DU BOIS, JOHN BROWN,
AND BLACK RESISTANCE
Amid the empty rhetoric and commercialized hype over the millennium, we risked missing an anniversary of tremendous significance. The year 2000 marked the 200th anniversary of John Brown's birth. In his magnificent 1909 biography of Brown, the great African American scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois perfectly set the grand and workaday context of Brown's birth and of Brown's greatness: “Just at the close of the eighteenth century, first in Philadelphia and then in New York, small groups of [free Blacks] withdrew from white churches and established churches of their own, which still have millions of adherents. In the year of John Brown's birth, 1800, Gabriel planned his formidable uprising in Virginia. ” In Black Thunder, Arna Bontemps's remarkable novel on Gabriel's Rebellion, 1800 became the year that would “positively let no Virginian sleep. ” Herbert Aptheker, following Du Bois, has pronounced 1800 probably “the most fateful year in the history of American Negro slave revolts …, ” emphasizing that it saw the birth of Nat Turner as well as of Brown and that Denmark Vesey, a third great strategist of revolt, bought his freedom at that time with lottery winnings. Indeed, as Douglas Egerton's recent study of Vesey reminds us, it was precisely the first moment of 1800 when Vesey drew his first free breath. Twenty-two years later, Du Bois wrote, Vesey would go “grimly to the scaffold, after one of the shrewdest Negro plots ever to frighten the South into hysterics. ” In 1859 Brown himself would plot a daring raid on the federal arsenal town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to generate a vast freedom movement by slaves.