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A Boy Named John Brown


Mick at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia

What if, one day, you and your friends were playing outside at recess, and a teacher came up and started hitting one of your friends? What if the teacher told you it was because your friend's skin was a different color than yours? And what if the teacher said you shouldn't play with your friend any more?

You would be pretty mad, right? And maybe, just maybe, you'd be a little bit scared, too.

Well, in a way that's what happened to a boy named John Brown about 200 years ago. John Brown was born in Connecticut, to a white family. One day he was playing in the woods with one of his friends, who was black. John lost his friend, and started calling out his name. Then he heard crying.

When John came out of the woods to see who was crying, he saw his friend. He was being hit - whipped - by a white man. He couldn't believe it - it was so awful! And he wanted to jump in and save his friend, but he was scared of what might happen to him.

So John ran home and told his parents, who said that his friend was the son of a slave and should not have been off playing with John. What?!? Why not?? Just because John was white and his friend was black?

John's parents had taught him that slavery was one of the worst things on earth. That it was cruel and evil, and that all people were equal in the eyes of God. Now John knew slavery was wicked, and made up his mind to try to stop it.

John Brown watching his good friend

But it was a big problem to try to solve. Many people in the country at that time owned slaves - owned other people - and made them work in the cotton fields and on big farms called plantations, to harvest crops and do all the hard work. (And for doing all that work they were treated very badly - stolen from their homes in Africa, taken away from their families, not paid and kept under very strict control. And yes, a lot of the time, whipped or beaten.)

The more John Brown saw slavery spreading, the more he remembered his friend and the madder he got.

Portrait of John Brown

If you look on a map of the United States you'll see West Virginia. Back then it was just "Virginia," but that's where Harper's Ferry is, and that's where John Brown, as a full-grown man, took a stand against slavery.

John Brown at the Harpers Ferry Raid

He found out that the Armory at Harpers Ferry held lots of guns and gun powder. One October night, John Brown and a group of 21 white and black stole the guns and took some people hostage, keeping them against their will.


But some escaped and told the other towns what was happening. Pretty soon General Robert E. Lee and the U.S. Marines recaptured the Armory and arrested John Brown. He was put on trial and the jury found him guilty of murder and helping slaves rebel. He was hung to death in 1859.

What John Brown did is known as the raid on Harper's Ferry. And it seems like it was all for nothing. But just two years later the Civil War broke out, and not long after that slavery was ended.

John Brown stood up for what he believed in, and it made a difference.


Please email me at: nick@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - A Song of Walt Whitman
Irene - Having a Whale of a Time
Neda - Contra Dance Party