Salena Zito

“Some people considered Brown a terrorist, but most blacks consider him a freedom fighter.”

In many respects, everyone – blacks, whites; Northerners, Southerners – is uncomfortable with the issues surrounding the Civil War. It was the most contentious time of our history, yet it did happen, we did learn from it, and we did move forward.

The businesses, homes, even the cobbled streets of Harpers Ferry remain remarkably tied to a different era. You almost feel as though you are somewhere very special, whether you arrive here by train, hike through on the Appalachian Trail, or come by car to retrace history.

“What happened here in 1859 caused a panic across the country,” says Caroline Janney, a Purdue University history professor. “While the majority of white northerners denounced Brown’s actions, there was enough mixed reaction (church bells ringing in his honor, newspapers praising him) to cause a stir among white southerners.”

A massive slave rebellion long had been one of the South’s great fears.

“As the 150th anniversary of the war approaches, we should seek to avoid the pitfalls that beset the Civil War’s centennial, which was mired in racism and Cold War politics,” Janney says.

That does not mean we should avoid controversial topics such as slavery.

By engaging in thoughtful, meaningful dialogue about the war’s causes and consequences, one hopes we can better understand contemporary politics and race relations, Janney explains.

Mayor Addy says the town’s mayor during Brown’s raid, Fontaine Beckham, died during the attack. “People expect you, as mayor, to do something,” he says. “Well, he did. Beckham stuck his head out and was shot.

“The townsfolk still expect the mayor to do something even today,” Addy said. “Only now the worst thing I have to do is to pick-up the trash.”

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.