NORTH ELBA - More than one hundred people gathered at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site May 8 to celebrate the 210th anniversary of the famous abolitionist's birth and left with increased hope this will not be the last year the event is celebrated there.
State Sen. Betty Little told those present how Carol Ash, director of the New York State Parks Department, has said she will attempt to make adjustments in her budget that will allow for all 14 state historic sites to remain open.
Both Little and Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward have championed the cause of keeping the site open after Gov. David Paterson named it one of several parks slated for closure under his proposed budget.
Closure of the site, where Brown is buried alongside 11 of the 21 men he led in his 1859 raid on the Harper's Ferry armory, accounts for $40,000 of an estimated $6.3 million savings from park closures.
"I believe we have an obligation and a duty to the State of New York to protect our history and to keep it open for all of the people to come and enjoy it," Sayward said.
North Elba supervisor Roby Politi said the farm was not just a part of the town's heritage, but also a valuable part of America's history.
"North Elba has worked to keep the site open to the public," he said. "I can assure you we will not sit back and allow for its demise."
Several speakers and presenters took part in the commemorative event, including Alice Keesey Mecoy, a great-great-great granddaughter of John Brown. Also present to speak was Brenda Pitts, a descendant of John A. Copeland, a free black from Oberlin, Ohio, who participated in the raid and was captured and hung alongside Brown in 1859.
Pitts recalled how her mother had told her stories of Copeland in her youth that painted both him and Brown as heroes who gave up their lives to end slavery.
"Imagine my surprise when we were students in American History class learning about how John Brown was crazy and all the men with him were as crazy as he was."
The keynote speaker was Franny Nudelman, a professor at Carleton University and author of "John Brown's Body: slavery, violence, and the culture of war." She spoke about the stark differences of how Brown's corpse was treated in comparison with those of Copeland and the other free blacks who participated in the raid.
While Brown's body was reluctantly relinquished to his family for burial, Nudelman explained, Copeland's family, suffered the indignity of his body being stolen by medical students and dissected for anatomical study, a fate common in those days for the poor and minorities.
Though his family managed to dissuade abolitionists from parading it through the streets of northern cities, Brown's body still became a symbol subject of an abolitionist song.
"By contrast, when 3,000 people gathered at an Oberlin chapel to mourn the death of John Copeland, it was over an empty casket," said Nudelman.
Students from Newcomb Central School performed "Take it to the Top," a rap song they wrote about slavery, and three students from James P. Duffy School No. 12's Frederick Douglass Club traveled all the way from Rochester to perform dramatic recitations of Douglass' speeches.