Despite pouring rain for much of Saturday, several dozen Lawrence community members stopped by South Park for The Lawrence Times’ party.
The main event of the day was Kerry Altenbernd’s talk on abolitionist John Brown, how he came to be villainized by white supremacists and how he still has “powerful enemies” today. Altenbernd, of Lawrence, is known for his portrayal of Brown in historical reenactments.
Altenbernd said that Brown’s sons had come to Kansas to help make it a free state, and they asked Brown to come out because of the extreme violence that proslavery factions were inflicting.
However, Altenbernd said that some of the free state factions were as racist or perhaps even more so than some proslavery people — some didn’t want slavery because they didn’t want more Black people in Kansas, and they wanted to keep good jobs to the white men.
Lawrence was sacked on May 21, 1856, by proslavery white supremacists. They destroyed the presses of two free state newspapers, burned down the Free State Hotel and more. One of their own died by accident. (This is not to be confused with Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence in 1863, when about 150 were killed and dozens more were wounded.)
A few days later, on May 24, 1856, Brown led men to Pottawatomie. There, they killed five proslavery farmers. But it wasn’t out of revenge for Lawrence — it was because Brown had learned that those men were plotting to kill him, his family and his supporters, Altenbernd said.
Why not seek help from authorities? Because Douglas County Sheriff Samuel J. Jones had led the proslavery faction in the sacking of Lawrence, and from the local level up, officials were working in tandem to push for slavery. If Brown hadn’t killed those men, they would’ve killed him, and Kansas may well have become a slave state, Altenbernd said.
“John Brown was not a violent man before he came to Kansas,” Altenbernd said. “He had no violence in his background, but Kansas radicalized him because of the brutality going on out here. He realized what had to be done.
“… He was committed to the freedom of slaves,” Altenbernd continued. “His Black brothers and sisters were his main thought; he worked his whole life for them, and he made powerful enemies. Powerful enemies then, and he still has powerful enemies now.”
Brown’s actions — in Kansas and after, as he led a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) to free slaves, and was later hanged for treason — were critical to bringing on the Civil War, Altenbernd said. Later, the southerners, whose economy was destroyed by the loss of slavery, were the first to write the history of these events, portraying Brown as a bloodthirsty maniac out for revenge, Altenbernd said.
Altenbernd said some people think America doesn’t have a racial issue anymore. But he said “Jim Crow is coming back strong just since the last election,” which saw record turnout from Black voters — and now, some new laws are restricting voter rights.
He said Lawrence must remember its own history, including the three Black men who were lynched from the Kansas River bridge in 1862, and events of 1970. Put up the markers and monuments but don’t just leave them up and ignore them — “put in our hearts what needs to be done.”
“The next time somebody drives their pickup truck down Massachusetts Street with a confederate battle flag flying from it, we don’t just ignore it,” Altenbernd said. “We say something against it. We tell people, ‘You’re wrong.’ They may not listen — but then again, they might.”
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