Va. Historical Society To Host John Brown Exhibition
(October 2009 Civil War News)
RICHMOND, Va. — As a major part of the national recognition of the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s October 1859 raid on the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) will open the exhibition “The Portent: John Brown’s Raid in American Memory” on Oct. 10. It is the first major exhibition on the subject by a Southern institution.
The exhibit will include a large number of paintings and prints and more commemorative ceramic objects relating to John Brown than ever before displayed. It will cover the period from the prelude in Kansas; the raid, capture, incarceration and execution; and the reaction, including the immediate martyrdom and the ways Brown has been remembered during the past 150 years.
New England abolitionists financed the raid by Brown and 21 followers against the arsenal where they intended to seize weapons and establish a nearby stronghold from which to attack slaveholders and destroy the slave system. Since then historians have debated if Brown was a martyr or murderer, a charismatic leader with a sense or morality or a fanatic terrorist.
The exhibit’s title, “The Portent,” comes from the Herman Melville poem published in 1866 that closes with the line “The meteor of the war.”
A DVD that tells the story of Brown’s early life, his fervent religious beliefs, his turn to violence as an abolitionist in Kansas, the Virginia raid and its aftermath will be told in a DVD that will open the exhibition.
It will include contemporary drawings depicting the attack on the insurgents, U.S. Marines storming the engine house, Brown as a prisoner and riding his coffin to his hanging and his execution. Other images will include Brown’s financial backers, his co-conspirators, his wife and family members, and the leading New England writers who spoke on his behalf.
The exhibit will include a Sharps carbine rifle, one of the pikes Brown procured for use by the slaves he would liberate and the Bowie knife J.E.B. Stuart took from Brown.
Iconic images on display will include John Steuart Curry’s rendition where Brown is represented as an Old Testament prophet and a tornado churns in the background. The series of 22 large color prints that comprise Jacob Lawrence’s “Legend of John Brown” represent an African American artist’s evaluation of Brown’s legacy.
Texts by such writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Greenleaf Whittier exonerating Brown will be displayed, along with broadsides, an eyewitness account of Brown’s death and last statements, contemporary letters that discuss the crisis (including one by J.E.B. Stuart to his mother), and rare books and booklets published about Brown in the two years between the raid and the outbreak of the Civil War.
The multimedia DVD overview will be placed on the Internet as a stand-alone program to be downloaded as well as linked to an online version of the exhibition. To ensure its timely use 1,000 copies will be distributed to teachers.
The exhibition catalog will recount the raid and how black and white Americans, North and the South, have remembered Brown’s attack against racial injustice.
In connection with the exhibition, which will close on April 11, the VHS plans an Oct. 15 lecture, and Dec. 2 and Feb. 10 gallery walks. For more information go to www.vahistorical.org