Shaking hands with John Brown’s people

History doesn’t stop when famous people die.

The number of descendants of a 19th century figure can multiply exponentially, and that often means that today’s descendants may not even know who they are related to.

That was the case for many related to John Brown, the abolitionist who took on the most oppressive racial taboos of the 19th century.   When even Lincoln believed blacks and whites could not live together outside slavery, Brown created a utopian interracial community.

Although even many abolitionists thought slavery would die out over generations, Brown took up arms in Kansas and later at Harpers Ferry to launch a war against slavery.

The ritzy Silicon Valley suburb of Saratoga is the hub for a re-evaluation of Brown, through the eyes of his own kin.   Alice Kesey Mecoy didn’t know she was Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter until the age of 16.  It took another two decades before that revelation spurred her to begin finding out more about his life and legacy.

Sunday in Saratoga, she opened an exhibition along with her brother and father on the 150th anniversary of Harpers Ferry in the Saratoga History Museum.

Like Mecoy, historians are learning much more about Brown, and his connections to abolitionists, including African-Americans in California who underwrote his raid on Harpers Ferry.

There is a passion of discovery that comes along with blood ties. She quipped that once her children moved out from her Texas home to go to college, her husband said John Brown moved in.

Mecoy is now on a mission to find as many other Brown kin as possible from the six children who survived him.

Saratoga is an important link because Brown’s second wife and two daughters moved there after the Civil War and are buried in a cemetery there.

My research picks up some references to various fundraising campaigns in San Francisco churches to provide support for the family of John Brown.  Although historians have been sometimes critical of Brown, it was clear that the African-American community saw him as perhaps the most revered white man of the 19th century, on a par with Lincoln and U.S. Grant.

To shake hands with and speak with this living history was a big thrill for me as an historian, even more so when Mecoy recognized my name and said “I have your book.”

Brown was accompanied by a number of African-Americans on the raid.  I wonder how many of their relatives know the legacy.  It is reason to once again urge everyone to take the time to dig into their own family history.

You’d be surprised at what you might find.


One thought on “Shaking hands with John Brown’s people

  1. Dear John,

    I was glad to see you in Saratoga attending the program with the descendant of John Brown.

    Your question about descendants of the black raiders has a happy answer: on August 8 a descendant of Dangerfield Newby, whose enslaved wife Harriet wrote poignant letters that now reverbrate in poetry and song, will be speaking about her research in Warrenton, Virginia. And a professional singer will sing her letters to the music of Kirke Mechem of San Francisco — composer of the opera John Brown.

    Another descendant who commorated his ancestry is the poet Langston Hughes. His grandmother, Mary Leary Langston, was the widow of Lewis Leary. He wrote a poem about the raid, “October 16, 1859 … perhaps you will remember John Brown.”

    So nice to see you. I like your site! Jean

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