Berger’s Burg: Black-white partnerships boosted antislavery efforts

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“Black History Month is the celebration of culture, pride, achievement and intestinal fortitude.” – Arthur T. Matthews

“White participation helped right many of the wrongs in black history.” – Alex Berger

February is Black History Month. Many people may not know that the progress achieved by blacks in their antislavery struggle would not have occurred without the interest, the support, the involvement, the money and the very lives of whites who were dedicated to the cause of freedom for all races. So, let me weave through the month of February, date by date, to illustrate the black-white partnership that attained success for both races.

Black poet Langston Hughes was born on Feb. 1, 1902; the first female physician and an abolitionist, Elizabeth Blackwell, was born on Feb. 3, 1821; Rosa Parks, arrested in 1965 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Ala., was born on Feb. 4, 1913; and baseball great Hank Aaron was born on Feb. 5, 1934.

Black composer and pianist Eubie Blake was born on Feb. 7, 1883; Black author Alice Walker was born on Feb. 9, 1944; South African leader Nelson Mandela was released from South African prison on Feb. 11, 1990 after spending more than half his life in captivity; Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, who freed America’s slaves, was born on Feb. 12, 1809; and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded 100 years later.

Abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglas was born on Feb. 14, 1817; pioneer of women’s suffrage and active abolitionist Susan B. Anthony was born on Feb. 15, 1820; opera singer Marian Anderson was born on Feb. 17, 1902; and basketball great Michael Jordan also was born on Feb. 17, 1963.

Black nationalist Malcolm X was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965; the first president of United States, George Washington, who freed his slaves, was born on Feb. 22, 1732; educator and civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois was born on Feb. 23, 1868; and the first black senator in United States, Hiram Rhodes, was sworn in on Feb. 25, 1870. This is quite an impressive list of February’s black and white participants in the effort to defeat slavery.

As we celebrate Black History Month, the stories of other distinguished black Americans will appear, from freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, Flushing’s own James Bland (composer), inventor George Washington Carver, activist Paul Robeson, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Secretary of State Colin Powell to National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and others.

Their accomplishments will appear in print and television and be taught in schools. Their fame is universal, as it should be. But frequently omitted is the enormous and vital assistance given by whites to the cause.

One in particular involves John Brown (1800-1859) and the Underground Railroad of the mid-1800s. It successfully helped transport thousands of fugitive black slaves to freedom in the North and Canada via a secret network of routes from the Deep South heading north to New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Ontario.

Safe passage arrangements were made, requiring slaves to hide in freight boxes, coastal vessel cargo, railway coal-cars, covered farm wagons, row boats and the wood aboard northbound paddle wheelers. The enslaved blacks’ road to freedom was planned and carried out by 4,200 volunteer agents, both blacks and whites.

One such white man was “John Brown, the radical abolitionist (who) remains one of the most controversial figures in American history,” according to the article “August Bondi: the Jew Who Fought Beside John Brown” on the American Jewish Historical Society Web site, The son of an abolitionist, Brown dedicated his life to freeing slaves. He was a pacifist at 20, a businessman at 50 and a revolutionary at 59. Brown was in touch with most black leaders of the time, and he led the ill-fated Harpers Ferry incident.

He raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va. in 1859, an act for which he was executed. He was as formidable in capture as he was in combat. Brown inspired and set the mood for the Civil War.

He was a man who committed himself totally to the abolition of slavery. As the old spiritual said, “John Brown’s body lies a molding in the grave, but his soul goes marching on.” His body lies buried in New York state, six miles south of Lake Placid in the farm Brown purchased after he left Ohio. He lived there until he joined the freedom fight in Kansas.

“Some see him as a principled freedom fighter, others as an outlaw. Brown led the anti-slavery Free State forces in ‘Bloody Kansas,’ which many historians see as a rehearsal for the Civil War,” the AJHS Web site states. “Brown reached the height of his notoriety in a raid at Harpers Ferry.”

Was he a saint or a mad man? You decide.

Interestingly, “not well known is that three immigrant Jews were among Brown’s small band of antislavery fighters in Kansas: Theodore Weiner from Poland, Jacob Benjamin from Bohemia and August Bondi from Vienna,” the Web site says. None of the three, however, accompanied Brown in the Harpers Ferry raid.

I will end the column by relating a story written in 1990 by Illano Bravo, then a fifth-grade student from Woodside’s PS 229 (Gloria’s previous school). The essay was a semifinalist winner in the Italian Heritage contest of that year.

“Once upon a time in the African jungle, there lived two tribes of horses, a white tribe and a black tribe. They despised each other greatly but they both had to drink from the same river. Neither tribe of horses liked the idea but there was no other place for them to go get water.

“One day at the river, the white tribe told the black tribe to find another place to drink. The black tribe got very angry and declared war on the white tribe. The head of the black tribe (ultimately) agreed to meet with the head of the white tribe. The time was dawn.

“The next day they met and both had looks of exasperation on their faces. All of a sudden, the Great Spirit appeared and spoke to them. He said they (both) were behaving very badly and both would have to be punished.

“With these words, he turned them all black and white; the white horses had black stripes and the black horses had white stripes. After that, they never fought again. And to this day, the zebra is still one of the world’s most beautiful animals.” Eracism!

Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, ext. 140.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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