Recently, my University of Akron American studies class took a field trip to the John Brown Memorial, the decaying monument on the hillside near the Akron Zoo. It wasn’t the first class I’d taken there. Usually we sit on the stone bench surrounding the pillar and debate the question of whether the militant abolitionist should be viewed as a hero or a terrorist. But that question seems increasingly artificial; this group clearly saw Brown as a warrior for the oppressed.
So I handed out a list of questions and asked the students to discuss on their own while I listened and recorded the conversation. Here’s what they said.
Question 1: What is your reaction to the current condition of the memorial?
“The moss is aesthetic.”
“The moss is a nice touch?”
“Yeah I think so. I like it. I feel like a memorial is supposed to kind of look, like, worn in. Like it’s been here for a while.”
“But it’s not all good. It’s a memorial not an oak tree. It’s John Brown’s memorial not ‘Otto and April’s.’ " (The student refers to graffiti carved into the monument: “Otto Loves April.”)
“Yeah, Otto and April are with us.”
“What’s the second question?”
Question 2: What does this memorial say about the legacy of “the man who killed slavery, sparked the Civil War, and seeded civil rights”?
“People don’t really care.”
“It’s hidden. Intentionally or unintentionally. I mean not many people know of John Brown, I didn’t until this class. And it’s out in the woods.”
“I’ve lived in Akron my whole life and I didn’t know this was here.”
“I like how it’s seated on a high hill though. It was meant to be seen. … But it’s not now.”
Question 3: What does the memorial say about Akron history? About Akron today?
“It’s a weird location. I mean it’s near the city but you have to unlock a gate and hike this weird way to find it. All around is industrialized but this is out in the woods.”
“I think it does relate to most of Akron history because Akron is a historically rich city. But a lot of us never think about it anymore. You know, Goodyear and all that jazz. I mean, a lot of Akronites don’t really know what they’re walking on.”
“I think also, that if you compare this memorial to memorials in the South that are of confederate soldiers, and leaders, that are erected right in the middle of cities and kept well continuously, and this one’s hidden away. Well, this was clearly, like, a march against slavery. And it’s been hidden.”
“Hmm that maybe relates to the last question, right?”
Question 4: Does this memorial show or suggest anything about the United States in 2019? If so, what?
“I mean, you’re talking about an about an abolitionist monument hidden, and neglected, and decaying, while people are fighting tenaciously, to preserve monuments to slaveholders.”
“So what’s up with that?”
[Laughing, and an exclamation]: “What is up with that?”
“Well the argument for those monuments in the South — and some in the North obviously — is that, ‘these are historical monuments so we have to keep them,’ because they mark a history that happened and you can’t erase history. … But it’s the type of history they want to preserve. They erect those monuments to, like, threaten people of color in the South. And this one is just as historical — and just as important — as those ones. And it looks like people don’t want to see it kept up — kept well.”
“This could have been the heart of Akron and instead it’s treated like a black eye, covered up and ignored.”
“It shows too much apathy.”
“Too much apathy?”
‘Yeah. It might not be direct … like … it might not be, necessarily, that people are trying to say, you know, ‘Oh John Brown, hide him away’ — but nobody’s actively trying to preserve this or advertise it either. And that’s just as bad, that we’re so apathetic about this very … I mean … If this is such a high tension part of history, why are we so apathetic toward it?”
At this point I was satisfied, “Hmm. OK, I’ll leave you guys alone,” I said. A few minutes later we took a class photo in front of the monument, then walked down the hill to our cars, arriving back on campus in time for our next classes. From start to finish the trip ate up about an hour. The above recorded conversation took 6 minutes and 38 seconds, but it was worth a semester.
Chura is a professor of English at the University of Akron.