Author explores hidden local history, from John Brown to James Brown
Many from the Eastern Panhandle have heard of John Brown and his infamous raid on Harpers Ferry. However, few have heard of John Brown’s Farm and role it played in civil rights history.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Ed Maliskas, author of From John Brown to James Brown. “This farm could be one of the biggest civil rights locations in the country.”
Nestled in the hills of southern Washington County, John Brown’s farm is across the river from Harpers Ferry and was there in 1859 when the famed abolitionist planned the deadly raid on a Virginia arsenal.
A hundred years later, the farm was bought by the Black Elks fraternal organization to honor John Brown. While they held the property, the biggest names in music performed there like James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, the Drifters, Fat’s Domino and BB King.
“I only heard of it by chance,” Maliskas said. “It started when I forgot to bring enough winter clothes when I moved here from Miami. I went to a local consignment shop and just started talking about music with a guy there.”
Ed Maliskas moved to the area in 2008 from Miami but brought his love of music and history with him.
“This guy in the consignment shop was talking about the biggest names in music,” Maliskas said. “I couldn’t find any information on it. I tried to find more but some people just thought this guy was crazy and I was a fool for believing him.”
Maliskas dug deep to find the truth about the hidden past of John Brown’s Farm.
“I interviewed over 100 older African-Americanss from around the area to see if they knew anything about the farm or if they’d been there,” Maliskas said. “What I found was astonishing.”
Almost exactly a hundred years after John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, a new kind of assault was being launched; a musical barrage on the eardrums from the biggest names in rythm and blues.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Maliskas. “We have a story here.”
In 1950, at the urging of Leonard Curlin, a Hagerstown Elk, the property was purchased by the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks of the World, the Black Elks, said Maliskas.
The IBPOEW describes itself as a fraternal organization “committed to the economic, personal, and academic advancement” and works to preserve locations “that have played a role in every phase of the African-American experience.”
“From 1950 to 1965,” said Maliskas, “the organization preserved the site and got the some of the biggest names in music to come to this farm.”
The events at John Brown’s Farm perhaps would not have happened without the promoters driving the music scene.
Leonard Harris, from Martinsburg, ran the 701 Club and still lives in the area. John Bishop, of Winchester, ran “The Orchard Inn” in Berryville.
Harris and Bishop split the financial risks and came together to bring the acts to the stage, said Maliskas.
“They knew some people who worked at Carrs-beach,” said Maliskas. “It was an African-American beach in Maryland where acts had played and they got them up to John Brown’s Farm.”
Once the acts began performing and word spread, the capacity at John Brown’s Farm grew larger and larger.
Maliskas said that it really was Bishop who was the entrepreneur of the concerts with an occasional assist from Harris.
“They’d have about 400 or 500 there on a regular night,” said Maliskas. “But when the bigger acts came, they’d have thousands of young African-Americans from New York to Georgia bused in.”
It’s remarkable that such icons of the era maintained a low-key environment but as Milaskas learned more, he wasn’t surprised.
“The area was pretty racist,” said Maliskas. “This was during segregation and the black community just kind of kept to themselves. Also, the road to get there was kind of rugged and I think you really needed to know where you were going.”
John Brown’s Farm became an open secret to the community who knew and loved the various acts that came to grace the stage.
The historic farm, once home to plans of rebellion, became a music dancehall that filled the hearts and minds of the local community with sounds of posivity and dance in the middle of segregated America.
“This is a real important cultural spot,” said Maliskas. “The connections between the abolitionist John Brown, the IBPOEW’s civil rights work and the major music stars, this is a truly unique landmark.”
Ed Maliskas encourages more to learn about the hidden history of John Brown’s Farm and hopes those interested will read his book, which is heading for the printing press in about a week.
Interested parties can find out more information using his facebook page,www.Facebook.com/edmaliskasauthor.
– Matt Dellinger is a staff reporter for The Journal and can be reached at 304-263-3381 Ext. 128 or on Twitter at @MattDellJN