Abolitionist HQ reborn a century later as a black nightclub
The year is 1959. African-Americans from Hagerstown, Winchester, Martinsburg and Charles Town travel over dark, back-country roads to a common destination in southern Washington County. Hundreds of black people gather every weekend for this vital mission – to let the good times roll.
Music-lovers spill out of jam-packed cars and tumble out of pickup trucks. They stream toward the rhythmic sounds throbbing from a low-lying block building. At the far end of the long narrow structure, an electrifying young entertainer dominates the event. James Brown is on stage.
Brown’s band, studded with pioneering rhythm and blues players from Little Richard’s former band, are laying down a funky groove. The Godfather of Soul twirls, drops down into the splits, and pops back up again. The crowd squeals in delight. The good times are rolling tonight.
The year is 1959. The place is the farm known locally as the John Brown farm.
A music venue with a history
A century earlier, on Oct. 16, 1859, from this same plot of land, the abolitionist John Brown staged his infamous raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Va. (now in West Virginia). Brown rented the farm from the estate of Robert Kennedy. Brown organized and planned his raid on the armory, and gathered and trained 21 troops.
The raid went well initially, as Brown’s party easily gained control of the virtually undefended armory and its cache of rifles. He intended to use the weapons produced at the armory to arm slaves to facilitate their fight for freedom. But two days later, Brown was captured by a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee. Brown was tried for murder, inciting to rebellion and treason. A jury found him guilty on all three counts and he was hanged.
Still, Brown’s raid was a factor in the decision of Southern states to secede from the Union, which led to the Civil War.
Decades passed and the Kennedy Farm fell into serious disrepair. In 1950, at the urging of Leonard Curlin of Hagerstown, the property was purchased by the Tri-State chapter of the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks of the World, known as the Black Elks. They wanted to restore the house and make it a memorial to Brown and his efforts to fight slavery.
A nightclub is born
During the years that the Elks owned the property, they hosted a variety of events there. Charles Harris of Winchester, Va., attended primarily the family-friendly events as a youngster on Saturday afternoons, but he remembers hearing about other events. “It was a fun place,” he recalled. People from as far away as Washington and Baltimore came to stay for the weekend in what Harris called “cabins.” There are still three boxy little houses on the property that fit Harris’s description.
But the venue’s prime reputation was its nightclub scene.
Leonard Cooper, owner of Just Us Hair Cuts in Hagerstown, grew up in Charles Town, W.Va. He recalled the musicians performing at what he called John Brown’s Farm. He remembers seeing Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross (probably with the Primettes) and The Drifters. He especially remembered Chubby Checker’s performance.
“I’ll never forget that day” he said. “Everybody was twistin’ all night long. Cats, dogs, even the cockroaches were doing the Twist.”
He said people from all levels of society rubbed shoulders at the performances.
High-profile acts, under-the-radar venue
The principal people driving the nightclub scene at the farm were booking agents John Bishop of Winchester, Va., and Leonard Harris of Martinsburg, W.Va. Bishop ran The Orchard Inn near Berryville, Va.; he died about two years ago. Martinsburg resident Harris ran the 701 Club in Martinsburg.
From time to time, Bishop and Harris booked high-profile acts. Because audiences for these concerts were larger than their clubs could handle, the two men rented the Kennedy Farm property from the Elks. They also made the financial arrangements with the artists, usually a 60-40 split, with the artist getting the larger piece. Promotion was largely by word of mouth, but they also utilized an extensive network of African-American-owned businesses to display posters of upcoming events.
Under Harris and Bishop’s leadership, the John Brown farm became one of the smaller stops on the Chitlin’ Circuit. That was the name given to a succession of venues throughout the Southern and Eastern United States where black musicians and comedians were welcome and safe to perform. It included the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater in New York City, the Howard Theatre in Washington and the Royal Theatre in Baltimore.
Well-managed music business
In the heyday of the music scene at the Kennedy farm, its patrons saw many performers, including Ray Charles, Tina Turner, the Cadillacs and Jackie Wilson. An exuberant club atmosphere was available for patrons – if they could find it. The Kennedy Farm is on Chestnut Grove Road south of Sharpsburg – a remote destination in a rural part of Washington County.