Memorial Day weekend is approaching, and along with the “unofficial start of summer,” the Adirondacks will experience its annual influx of vacationers. But in years past, visitors arrived in May for another purpose: a pilgrimage to the John Brown farm in North Elba, New York. At the farm, a wreath would be laid upon the abolitionist’s grave, and the song “John Brown’s Body” was sung.
Though John Brown’s efforts in opposing slavery had been honored in various ways since his execution in 1859, these annual pilgrimages by black citizens began only in the 1920s, and were founded by Jesse Max Barber, an African American man who perhaps was an unlikely candidate for such a gentle observance. Barber was one of the founders of the Niagara Movement, which took an aggressive stance toward achieving racial equality for blacks. Barber put out a magazine, The Voice of the Negro, which asserted the need for equal opportunity for blacks. The magazine was published in Atlanta, Georgia, where a terrible racially motivated riot broke out in 1906. Barber fell afoul of the white authorities there after writing an account that attributed the cause of the disruption to white men who had staged incidents intended to rile the white population against blacks. Threatened with being thrown onto a chain gang, Barber left Atlanta for Chicago, Illinois.
He had intended to keep publishing The Voice there, but his career in journalism was stymied when those who favored a less confrontational approach to improving race relations – such as Booker T. Washington and his adherents – actively opposed his efforts. A profile of Barber printed in 1912 in The Crisis (published by the NAACP, which had its roots in the Niagara Movement), noted that, after the failure of his magazine, “only menial employment was open to him, but he took it, faced poverty, and began to study dentistry.” After four years in dental school, Barber began practicing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He did not completely give up his editorial work; he contributed to The Crisis from time to time.
In its Annual Report for 1922, the NAACP recorded that “Dr. J. Max Barber, a member of the Association’s Board of Directors, urged the Philadelphia Branch to pay annually a fitting tribute to the memory of John Brown. The Branch voted unanimously to send a pilgrimage to lay a wreath on John Brown’s grave on the occasion of his next birthday.” Barber and Dr. T. Spotuas Burwell carried out this task – at the John Brown farm in North Elba – on May 9, 1922.
Shortly afterward, Barber related the details of the pilgrimage to Philadelphia alumni of Fisk University. Speaking on the topic of “John Brown; and a Pilgrimage to His Grave,” he told about the journey he and Burwell had made to “the beautiful upper Adirondack region,” and how the wreath-laying was an act of “undying gratitude in which the colored people of America hold the memory of that most fearless of Abolitionists.” Per the Fisk University News, Barber’s talk was “thoroughly interesting and thrilling.”
Barber also authored a piece for The Crisis, which was printed in its August 1922 issue. There, he explained how the idea for the pilgrimage had been inspired by a comment by his friend, Dr. J. Theodore Irish, that it seemed ungrateful that blacks had never honored Brown. It made Barber realize that this was “a serious indictment against our people.” Thus, he brought up the idea to the NAACP, and he and Burwell headed north to do the honors. “Both of us are busy men,” Barber wrote, “but we felt that the sacrifice should be made and so we went.”
He continues: “Our information about Lake Placid…was limited.” He’d communicated with the town clerk, a local Methodist minister, and “Alice L. Walker, a colored woman who runs a sanatorium for tubercular people at Saranac Lake.” Permission was also obtained from the New York State Conservation Department, which managed the John Brown farm site at that time.
It was not anticipated that there would be many people at the ceremony: Miss Walker would be there with a handful of local African Americans (Barber noted that “hardly a dozen” lived in the Saranac Lake/Lake Placid area), and perhaps the pastor. “Fancy our surprise to find when we reached Placid, that the public schools had taken a holiday…, the Chamber of Commerce sent a delegation to welcome us, and the distinguished people of the town came out to be at the memorial services.”
Barber estimated that there were a thousand attendees, among them “lawyers, doctors, school-board members, and members of the aristocratic clubs.” Civil War veterans embraced Barber and Burwell, and local old-timers who had actually known Brown rejoiced that his memory was at last being honored. Lyman Epps, a member of a family who had settled in the Timbuctoo settlement which Brown had nurtured, sang a song – the same one he’d sung at Brown’s funeral in 1859.
Barber stood on a boulder, the one where John Brown had said “I love to sit and read the word of God,” and gave an address decrying lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, disenfranchisement of blacks, and Jim Crow laws. That evening, additional services where held at the Methodist Episcopal Church, where local citizens expressed their desire that the pilgrimage be an annual occurrence.
There was no crowd the following year, however. In her recent book, Blacks in the Adirondacks: A History, Sally Svenson reports that in 1923 Barber made the trip alone, as part of his vacation, and laid the wreath himself. The NAACP had declined to sponsor the event again. Its attachment to the North Elba site had not been clearcut; in its annual report from 1922, when it had approved the first pilgrimage, the stated expectation was that Brown’s birthday would be celebrated every year “by a pilgrimage to John Brown’s grave or to Harper’s Ferry, or in any other suitable way.”
So Barber took action on his own, and formed the John Brown Memorial Association in Philadelphia in 1924. Though there were other such organizations (a John Brown Memorial Association had been formed in Providence, Rhode Island not long after Brown’s death, and another John Brown Memorial Association had sponsored an event in Topeka, Kansas in 1893), the one Barber established specified its first objective to be “promotion of an Annual Pilgrimage from all points and by all interested people, to the grave of John Brown…at North Elba Farm.”
The Association’s first pilgrimage, in 1924, was remarkably successful. About 300 people made the journey, traveling not only from Philadelphia, but also from New York City, and places in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Some arrived by automobile, others by train. Though not organized by the NAACP, that organization was represented by one of its directors, William Pickens, who addressed those assembled. Events were held over several days, and included speeches at the town hall in Lake Placid, heard by over 600 people. Musical programs were presented – some in the 1,500-seat theater at the Lake Placid Club. Such combinations of speeches and music would be repeated as part of the pilgrimages for years afterward.
Pickens wrote an account of the proceedings for The Crisis, and made note of the warm welcome extended to the pilgrims by the white citizens, including the officers of the Lake Placid Club, who “offered to Dr. Barber every assistance and courtesy which the guests might require.” At one point, Barber addressed white residents, explaining that Brown’s memory had to be preserved “because there are people living who seek to besmirch the name of this great heroic knight. There are still living in America, people who are soured and embittered because freedom came.”
The pilgrimages continued during the remainder of the 1920s. In 1927, the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow was the main speaker, but, despite that, the Glens Falls Post Star reported that only 34 African Americans – from Philadelphia, Chicago, New York City, Hartford, Springfield, Massachusetts and Wilmington, Delaware – were in attendance. In 1928, they came from Philadelphia, New York City, Camden, New Jersey and Springfield, Massachusetts, traveling by car to Saratoga Springs, where they met at the Marshall Hotel and proceeded to Lake Placid as a group. Others traveled by train. At Lake Placid, some residents welcomed the pilgrims with a “magnificent banquet,” held in a local church, and the pilgrims enjoyed a concert of organ music at the Lake Placid Club. The Club’s Harry W. Hicks thanked the group for the “spiritual value” it had brought to the community, and for having “awakened the club and the Lake Placid people to the fact that they lived next door to a national shrine.”
After the celebrations, Schenectady attorney James J. Barry invited the pilgrims to visit his country home in Ausable Chasm, where they were served lunch. Then, before finally heading for home, they were entertained at the Meadowmount estate of John E. Milholland near Elizabethtown.
In 1929, many of the 65 pilgrims had again gathered in Saratoga and headed to Lake Placid together. They came from the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, West Virginia, and South Carolina, and also Wasington, D. C. The Lake Placid Club held a student essay competition, with a cash award ($10) going to the author of the best composition about John Brown. The winner was a Miss Palmer from Lake Placid High School.
The year 1930 brought a first: in addition to the usual contingents from the eastern states, a pilgrim from the Mid-West attended – and an illustrious one, at that. Frederica Douglass Perry, a granddaughter of Frederick Douglass journeyed from Kansas City, and had, per the New York Age, “consented to serve as the western organizer and representative of this movement.”
As the Great Depression wore on, it took its toll on attendance, because some could not afford to travel. One newspaper noted that a “depleted band of members” undertook the pilgrimage in 1932. But in 1933 the event attracted two special guests: Ella Thompson Towne, from California, and Lydia Brown Crothers, from Wasington State. Both were granddaughters of John Brown, and, though elderly, had been willing to make the long trip to the Adirondacks. The primary speaker was Leonard Ehrlich, author of a book about Brown titled God’s Angry Man. On a sad note, on May 8, a memorial service was held for Barber’s wife, Hattie, who had passed away in 1932.
Dr. Barber, who seems never to have missed any of the John Brown celebrations during his lifetime, visited Lake Placid at least three times in 1934. He was at the annual wreath-laying on May 9, along with Dr. Burwell, though newspaper reports suggest the event was more limited than in prior years – only the participation of the Lake Placid High School history class and school band were highlighted. On August 5, however, a seemingly more substantial celebration was held. A Lake Placid chapter of the Association had been formed, and the New York Age reported the presence of Barber and “about 100 white and colored pilgrims.” Several musical groups performed, and there were speeches given. Later that summer, Barber made another visit to Lake Placid – as part of his honeymoon after marrying his second wife on August 22. A newspaper story detailed their itinerary: Saratoga, Lake Placid, the Thousand Islands, and Canada, and then back home to Pennsylvania.
There was another big development in 1934. The objectives of the Memorial Association were not only to sponsor the annual grave visits, but also to raise funds for the erection of a monument at the farm site. By the fall of 1934, that goal was very close to being achieved, thanks to some fund-raising teas and dances that summer. In September and October, a model of the memorial statue was displayed at Association chapter meetings in various cities – including Lake Placid. Created by sculptor Joseph Pollia, the monument depicts Brown showing kindness to a young African American boy.
The following year, pilgrims were undoubtedly thrilled when the monument became a reality. As reported by the New York Daily News: “After a ten-year campaign for funds, a bronze memorial to John Brown, abolitionist, will be unveiled next Thursday at John Brown Farm near North Elba, NY” The unveiling of the 8-foot tall, 6-ton statue attracted a crowd of 1,500 on May 9, 1935. Lyman Epps, the black man who had sung at Brown’s funeral as a boy, did the ceremonial unveiling. Lithgow Osborne, head of the Conservation Department, officially accepted the gift on behalf of New York State. State Historian Alexander C. Flick was in attendance and wrote an account that was published in the July issue of New York History.
The dedication ceremony started at 2 pm, and included addresses by various speakers, including Flick, who spoke in some detail about Brown’s life. A concert followed, given by the Lincoln University Quartet. Earlier that day, a brief meeting of the Association was held at the Olympic Arena, followed by an organ recital. “The entire celebration,” wrote Flick, “was a memorable one….”
In subsequent years, the annual event was held, but surely the crowds never matched the size of the 1935 one. In 1939, Masonic groups descended on Lake Placid. They had chosen it as the site for their annual pilgrimage to a historic place, and “The pilgrims of the John Brown Memorial Association, who come to Lake Placid each year, are cooperating in the program,” which was mostly “of a musical nature,” according to the Plattsburgh Daily Press. Ceremonies at the grave site were held on May 13 (whether this was in addition to the traditional wreath-laying on May 9 – Brown’s birthday – is not clear).
As the years passed, the annual rite appears to have received less media attention. In 1941, it was reported that a copper and glass enclosure for Brown’s headstone had been provided by the Association. During the Second World War, attendance dropped off, due to government restrictions. In 1945: “While due to wartime travel restrictions the pilgrimage will be small, ” said the Watertown Daily Times, in spite of that, the event “will feature elaborate programs.” In 1947: 25 years after the first event, Barber reminisced about it, and others told “stories in a lighter vein [of] previous pilgrimages…and human interest anecdotes.”
Sally Svenson writes that the pilgrimages were carried out over six decades, but interest in them seems to have waned as the years went by. It’s likely that after Barber’s death in 1949, there was less energy put into the annual trip. This writer found a brief newspaper item about the pilgrimage in 1971, and a more significant one from 1976. That year 500 people made the trip, backed by Carlton Gillis, who was then the president of the John Brown Memorial Association. By that time, as Gillis pointed out, besides sponsoring the annual trip and otherwise keeping alive Brown’s memory, the Association provided scholarships and sought to “bring about unity among all people, and to teach respect for the dignity and worth of human beings regardless of race, creed, or nationality.”
Today, John Brown Lives! helps carry the wreath laying tradition on John Brown Day .
Photos, from above: Barber in November 1912, and John Brown Day, August 1922, courtesy The Crisis.
A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.