“John Brown to James Brown – The Little Farm Where Liberty Budded, Blossomed, and Boogied”
Every summer weekend for 15 years from 1950 -1965, dozens of young black people from Shepherdstown disappeared into the night. Several hours later they returned, exhausted. They had been dancing the night away at John Brown’s Farm!
John Brown’s Farm, also known as the Kennedy Farm, is located in southern Washington County, Maryland, just ten miles from Shepherdstown. That property served as the staging site for the abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry that led directly to the Civil War. Nearly a century later, in the late 1940s, the Black Elks national fraternal organization (IBPOEW) learned that the property had come up for sale. Wanting to create a memorial to Brown, they purchased the 235-acre property and promptly began developing it as their National Shrine.
As the Elks held various daytime events at the Farm, as many as 5,000 members, family, and friends came via buses and cars to what Maryland State Senator Joanne C. Benson (who attended the dances in her youth) called, “a village, a refuge, a family.”
But it was not those afternoon dances that caused black teenagers and young adults to disappear from Shepherdstown. Rather, it was the Saturday and Sunday night dances. There a young party-goer could meet up with other African-Americans from a seventy-five mile radius of the Farm.
Cars full of revelers sporting license plates from Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., would converge on the little farm near Sharpsburg, Maryland. As they approached the low-lying concrete block auditorium built by the Elks and used as the dance hall, the party was already started. As Rudy Hall of Frederick put it, “You could have a bigger party on the outside than you had on the inside!”
Once inside, however, 400-500 black youth experienced on a weekly summertime basis an astounding array of talent. Among the performers were a virtual “Who’s Who” of rhythm and blues: Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Ray Charles, Chubby Checker, Ike and Tina Turner, the Drifters, Dionne Warwick, Little Richard, Marvin Gaye, B. B. King, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and we’re literally just getting started!
A Black Entertainment Mecca Flying Under the Radar of White Culture
How did all this happen? Author Ed Maliskas spent the last seven years finding out. His book “John Brown to James Brown” (Hamilton Run Press, 2016) explores the history and historical significance of what he contends should be given serious consideration as the premier civil rights site in the United States.
He argues, “There are other important civil rights sites: for instance, Montgomery, Alabama, where Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, the Supreme Court Building where the 1954 ‘Brown vs. the Board of Education’ decision was handed down, and the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Dr. King was assassinated. But John Brown’s Farm had three important and distinct uses.
“The property not only hosted the training for John Brown’s raid, it also served as the virtual national headquarters of the country’s most influential black fraternal organization at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Finally, that dance hall, one of the more important mid-sized venues on the black entertainment network known as ‘The Chitlin’ Circuit, nurtured black musicians at the very time that what had previously been derided as ‘race music’ was becoming the popular music of America’s youth, white and black. Thus, the old abolitionist’s dream of the equality and fraternity of the races was brought to fruition as America’s youth began to listen to, dance to, and love the same music.”
Maliskas starts his book with a story about how he found out about this long-neglected story by way of a chance encounter in Hagerstown, Maryland, with a black man from Martinsburg, WV, Wendell Greene. Maliskas spends several chapters explaining how John Brown himself wound his way from Bloody Kansas to this little farm where he trained some twenty men over the course of three and a half months. That section concludes with Brown’s raid, capture, trial, and hanging the event that precipitated the Civil War and the end of race-based slavery in the United States.
The author also documents the subsequent history of the property, including its purchase and development by the Elks. The man responsible for booking all of those famous R&B acts into John Brown’s Farm was John Bishop, a black entrepreneur who settled in Charles Town following WWII. The caretaker of the property was another black man, Maynard Henderson, whose family had longstanding roots on the eastern slope of South Mountain in Frederick County, Maryland.
The high point of the book is probably the experience of more than a hundred interviewees who attended the dances in their youth. The book tells delightful stories of the clothing the young revelers wore, the dances they danced, the hilarious rides to John Brown’s Farm, and the often dangerous rides they took homeward over the dark and winding roads heading back to Charles Town, Martinsburg, Frederick, Hagerstown and Shepherdstown.
Another section of the book relays the stories the attendees recalled about the performers, and also several accounts the performers had of their experiences playing at John Brown’s Farm. Finally, there is a lengthy section of one-page bios of the more than sixty performers thus far documented who displayed their talents at John Brown’s Farm.
The Condition of John Brown’s Farm Today
The old farmhouse that once knew John Brown’s voice has been authentically restored. The once vibrant auditorium, however, has become a dilapidated old hulk. The former dance hall’s windows have been boarded. Its doors slouch on their hinges. There has been a fire. You can barely make out the faded IBPOEW insignia on the badly chipped floor. There are holes in the roof and mold in the walls. No longer do the block walls and tiled floors reverberate with the piano riffs of Ray Charles, the shouts of the Isley Brothers, the high heels of Tina Turner, the tongue-trills of Billy Stewart, the doo-wops of the Orioles, and the shrieks of James Brown.
Each passing year left behind fewer people who knew those vivacious days at John Brown’s Farm. Those who once knew have forgotten some things. Some of those who once knew have forgotten everything. Somebody ought to do something before everybody forgets everything.
Well, author Ed Maliskas did something. He interviewed hundreds of gracious people who shared what they remembered of those glorious days in their youth when John Brown’s Farm beckoned young black people from literally a hundred towns, villages and wide spots in the road to disappear into the night.
The result is a well-written, easy to read, account that history-lovers have trouble putting down. “John Brown to James Brown” comes in two versions: hard cover and paperback. They are available through amazon.com and several area bookstores, including Turn the Page in Boonsboro, and Four Seasons Books.