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Margaret Washington, historian on
Brown's egalitarianism

Margaret Washington WASHINGTON: It's important to understand what an anomaly John Brown was during his time as far as his attitude toward people of African descent was concerned, because John Brown considered himself a complete egalitarian. And it was very important for him to practice egalitarianism on every level. This was not America of the 19th Century. America of the 19th Century was a very racist society, both North and South. African Americans were caricatures of people, they were characterized as buffoons and minstrels, they were the butt-end of jokes in American society. And even the abolitionists, as antislavery as they were, the majority of them did not see African Americans as equals. The majority of them, and this was something that African Americans complained about all the time, were willing to work for the end of slavery in the South but they were not willing to work to end discrimination in the North. And much of the legal aspect of society in the North was aimed toward African Americans. Very few of them could vote, they couldn't ride in the same public conveyances with whites, there was separated seating on steamboats. But these were issues -- these were daily issues that African Americans were confronted with that the abolitionists did not want to deal with. Well, John Brown wasn't like that. For him, practicing egalitarianism was a first step toward ending slavery. And African Americans who came in contact with him knew this immediately. He made it very clear that he saw no difference, and he didn't make this clear by saying it, he made it clear by what he did.

When John Brown invites writer Richard Henry Dana into his home, he invites him in for dinner, and there's the family there, and he serves them venison. And one of the things that Dana notices is that the African Americans in North Elba -- there's a couple there who are invited to sit down with him. And Dana observes that, first of all, they sit at the table with the white people, with Brown and his family, and Dana and his companion. This is never done in American society. And even though Dana himself is an antislavery man, he's appalled at this. What's more, Brown introduces the couple as Mr. And Mrs., not Fanny and Joe, but Mr. And Mrs., giving them the respect that you would give to any white person, as far as Dana is concerned, and Dana doesn't understand this. He doesn't understand why John Brown would create this situation of perfect egalitarianism between whites and blacks.

Now this meeting is the only record we have of the kind of attitude John Brown has on race. We know what he did at Harpers Ferry, we know that he was a friend of Henry Highland Garnet's and Frederick Douglass. But then, so was William Lloyd Garrison, so was Wendell Phillips. So were many of the abolitionists. And yet we cannot equate the same kind of egalitarianism that they had, or didn't have, with what John Brown had because we have this example. And it's a completely chance situation that gives us insight into the kind of man John Brown was, and how different his attitude toward African Americans was compared to his compatriots in the antislavery movement.

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