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A Free Black Woman Writes to Imprisoned John Brown

In October 1859, a militant white abolitionist named John Brown led a small band of black and white anti-slavery fighters in a bold assault on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. Their goal was to capture a large store of weapons, liberate slaves, and wage a guerilla was against local slaveholders. Their plan quickly collapsed, however, and Brown and his men were caught, tried, and hung as traitors. To southern planters, Brown symbolized everything that was evil. But, as the following letter shows, many abolitionists and African Americans considered Brown and his raiders heroes. The raid struck a sharp and emotional chord in the African-American community.

Kendallville, Indiana

Dear friend: Although the hands of Slavery throw a barrier between you and me, and it may not be my privilege to see you in the prison house, Virginia has no bolts or bars through which I dread to send you my sympathy. In the name of the young girl sold from the warm clasp of a mother’s arms to the clutches of a libertine or profligate (a completely immoral and shameless person), - in the name of the slave mother, her heart rocked to and fro by the agony of her mournful separations -- I thank you that you have been brave enough to reach out your hands to the crushed and blighted of my race. You have rocked the bloody Bastille (a famous prison stormed and liberated during the French Revolution in 1789); and I hope from your sad fate great good may arise to the cause of freedom. Already from your prison has come a shout of triumph against the giant sin of our country….

We may earnestly hope that your fate will not be a vain lesson, that it will intensify our hatred of Slavery and love of Freedom, and that your martyr grave will be a sacred altar upon which men will record their vows of undying hatred to that system which tramples on man and bids defiance to God. I have written to your dear wife, and sent her a few dollars, and I pledge myself to you and I will continue to assist her….

Source | American Social History Project, Freedom's Unfinished Revolution: An Inquiry into the Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: New Press, 1996), 51.
Creator | Frances Ellen Watkins
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | Frances Ellen Watkins, “A Free Black Woman Writes to Imprisoned John Brown,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 4, 2023,

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