown's legacy is part of a more comprehensive examination of this country's racial past at its national landmarks.

"There is throughout the country, I think, a fabric now of kind of looking at these things anew," Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Philadelphia, said in an interview in Washington, D.C., last week.

"It's always easier looking through rear-view mirrors, but I think in that light John Brown is a hero and should be treated as such," he said. "And I think the conference is the beginning of the kind of discussion about what that might mean."

Mr. Fattah helped secure federal money to honor slaves owned by George Washington at the President's House in Philadelphia in 2005. In July, Congress passed a resolution championed by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., to place a marker in the U.S. Capitol to honor slaves who helped build it.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., inserted language into an appropriations bill in 2000 to require Civil War sites maintained by the National Park Service to address slavery. The new, expanded visitors center that opened last year at Gettysburg reflects that aim.

"Nobody wanted to talk about the other side of the story in order to avoid embarrassment," Mr. Fattah said. "What's important now is how a country that began imperfectly began to correct itself."

Those corrections have manifested in the twisting legacy of Brown, who led the bloody insurrection at the armory at Harpers Ferry in an attempt to free slaves.

Initially, he was a hero to many Northern whites, but Harvard University professor John Stauffer argued at the symposium Friday that Brown's repute was damaged as 20th-century Southern writers began to affect popular perceptions of the Civil War.

Among them were influential writers who depicted Brown as a character similar to John Milton's Satan, Dr. Stauffer said. Those Confederate apologists argued that slavery would have disappeared without northern intervention, he said.

"John Brown was the emblem of all northern romantic reformers, which is why he had to be Satanic," said Dr. Stauffer, author of "Meteor of War: The John Brown Story."

The civil rights movement of the 1960s again caused a gradual shift in perceptions among whites, who began to view Brown as a martyr, said Paul Finkelman, professor at Albany Law School and co-organizer of the symposium.

"Now people perceive John Brown as heroic, if perhaps misguided; visionary, but perhaps foolish," Dr. Finkelman said. "But it's not a condemnation that he's evil."

There is no high-level effort to formally pardon Brown or honor him on a national scale -- yet.

"Time tells, history judges and the truth is revealed," said Rep. Al Green, D-Texas.

"John Brown, at some point of this infinite continuum we call time, will receive some recognition for this heroic abolition of slavery."

But interest has spiked recently in Brown, with many scholars writing books and papers about him. Dr. Finkelman said organizers of the symposium were flooded with more than 100 proposals to speak or present work there. University of Hawaii at Manoa professor Robert McGlone recently wrote a major biography of Brown, which Dr. Finkelman offered as proof of the man's wide appeal and continued recognition.

That interest was not solely triggered by the big anniversary, he said, nor a reflection of the nation's election of a president of African descent -- the conference had been planned for two years, and there was no particular spike in interest from Barack Obama's administration.

"I think it's just that people are getting more and more interested," Dr. Finkelman said. "He's a very interesting guy."


Daniel Malloy can be reached at dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.


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