As seen from Northern, Southern, and Midwestern accounts of and opinions on Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid published in newspapers, there were a variety of reactions ranging from praise and acclaim to denunciation and horror and to appreciation and mourning.

Many African Americans called the day of Brown’s hanging, December 2, 1859, “Martyr/Martyr’s Day.”

Many meetings and events were held in Brown’s memory throughout the North. Black Americans played a major role in organizing and holding these meetings, and one such example of this occurred in Boston on December 2: “The mood was somber and funereal. To them it was a day of fasting and of prayer. Many of them wore crepe on their arms. . .some of the crepe arm-bands were decorated with rosettes or pictures of John Brown.” Black-owned shops were shuttered and closed in observance of Martyr’s Day [1].

That evening in Boston, a “standing-room only” meeting was held at Tremont Temple, with a crowd of “3,000 gathered outside.” Speakers included William Lloyd Garrison, James Freeman Clarke, and J. Sella Martin. “Telling the crowd that he fully endorsed Brown’s course, Martin said that the only difference between Brown and patriots of the Revolutionary War was that his program was designed to help black men” [2].

Another predominantly Black meeting was also held at the Twelfth Street Baptist Church that same evening. This meeting followed three earlier meetings held there that same day, and “was itself part of a continuous prayer meeting which had begun the night before and would not end until the following day. The speakers at the various events included Leonard A. Grimes, the church’s pastor, Charles Lenox Remond, and William Cooper Nell, all of whom attended Colored Conventions [3].

Other ceremonies were held throughout New England, including one sponsored by The Union Anti-Slavery Society at the Shiloh Presbyterian Church in New York City, where Henry Highland Garnet was pastor, with editor Rev. Charles Ray and Rev. Amos Beman, convention leaders all, in attendance. In his eulogy for Brown, Garnet stated:

“In the signs of the times, I see the dreaded truth….‘For the sins of this nation there is no atonement without the shedding of blood.’ If it must come O God! prepare us to meet it. The nation needed to see a picture of the future of slavery and its ends and methinks God has been pleased to draw it in crimson lines. Americans, Patriots, Christians, Tyrants, look upon it and be instructed” [4].

Black men were not the only ones to respond to the raid and Brown’s execution. Black women abolitionists, after Brown’s execution, “raised money to send to Brown’s widow along with letters of condolence and expressions of admiration for her fallen husband.” [5]

Mary Brown wrote a letter from the Brown homestead in North Elba, published on February 11, 1860 (dated December 27, 1859) in The Weekly Anglo-African thanking members of the relief committee who have aided her and her family, as well as the families of those who died during the raid or were executed for their involvement, addressing them as “Much beloved and respected friends.

There were also violent responses to the raid by both Black and white Americans. After the raid took place, “just a week [later], Harpers Ferry experienced an unprecedented number of fires. Five fires occurred on local plantations. The properties of three of the jurors during the trial were also subject to arson. Numerous slave owners found their wheat, supply yards, stables, and haystacks ablaze.” Although it has never been proven, it has long been assumed that these acts of resistance were those of enslaved and free Black residents of Harpers Ferry [6].

Garnet, well known for his militant abolitionism, “two weeks after the raid…commented that the raid might have been successful if only ‘a box of matches [were placed] in the pocket of every slave, and then slavery would be set right.’” Acts of resistance such as arson and the (likely poisoning of farm animals belonging to white farmers, continued into December. On December 6, 1859, Robert E. Lee wrote that “reports of alarm still come in from Harpers Ferry.”

There was large white backlash, particularly in Virginia, since “the selling of slaves rose substantially.” After the raid occurred, “enslaved men and women suspected of associating with Brown were arrested and even lynched.” Douglass, fearing that his own connections to Brown would be discovered, fled to Europe and remained there until April 1860 [7].

After the Civil War had begun in earnest, Garnet became a recruiting agent for the Union Army. During a meeting in 1863 at his church, Garnet evoked the memory of Brown:

“Join the armies of the United States and, in the language of old John Brown, who frightened Virginia to the core, march through and through the heart of the rebellion” [8].

Credits

Created by Jessica Thelen, PhD student in English, for P. Gabrielle Foreman’s ENGL/HIST 677 class, Spring, 2019. Edited by P. Gabrielle Foreman.

References

[1] Quarles, Benjamin. Allies For Freedom: Blacks and John Brown. Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 125. 

[2] Quarles 125.

[3] Quarles 126.

[4] Ofari, Earl. “Let Your Motto Be Resistance”: The Life and Thought of Henry Highland Garnet. Beacon Press, 1972, p. 107. 

[5] Jackson, Kellie Carter. Force And Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020, p. 116. 

[6] Jackson 127.

[7] Ofari 111. 

[8] Jackson 129.