Monday, May 13, 2019

Historical Pilgrimages to the John Brown’s Farm

Barber in November 1912Memorial Day weekend is approaching, and along with the “unofficial start of summer,” the Adirondacks will experience its annual influx of vacationers. But in years past, visitors arrived in May for another purpose: a pilgrimage to the John Brown farm in North Elba, New York. At the farm, a wreath would be laid upon the abolitionist’s grave, and the song “John Brown’s Body” was sung.

Though John Brown’s efforts in opposing slavery had been honored in various ways since his execution in 1859, these annual pilgrimages by black citizens began only in the 1920s, and were founded by Jesse Max Barber, an African American man who perhaps was an unlikely candidate for such a gentle observance. Barber was one of the founders of the Niagara Movement, which took an aggressive stance toward achieving racial equality for blacks. Barber put out a magazine, The Voice of the Negro, which asserted the need for equal opportunity for blacks. The magazine was published in Atlanta, Georgia, where a terrible racially motivated riot broke out in 1906. Barber fell afoul of the white authorities there after writing an account that attributed the cause of the disruption to white men who had staged incidents intended to rile the white population against blacks. Threatened with being thrown onto a chain gang, Barber left Atlanta for Chicago, Illinois.

He had intended to keep publishing The Voice there, but his career in journalism was stymied when those who favored a less confrontational approach to improving race relations – such as Booker T. Washington and his adherents – actively opposed his efforts. A profile of Barber printed in 1912 in The Crisis (published by the NAACP, which had its roots in the Niagara Movement), noted that, after the failure of his magazine, “only menial employment was open to him, but he took it, faced poverty, and began to study dentistry.” After four years in dental school, Barber began practicing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He did not completely give up his editorial work; he contributed to The Crisis from time to time.

In its Annual Report for 1922, the NAACP recorded that “Dr. J. Max Barber, a member of the Association’s Board of Directors, urged the Philadelphia Branch to pay annually a fitting tribute to the memory of John Brown. The Branch voted unanimously to send a pilgrimage to lay a wreath on John Brown’s grave on the occasion of his next birthday.” Barber and Dr. T. Spotuas Burwell carried out this task – at the John Brown farm in North Elba – on May 9, 1922.

John Brown Day 1922Shortly afterward, Barber related the details of the pilgrimage to Philadelphia alumni of Fisk University. Speaking on the topic of “John Brown; and a Pilgrimage to His Grave,” he told about the journey he and Burwell had made to “the beautiful upper Adirondack region,” and how the wreath-laying was an act of “undying gratitude in which the colored people of America hold the memory of that most fearless of Abolitionists.” Per the Fisk University News, Barber’s talk was “thoroughly interesting and thrilling.”

Barber also authored a piece for The Crisis, which was printed in its August 1922 issue. There, he explained how the idea for the pilgrimage had been inspired by a comment by his friend, Dr. J. Theodore Irish, that it seemed ungrateful that blacks had never honored Brown. It made Barber realize that this was “a serious indictment against our people.” Thus, he brought up the idea to the NAACP, and he and Burwell headed north to do the honors. “Both of us are busy men,” Barber wrote, “but we felt that the sacrifice should be made and so we went.”

He continues: “Our information about Lake Placid…was limited.” He’d communicated with the town clerk, a local Methodist minister, and “Alice L. Walker, a colored woman who runs a sanatorium for tubercular people at Saranac Lake.” Permission was also obtained from the New York State Conservation Department, which managed the John Brown farm site at that time.

It was not anticipated that there would be many people at the ceremony: Miss Walker would be there with a handful of local African Americans (Barber noted that “hardly a dozen” lived in the Saranac Lake/Lake Placid area), and perhaps the pastor. “Fancy our surprise to find when we reached Placid, that the public schools had taken a holiday…, the Chamber of Commerce sent a delegation to welcome us, and the distinguished people of the town came out to be at the memorial services.”

Barber estimated that there were a thousand attendees, among them “lawyers, doctors, school-board members, and members of the aristocratic clubs.” Civil War veterans embraced Barber and Burwell, and local old-timers who had actually known Brown rejoiced that his memory was at last being honored. Lyman Epps, a member of a family who had settled in the Timbuctoo settlement which Brown had nurtured, sang a song – the same one he’d sung at Brown’s funeral in 1859.

Barber stood on a boulder, the one where John Brown had said “I love to sit and read the word of God,” and gave an address decrying lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, disenfranchisement of blacks, and Jim Crow laws. That evening, additional services where held at the Methodist Episcopal Church, where local citizens expressed their desire that the pilgrimage be an annual occurrence.

There was no crowd the following year, however. In her recent book, Blacks in the Adirondacks: A History, Sally Svenson reports that in 1923 Barber made the trip alone, as part of his vacation, and laid the wreath himself. The NAACP had declined to sponsor the event again. Its attachment to the North Elba site had not been clearcut; in its annual report from 1922, when it had approved the first pilgrimage, the stated expectation was that Brown’s birthday would be celebrated every year “by a pilgrimage to John Brown’s grave or to Harper’s Ferry, or in any other suitable way.”

So Barber took action on his own, and formed the John Brown Memorial Association in Philadelphia in 1924. Though there were other such organizations (a John Brown Memorial Association had been formed in Providence, Rhode Island not long after Brown’s death, and another John Brown Memorial Association had sponsored an event in Topeka, Kansas in 1893), the one Barber established specified its first objective to be “promotion of an Annual Pilgrimage from all points and by all interested people, to the grave of John Brown…at North Elba Farm.”

The Association’s first pilgrimage, in 1924, was remarkably successful. About 300 people made the journey, traveling not only from Philadelphia, but also from New York City, and places in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Some arrived by automobile, others by train. Though not organized by the NAACP, that organization was represented by one of its directors, William Pickens, who addressed those assembled. Events were held over several days, and included speeches at the town hall in Lake Placid, heard by over 600 people. Musical programs were presented – some in the 1,500-seat theater at the Lake Placid Club. Such combinations of speeches and music would be repeated as part of the pilgrimages for years afterward.

Pickens wrote an account of the proceedings for The Crisis, and made note of the warm welcome extended to the pilgrims by the white citizens, including the officers of the Lake Placid Club, who “offered to Dr. Barber every assistance and courtesy which the guests might require.” At one point, Barber addressed white residents, explaining that Brown’s memory had to be preserved “because there are people living who seek to besmirch the name of this great heroic knight. There are still living in America, people who are soured and embittered because freedom came.”

The pilgrimages continued during the remainder of the 1920s. In 1927, the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow was the main speaker, but, despite that, the Glens Falls Post Star reported that only 34 African Americans – from Philadelphia, Chicago, New York City, Hartford, Springfield, Massachusetts and Wilmington, Delaware – were in attendance. In 1928, they came from Philadelphia, New York City, Camden, New Jersey and Springfield, Massachusetts, traveling by car to Saratoga Springs, where they met at the Marshall Hotel and proceeded to Lake Placid as a group. Others traveled by train. At Lake Placid, some residents welcomed the pilgrims with a “magnificent banquet,” held in a local church, and the pilgrims enjoyed a concert of organ music at the Lake Placid Club. The Club’s Harry W. Hicks thanked the group for the “spiritual value” it had brought to the community, and for having “awakened the club and the Lake Placid people to the fact that they lived next door to a national shrine.”

After the celebrations, Schenectady attorney James J. Barry invited the pilgrims to visit his country home in Ausable Chasm, where they were served lunch. Then, before finally heading for home, they were entertained at the Meadowmount estate of John E. Milholland near Elizabethtown.

In 1929, many of the 65 pilgrims had again gathered in Saratoga and headed to Lake Placid together. They came from the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, West Virginia, and South Carolina, and also Wasington, D. C. The Lake Placid Club held a student essay competition, with a cash award ($10) going to the author of the best composition about John Brown. The winner was a Miss Palmer from Lake Placid High School.

The year 1930 brought a first: in addition to the usual contingents from the eastern states, a pilgrim from the Mid-West attended – and an illustrious one, at that. Frederica Douglass Perry, a granddaughter of Frederick Douglass journeyed from Kansas City, and had, per the New York Age, “consented to serve as the western organizer and representative of this movement.”

As the Great Depression wore on, it took its toll on attendance, because some could not afford to travel. One newspaper noted that a “depleted band of members” undertook the pilgrimage in 1932. But in 1933 the event attracted two special guests: Ella Thompson Towne, from California, and Lydia Brown Crothers, from Wasington State. Both were granddaughters of John Brown, and, though elderly, had been willing to make the long trip to the Adirondacks. The primary speaker was Leonard Ehrlich, author of a book about Brown titled God’s Angry Man. On a sad note, on May 8, a memorial service was held for Barber’s wife, Hattie, who had passed away in 1932.

Dr. Barber, who seems never to have missed any of the John Brown celebrations during his lifetime, visited Lake Placid at least three times in 1934. He was at the annual wreath-laying on May 9, along with Dr. Burwell, though newspaper reports suggest the event was more limited than in prior years – only the participation of the Lake Placid High School history class and school band were highlighted. On August 5, however, a seemingly more substantial celebration was held. A Lake Placid chapter of the Association had been formed, and the New York Age reported the presence of Barber and “about 100 white and colored pilgrims.” Several musical groups performed, and there were speeches given. Later that summer, Barber made another visit to Lake Placid – as part of his honeymoon after marrying his second wife on August 22. A newspaper story detailed their itinerary: Saratoga, Lake Placid, the Thousand Islands, and Canada, and then back home to Pennsylvania.

There was another big development in 1934. The objectives of the Memorial Association were not only to sponsor the annual grave visits, but also to raise funds for the erection of a monument at the farm site. By the fall of 1934, that goal was very close to being achieved, thanks to some fund-raising teas and dances that summer. In September and October, a model of the memorial statue was displayed at Association chapter meetings in various cities – including Lake Placid. Created by sculptor Joseph Pollia, the monument depicts Brown showing kindness to a young African American boy.

The following year, pilgrims were undoubtedly thrilled when the monument became a reality. As reported by the New York Daily News: “After a ten-year campaign for funds, a bronze memorial to John Brown, abolitionist, will be unveiled next Thursday at John Brown Farm near North Elba, NY” The unveiling of the 8-foot tall, 6-ton statue attracted a crowd of 1,500 on May 9, 1935. Lyman Epps, the black man who had sung at Brown’s funeral as a boy, did the ceremonial unveiling. Lithgow Osborne, head of the Conservation Department, officially accepted the gift on behalf of New York State. State Historian Alexander C. Flick was in attendance and wrote an account that was published in the July issue of New York History.

The dedication ceremony started at 2 pm, and included addresses by various speakers, including Flick, who spoke in some detail about Brown’s life. A concert followed, given by the Lincoln University Quartet. Earlier that day, a brief meeting of the Association was held at the Olympic Arena, followed by an organ recital. “The entire celebration,” wrote Flick, “was a memorable one….”

In subsequent years, the annual event was held, but surely the crowds never matched the size of the 1935 one. In 1939, Masonic groups descended on Lake Placid. They had chosen it as the site for their annual pilgrimage to a historic place, and “The pilgrims of the John Brown Memorial Association, who come to Lake Placid each year, are cooperating in the program,” which was mostly “of a musical nature,” according to the Plattsburgh Daily Press. Ceremonies at the grave site were held on May 13 (whether this was in addition to the traditional wreath-laying on May 9 – Brown’s birthday – is not clear).

As the years passed, the annual rite appears to have received less media attention. In 1941, it was reported that a copper and glass enclosure for Brown’s headstone had been provided by the Association. During the Second World War, attendance dropped off, due to government restrictions. In 1945: “While due to wartime travel restrictions the pilgrimage will be small, ” said the Watertown Daily Times, in spite of that, the event “will feature elaborate programs.” In 1947: 25 years after the first event, Barber reminisced about it, and others told “stories in a lighter vein [of] previous pilgrimages…and human interest anecdotes.”

Sally Svenson writes that the pilgrimages were carried out over six decades, but interest in them seems to have waned as the years went by. It’s likely that after Barber’s death in 1949, there was less energy put into the annual trip. This writer found a brief newspaper item about the pilgrimage in 1971, and a more significant one from 1976. That year 500 people made the trip, backed by Carlton Gillis, who was then the president of the John Brown Memorial Association. By that time, as Gillis pointed out, besides sponsoring the annual trip and otherwise keeping alive Brown’s memory, the Association provided scholarships and sought to “bring about unity among all people, and to teach respect for the dignity and worth of human beings regardless of race, creed, or nationality.”

Today, John Brown Lives! helps carry the wreath laying tradition on John Brown Day .

Photos, from above: Barber in November 1912, and John Brown Day, August 1922, courtesy The Crisis.

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David Fiske is a co-author of the books Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave (Praeger Publishing, 2013) and Madame Sherri: The Special Edition (Emu Books, 2014).

34 Responses

  1. Naj Wikoff says:

    When I was growing up in Lake Placid we had a motel on the Wlimington Road, the Sun & Ski Lodge, that was filled each May with busloads of pilgrims, nearly all Black Americans, coming to attend the John Brown Day activities. My father helped arrange housing for additional busloads in the other motels in our neighborhood and along Sentinal Road. Our social studies teacher and the town historian Mary MacKenzie were active in organizing school kids going to the farm to witness the speeches and tribute. It was all very moving and I enjoyed talking with the people who stayed at the motel. One outcome was our motel became listed in the Green Book, the guide of safe-welcoming places for Black Americans to stay when traveling.

    • David Fiske says:

      Great memory. Thanks for posting!

    • Vanessa says:

      This is lovely 🙂

    • Sally Svenson says:


      That’s a fascinating bit of local history. I covered pretty thoroughly, I thought, Green Book accommodations in the Adirondacks in my book about Adirondack blacks. While I found four in the 1956 edition (two in Lake Placid–Dreamland Cottage and Camp Parkside, both run by black women; one in Lake George; and one in Horicon), I didn’t come upon the Sun & Ski Lodge. Do you know what years it might have been included?

      • Naj Wikoff says:

        After that, after we had opened the Lodge which is some time in the 60s. I’m not sure the year. How I know is an writer who authored a children’s book on the Green Book, showed me a copy, I flipped through it and found our motel listed.

  2. Vanessa says:

    This is great history, thank you for covering it! It does the Old Man a great service to remember his history in the region. I hope people continue to celebrate John Brown Day many years into the future. :):)

    Even so, I think it’s more than fair to interrogate the idea that African Americans “owe” Brown anything. Without being able to know for sure, I feel like he too would be uncomfortable with this notion. One of the reasons Brown remains such a lightning rod of a historical figure is because he was so radical for his time. He recognized more than so many white folks – even and often especially other white abolitionists – the severity of systemic violence that underpinned slavery. He understood that slavery wasn’t going to be voted out or guilt-tripped out of existence. I think is makes folks with privilege profoundly uncomfortable to face their participation in the violence that they benefit from – even today.

    So if anything, perhaps white folks owe Brown (and his long suffering family!) a debt for taking such a radical role in confronting that violent system. He confronted it so we don’t have to now. (Though there are lots of othe racially-based systems of violence that still need to be dismantled for sure. That’s why I enjoy so much the name of the aptly-titled society “John Brown Lives!”).

    Just in case I get trolled for this comment let me be clear: this is NOT an endorsement of everything Brown did – but it always seems to be those protected the most in violent systems that get to judge the actions of people who helped win that protection and safety.

    Anyway, i hope many white folks share my deep sense of privilege, in the best sense of the word, to be able to celebrate the lives of the Brown family. Here’s to many more years – like my Italian grandpa said – Salute!

  3. Bob Meyer says:

    An interesting aspect of this history is the participation of the Lake Placid Club. It’s all sounds so friendly and welcoming. This historical reality of it’s racist and Antisemitic membership policy, specifically excluding Jews and I presume Blacks seems in stark contrast to aspects of this history. I’d be interested to hear Mr. Fiske’s take on this seeming contradiction.

    • David Fiske says:

      It should be understood that I have not researched the Lake Placid Club, and don’t know any more about it than the average person. However, it occurs to me that it’s easy to be welcoming and friendly when you know your guests will be coming only once a year, and staying for just a few days before returning home. An interesting question that could be investigated is: were any of the pilgrims ever invited to join the Club?

      • Bob Meyer says:

        I think it’s safe to say that, along with Jews, Black folks were barred from the Lake Placid Club. As I understand it, from both conversations with the late Rabbi Selig Auerback of Lk. Placid’s Synagogue and from reading the history of the club, Jews were not even allowed in as guests during the club’s heydey. That changed toward to end of their existence and I remember Rabbi Auerback telling me he was actually invited to join. He did not. Melville Dewey, the club’s founder was a known anti-Semite. There were many signs throughout most of the Adirondacks up through WWII that read ‘Hebrews Need Not Apply’ or something to that effect.

        • David Fiske says:

          From an article by John Warren (our Almanack editor):

          “According to the Lake Placid Club’s bylaws published in their 1928 yearbook, the club excluded all non-whites, Jews and ‘every person against which there is social, race, moral, or fiscal objection.’ ‘Except as servants,’ it was noted, ‘negroes are not admitted.'”

          • Bob Meyer says:

            A sad confirmation of what I feared was the reality. 🙁

          • Paul says:

            Sammy Davis junior would have been excluded for his color and his religion! Damn. Actually it seems like by the definition you could exclude everybody depending on what you considered “objectionable”! Sounds like a bunch of nitwits.

  4. Amy Godine says:

    Great article, David. Thanks.
    And thanks, Naj, for more info about what your folks did. Nice to know that warm and vivid memories of these pilgrimages live on.
    I’ll be speaking about the John Brown Memorial Association and its dealings with Harry Wade Hicks of the Lake Placid Club at the John Brown Farm on Tuesday, July 23rd. It’s a rich and obviously pretty problematic story. Hope to see you then.

  5. Sandra Weber says:

    Thanks for the article, David. I am putting the finishing touches on a book about the history of the John Brown farm. The John Brown Memorial Association is a bright spot in that long and varied story.

    Regarding the interaction of the Association and the Lake Placid Club, it is a fascinating and complex relationship. Two quick points. (1) We need to keep in mind that it was the 1920s and 1930s, a very different racial landscape from today or even the Civil Rights era. (2) Despite the exclusive (horridly racist) policies of the LPC , they were a major employer and business partner in the area. Some of the Thompsons (whose brothers died in the Harpers Ferry raid) worked there, as did Lyman Epps Jr. History tends to be messier than we imagine.

    • Bob Meyer says:

      All very true, but despite the gain in local employment for many, they still were racists and anti Semites and remained so even after WWII. Easy for some [white Christian folks] to excuse as “it was then”.
      Even sadder is the continued racism and Antisemitism that continues and has even accelerated today. Just ask any back person. Remember the Black Sierra Club exec’s experience last you in the Adirondacks? I had the experience of being told I was “Jewing him down” at a yard sale in 2018.

    • John Warren says:

      The only thing worse than white folks in the 1920s ignoring 100 years (or more) of widespread calls and action for racial tolerance is white folks 100 years later pretending those bigots have some “it’s the 1920s” excuse. That interpretation ignores the struggles of so many who knew it was wrong then and tried to do something about it.

      Also, hiring people of color does not complicate the obvious bigotry of the Lake Placid Club. The exploiters at the LPC hiring people of color means nothing except they needed workers and were getting a deal on wages. Employers are not the saviors of workers, no matter what their race. If it wasn’t for the workers at the LPC, there would have been no LPC.

      • Bob Meyer says:

        Right on John. Saying it like it is!

      • Boreas says:

        Yet VP Pence pushes the “Evangelical persecution complex” at the Liberty Univ. commencement ceremony. “Throughout most of American history, it’s been pretty easy to call yourself Christian. It didn’t even occur to people that you might be shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible. But things are different now.”

        Are they??

      • Sandra Weber says:

        Bob and John, Let me politely point out that you assumed I was addressing the white man’s point of view. I wasn’t commenting on the LPC; I was commenting on the blacks’ point of view.

        Why did the Association accept invitations from the LPC? Why were they “friendly” with Dewey and other members of the club in the 1920s and 1930s? Why did blacks seek employment at the Club? Why was Booker T. Washington friendly with Melvil Dewey and why did he stay at the Club even though he was not allowed to dine in the dining room?

        As a person of white privilege today, I am trying to understand the social reality of blacks in the 1920s and 1930s, and the situation faced by the Association as they tried to show their gratitude towards John Brown. I did not intend to make any excuses for the LPC. The LPC excluded blacks, Jews, invalids, etc. as members and guests, and there is no excusing that policy.

        • Paul says:

          Also many black performers performed in clubs they couldn’t be members in because like everyone else they needed the money. Same for these workers at the LPC. Also all people, no matter their color or creed, often feel the need to be accepted sometimes even by people that they know are jerks. That’s just human nature.

        • John Warren says:

          Hi Sandra,

          I didn’t assume anything. You made two arguments which make people cringe:

          1) it was the 1920s so let’s give the white folks a break because everyone was doing it (completely false); and

          2) the nice rich white folks let people of color work for them, and once let one of the most famous African Americans stay at their inn, so it’s “complex” (it’s not complex that rich white people exploit workers, especially people of color, or that all people of color do not have the same political views or use the same tactics).

          Obviously you’re free to ignore these critiques.

  6. Bob Meyer says:

    I did not assume anything. I read you words. Look, let’s cut to the chase and be honest here. There’s no way you can really KNOW what it’s like to be a Jew in America any more than ANY white person can know what’s it’s like to be a Black man in America. Personally, as a professional jazz musician [a profession where the greats are dominated by Black people], I am privileged to have more real friends of color than most white folks, but still….I’m white. I cannot truly feel what they feel. Only sympathize and speak out when I see injustice & racism.
    No one is accusing you of being anything but a decent person. The reality is you are part of the privileged white Christian America.
    Your words above tell me there are some sensitivities you just do not get. Sorry to be blunt, but just as a Black man will tell you and me you can’t truly understand how it feels, as a Jew I’m telling you the same.
    I hope your book on Mr. Brown and his amazing & tragically ended life is a success and look forward to reading it.
    Please think about and try to “feel” what I’m saying to you and everyone else reading this important discussion.
    As my people say,

    • Sandra Weber says:

      You said, “I did not assume anything.” Please re-read your post and examine your words. In particular, please let me correct your assumption….I am NOT a part of Christian America. But why does it matter?

      Prejudice comes in many forms. Shouldn’t all of us be working towards healing and inclusion, instead of speaking of “my people?”

      • Bob Meyer says:

        Sandra, with all due respect to whatever your background and ethnicity, your original post tells at least Mr. Warren and myself that you just don’t seem to get, or choose not to see certain aspects of the reality of both history and the world we live in. “My people” does not exclude inclusiveness and real brotherhood [peoplehood]. We are all alone and we are all in this together.

  7. Suji says:

    Ah, memories. I spent summers with my Grandfather and Aunt, who belonged to the LPC, and every Saturday evening I was dragged out from the woods, made to take a bath and put on my blue organdie dress and white mary-janes, and we would go over to the Club, Grandpa to hear the concert and hang out with his old Princeton-grad buddies, and me to go to the children’s dance, which I hated. I regarded this as sheer torture–I didn’t know any of the snobby rich kids who spent the summer there (we may have been snobby, but we weren’t rich!) and I always felt bored and uncomfortable, although I didn’t exactly know why. The place just seemed musty and creepy, all of Grandpa’s friends appeared to be about 100 years old, and I was taught to curtsey to them. I do not ever recall seeing any person of colour working there, although there must have been. There were a number of wealthy Cuban members, whom Grandpa regarded with some suspicion–were they really white? Oddly enough, Grandpa had several close Jewish friends from his days as chief chemist at the New York City Department of Health, and they were frequent visitors. I’ve wondered how the intelligent and kindly man I remember could have had such views.

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