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Springfield’s connection to John Brown, Abolitionist and Accomplice

By Cait Kemp

As part of the Day To Confront Racism series that took place on Thursday, March 25, Springfield College hosted a panel discussion titled, “John Brown: The City of Springfield Connection to this Abolitionist and Accomplice.” The workshop panelists included Joseph Carvalho III, Daryll Moss, and William Nash and was moderated by Assistant Professor of History, Ian Delahanty. 

The Day to Confront Racism was on March 25, which is also International Day Of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The goal was to not let this important day go by without conversation, so the Day to Confront Racism was created in order to acknowledge the important stories dealing with racism that involve Springfield College and the surrounding area. Guest speakers of all different perspectives and experiences were brought together to discuss these important topics for students and faculty to listen in and learn. 

Panelist Joseph Carvalho III is the co-editor of the Springfield Republican newspaper Heritage Book Series, and was the former president and executive director of the Springfield Museums. He also authored and edited multiple books in the Heritage Book Series.

The next panelist was William Nash, professor of American Studies and English and American Literatures at Middlebury College. He is also the author of multiple books and the recipient of three grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Lastly was Daryll Moss who rounded out the trio of panelists for the midday workshop. Moss is the executive director of Afro Renaissance Arts Society in Springfield, and was previously the director of Constituent Services, also in Springfield. 

The workshop focused on the significance of abolitionist John Brown and his involvement with the city of Springfield. John Brown is probably most well known for his raid of Harpers Ferry and seizure of the federal army and arsenal there. With just several supporters he rallied to join him, Brown strove to acquire weapons to distribute to slaves and freedom fighters, and spark similar movements throughout the country. Unfortunately, his intentions did not go exactly as planned and Brown and his supporters were soon taken back over by the US Marines and Robert E. Lee. For his valiant efforts to support slaves and the African American population, he was put on trial and sentenced to death. 

What many might not know about Brown is his affiliation with Springfield and the work he did not just for the community, but in conjunction with them. Brown was in Springfield from 1846 to 1849, and came back periodically throughout the years after that. 

He came to Springfield because of the established black community that already existed, which included the Old Yankee African American population as well as groups that came from the Midatlantic states and some of the south atlantic states. It was this wave of a new group who created the first African American church in Springfield, which was thriving at the arrival of Brown.

The unique thing that many might overlook is the fact that Brown did not build this community by himself, but became a part of it because of its already established leadership. Brown was able to help this community become even more successful than it already was through his devout efforts of abolition, and his “radical empathy”, as Nash described it during the workshop. 

“We can think about radical empathy as being more than just the idea of putting yourself in someone else’s place, or walking in someone else’s shoes, and taking actions that will not only help that person but will also ultimately change and improve our society,” said Nash. “For me when I think about John Brown in Springfield… I think about the enactment of those ideas.” 

Brown was an abolitionist through and through. A lot of times in history we see people who believed in the abolition of slavery, yet still had racist tendencies or believed African Americans were beneath whites in some way. However, Brown truly believed that African Americans should be as free as he is, and he fought for that cause for much of his life. 

Frederick Douglass, the famed escaped slave who became a leading abolitionist in the north, visited the church in Springfield and met Brown who really influenced his thinking on the end of slavery. Brown told him that the only way out of slavery was violence and war, and showed him his plan to create a corridor into the South for slaves to come and have the ability to defend themselves. 

On reflecting his meeting with Brown, Douglass wrote, “Though a white gentleman, he is in sympathy with the black man and is deeply interested in our cause as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.” 

“I think perhaps his intensity of advocacy against evil, and when we confront evil society it’s going to take people to commit to a great deal to fight it, and [Brown] is an example of it,” said Carvalho on the takeaway of Brown’s abolition work. 

Moss proposed the comparison of Brown’s ideals and the American racial climate we live in today, making audience members consider the similarities and differences of racism in the 1800s versus now. 

Even today, Brown comes up a lot in conversations in discussing allyship with the black community, and what that should look like in order to create effective movements and relationships. 

“A real ally is one who’s willing to put blood, life, family on the line to ensure that his neighbor is just as free as he is,” said Moss. 

The panel provided an important discussion about empathy, being an ally, and understanding the impact that both of these things can have on the issues with racism that is still so prevalent in our world today. Insight from many different perspectives was provided, and it was an engaging way to learn more about racism for students, faculty, and members of the Springfield College community. 

Photo: Springfield College

Additional Day to Confront Racism Coverage

“The Past is the Present” focuses on impact of 1619 Project


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