Westport 11/21

After the recent Congressional race, which was won by a Democrat for the first time in a century and half, much was made in the press of the North Country's lack of racial diversity as compared with the rest of the nation. That may be true, but that doesn't mean that our region-and our town-didn't play an important role in the struggle for civil rights.

In fact, the Republican stranglehold on the North Country dates from the Civil War era, when the Republican Party was created in order to advance the cause of abolition. And before that, starting in the 1840s, an abolitionist named Gerrit Smith led an effort to settle free black farmers on some 120,000 acres of farmland in North Elba. That attempt failed, but not before it brought another abolitionist named John Brown to the North Country to settle on his own farm in North Elba.

This year, in addition to being the quadricentennial of Samuel de Champlain's journey, also happens to the 150th anniversary of John Brown's famous raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia (October 16, 1859) and his subsequent execution (December 2, 1859) upon being captured and tried by the government. After his death (but before it started a-moldering in the grave), John Brown's body was accompanied by his widow and surviving sons in procession back to North Elba, where it is buried.

In Westport and elsewhere over the next couple of weeks, a number of special events will commemorate this historic journey. What makes our little town important in this celebration is the fact that the body was brought across the lake at Barber's Point, on the horse-powered ferry that used to run there.

That happened on December 6, 1859. At noon on Sunday, December 6, Westport will host a reenactment of the funeral cortege's arrival, which will take place at the Westport Marina. "John Brown's body" will then be brought up to the Heritage House, where, starting at 1 p.m., the acclaimed novelist (and Keene Valley resident) Russell Banks will read from his novel about John Brown, Cloudsplitter. After that, historian Don Papson will give a lecture entitled "John Brown and the Underground Railroad."

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