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Margaret Washington, historian on
the Underground Railroad

Margaret Washington WASHINGTON: John Brown's involvement with the Underground Railroad stretched over a long period of time. And he was involved in it as the Underground Railroad needed him, which was the way the Underground Railroad worked. We tend to think of the Underground Railroad as something that went on all the time, and it didn't, because African Americans could not flee the South all the time. And so the conductors had to be ready whenever they were needed. And so, individuals went about their daily occupations, and then were called upon -- any time of day or night, any time of the year -- to help African Americans fleeing bondage. John Brown's role in this endeavor was to feed them, to clothe them, to help them get from one station to another, and sometimes to protect them from physical harm. That made him very important, because many of the Underground Railroad conductors were pacifists, and they would do everything except shoot a gun. And sometimes in order to protect an enslaved person who was fleeing bondage, you had to use a gun. And so John Brown's role in that way was very important to the Underground Railroad.

Over the years of working in the Underground Railroad, John Brown came in contact with African Americans fleeing bondage, and asked them questions, talked to them, got a sense of their aspirations, their expectations, their hopes, and felt that he knew African Americans well enough to essentially write what he called Sambo's Mistakes, which was John Brown putting himself in the place of a black leader. He was talking to the African American community, specifically the community of freed African Americans. And telling them about unity, telling them about what they should do for the community, what they should do for their brothers and sisters who remained in bondage, how they should live, don't drink, don't smoke, go to church, read your Bible, learn to read and write, above all, to create a community. This was published in The Ram's Horn, an African American newspaper. On one level, of course, John Brown, being a white man, being someone who, by African American standards, was certainly more privileged than they were. This was the height of arrogance. How could he, who had never experienced slavery, who had never been hunted, how could he tell them how they should live and what they should aspire to. On the other hand, this was the same kind of paternalism that many black leaders throughout the North had always espoused. The middle class African American leadership were always telling the working and lower class African Americans how they should live, how they should conduct themselves. And usually, it was a kind of way of life that was the way white folks live. So, what perhaps John Brown, as well as these African American leaders were saying was, "be more like white America."

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