Richmond, VA—As a major part of the national acknowledgment of the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) presents the exhibition The Portent: John Brown’s Raid in American Memory. The show opens at the Society on Saturday, October 10, 2009, six days before the anniversary of the raid, and closes on April 11, 2010. John Brown’s Raid in American Memory is the first major exhibition by a southern institution to explore the controversial historical figure whose actions ultimately led to the American Civil War.
To this day, a mention of Brown’s attack spurs debate about issues of justice, terrorism, liberation, and vigilantism.
“I don’t think many people know how important John Brown’s actions were in American history or realize how differently Brown has been remembered by various groups of people over the past 150 years,” said John Brown’s Raid in American Memory co-curator and VHS Lora M. Robins Curator Dr. William M. S. Rasmussen. “In 1859, Brown’s raid couldn’t have been a more sensational news event; it forced people to take a stance on slavery—they could no longer ignore it. But because the Civil War overshadowed it, and so much suffering came so soon after the raid, few whites in the South today recall the whole story of Harpers Ferry or the entirety of Brown’s life. But the African American community has not forgotten Brown at all, often seeing his actions as noble and just and celebrating him as a martyr and
Dissatisfied with the pacifism encouraged by the organized abolitionist movement, John Brown and twenty-one men—sixteen white and five black—overtook the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (present-day West Virginia), on October 16, 1859. Their immediate objective was to seize weapons stored at the armory and rifle manufacturing plant. Brown’s ultimate goal was to destroy the slave system of the South by establishing a stronghold in the nearby mountains from which he and his men could attack slaveholders and draw liberated slaves into their ranks.
The raid at Harpers Ferry—which was financed by wealthy New England abolitionists—was suppressed by federal forces and local townspeople within thirty-six hours. Most of Brown’s men were killed during the attack. Brown and most of the surviving raiders were tried, convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, and executed.
Both northerners and southerners initially dismissed Brown as a madman. Brown’s courtroom testimony, his hanging, and his glorification by a number of northern writers, however, transformed an outlaw into a martyr for many.
The exhibition is rich in rare objects: a Sharps carbine rifle and one of the pikes he procured for use by the slaves he would liberate, a broadside banning public attendance at Brown’s hanging, a letter written by future Confederate general J. E. B. Stuart to his mother about taking Brown’s Bowie knife (also on display) at Harpers Ferry, and a group of rare books and booklets published about Brown in the sixteen months between the raid and the outbreak of the Civil War. Well-known artwork by John Steuart Curry, Horace Pippin, Albert Berghaus, and twenty-two screen prints from Jacob Lawrence’s The Legend of John Brown will also be on display. In addition, the show includes more commemorative
ceramic objects relating to John Brown than ever before exhibited.
The title of the exhibition comes in part from the poem The Portent by Herman Melville, originally published in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War in 1866, in which Brown is referred to as “The meteor of the war.”
The VHS has scheduled programming related to John Brown’s Raid in American Memory. On Thursday, October 15, at noon, Rasmussen will give a lecture about the exhibit, and he will do a gallery walk on December 2. VHS Curator of African American History, Dr. Lauranett Lee, will explore John Brown’s memory within the black community in a gallery
walk-on February 10, 2010.
In addition to John Brown’s Raid in American Memory, an extensive catalog and online exhibition will accompany the show. A multimedia DVD program—illustrated by selections from the abundance of period illustrations and prints that carried the news of Brown’s raid—seen in the exhibition will be distributed to schools across the state to help educate
students about this tumultuous event that led to the Civil War.
The E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities have generously supported the John Brown exhibition.
“Brown stepped beyond simply taking the law into his own hands—he decreed that the law was wrong and then acted based on his own sense of morality,” Rasmussen said. “Important questions are raised by Brown’s story: Is the use of violence ever permissible? What if the goal is just? And does society have the right to protect itself from violence in any way it sees fit? The question of Brown’s place in history—whether he is to be remembered as a patriot or as a villain—is unresolved; it waits for us to decide.”
For more than 178 years, the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) has been the steward of our state—and often national—history. Headquartered in Richmond, the VHS features award-winning exhibitions that are entertaining and educational for visitors of all ages. Although designated the Official State Historical Society, the VHS is a privately funded non-profit organization that relies on
contributions from individuals, corporations, and foundations to sustain its operations. Hours: Tuesday–Saturday 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m.–5 p.m. (shop and museum galleries only). Admission: $5/adults, $4/seniors 55+, $3/students, free/under 18 and free/members. Admission to the galleries is free on Sundays. For group tour information, call (804) 342-9652. For more information, please call (804) 358-4901 or visit www.vahistorical.org.