America’s First Terrorist Tried To Free Black People

Portrait of John Brown/Martin M. Lawrence /Wikimedia/Public Domain

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More often than not, white allies present themselves as well-meaning individuals who may show up to a protest or perhaps denounce their white privilege on social media. It’s always easy to talk the talk, but when it comes time to walk, some would rather sit out.

Ask yourself, ‘how far are they truly willing to go in the struggle for Black liberation?’ When things get real, are they still down? Well, back in 1859, John Brown set the bar pretty high.

John Brown wasn’t a man of note. He had many children, several businesses that failed and enormous debt. But, despite being a white man, he despised the system of slavery. He moved to Springfield, MA where he became heavily involved in radically transforming the city through the anti-slavery movement.

Brown dedicated his life to fighting slavery. Growing up, Brown’s father, who was deeply against slavery, imparted that same sentiment to his son. Frederick Douglass spoke well of Brown, saying that his hatred of slavery almost seemed as if “his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.”

Along with helping in the Underground Railroad, he founded the League of the Gileadites, a group that helped formerly enslaved people avoid capture. The group allowed no formerly enslaved person to be captured in Springfield.

Brown participated in several anti-slavery actions. He led two battles, the Battle of Black Jack and the Battle of Osawatomie against pro-slavery advocates. Brown firmly believed violence was the only way to abolish slavery. He thought that violence was no worse than slavery and giving his life to end slavery was worth it.

In planning for the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Brown tried recruiting Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Tubman was too sick to participate and Douglass believed that Brown would fail.

He gathered weapons and organized 22 men for his attack. Although they were minimally trained, they planned to incite a revolt by arming enslaved people and striking fear in plantation owners. He wanted the news to spread around the country and give rise to other rebellions of enslaved people.

Initially the raid went well. They cut the telegraph wires and stopped a train that was coming through town. They opened fire on the train, killing a free Black man named Hayward Shepherd. Brown let the train continue its journey after the encounter. Brown’s group killed five men and captured an armory. News of the raid spread to Baltimore and Washington.

Having learned the news about Brown and his men. Farmers and store keepers managed to corner the raiders in an armory, firing at them from high above them. Never one to back down, Brown and his men fired back, killing some local men and capturing prisoners.

But things weren’t looking so good for Brown. His men and their prisoners moved into an engine house. Facing 88 Marines and militiamen from Virginia and Maryland, led by Robert E. Lee, they were surrounded. They exchanged fire and a few of Brown’s men lost their lives. Brown was told to surrender and his life would be spared, but he refused.

They were tried for treason and executed. Lee called Brown a “madman” for his attempt to raid Harper’s Ferry. Others considered him America’s first terrorist. To abolitionists, he was considered a martyr.

As a result of the raid, tensions around abolition increased and Brown’s attempt became a catalyst for the Civil War. In today’s world, where bigotry is thinly veiled as nationalism, there’s only so much we as Black people can do to combat it. White people invented white supremacy, so white people must be the ones to end it. Until that day comes, we’ll continue to fight for freedom and seek allies who possess the spirit of John Brown.


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