Lawhorn’s Lawrence: Kerry Altenbernd and the spirit of John Brown
John Brown is a great stress reliever.
Think about it: When you’re John Brown you can pound tables, yell from your gut, fire your pistol in the air. Try that as Joe Blow and it’s likely to lead to a long night on the couch, or worse.
“I always feel great after I’ve been John Brown,” says Kerry Altenbernd, who since 2006 has been portraying the famed abolitionist and militant at events ranging from re-enactments at the Black Jack Battlefield site in southern Douglas County to classroom speeches at schools across the area. “Yelling isn’t really part of my personality, but I find I can do it when I’m John Brown. It helps that it is John Brown saying it.”
So, there you go. The next time a certain someone chides me for not taking out the trash in a timely manner, perhaps I’ll just channel my inner John Brown: The fury, the indignation, the zeal. Maybe we all need to channel our inner madman from time to time.
Maybe we’ll all be wearing kitchen garbage cans as hats, if we do.
No, there may be a reason that not all of us portray John Brown. It’s likely most of us don’t understand John Brown like Kerry does.
“I know some people do John Brown as the crazy man, but I don’t think that is what he was,” Kerry says. “That’s not to say I don’t overdo it some and pound some tables, but I don’t think he was crazy. I think he was a hero.”
What’s crazy is how Kerry Altenbernd came to play John Brown. While away on vacation in July 2006, someone dropped off at Kerry’s office a script called Harpers Ferry Chronicles. It was interesting, Kerry remembers. It got more interesting when Kerry learned the script’s author wanted him to play John Brown in an upcoming charity production of the play.
Kerry was uncertain that he was the right fellow for the part, especially considering his last performance was as Injun Joe in a middle school production 40 years earlier. But if you’re ever wondering what would happen if Napoleon and John Brown met, just look at Kerry Altenbernd. You see, the script’s author was Lawrence resident Napoleon Crews, and he was insistent that Kerry was the man for the part of John Brown.
“He told me that he had thought about it, mediated about it, prayed about, and my name is the one that kept coming to him,” Kerry says. “How do you say no to that?”
At this point maybe it is good to remind you about John Brown because, unfortunately, some of you might just know him as that long-bearded dude on the cover of Kansas’ 1974 album. Brown, most would agree, was one of the country’s more zealous abolitionists before the Civil War, and probably its most militant. He got that reputation in these parts.
Brown led what has become known as the Pottawatomie Massacre in Franklin County, where five men were killed in grotesque fashion with broadswords. The attack generally is considered to be Brown’s retaliation for the 1856 sacking of Lawrence. Later, Brown would lead a group of Free State supporters against pro-slavery men in what has become known as the Battle of Black Jack on a site east of Baldwin City. Brown is best known for his ill-fated attack on the armory at Harpers Ferry, where he tried to secure weapons to arm slaves. He was hanged.
So, I’ll leave it to you to determine just how high an honor it was to be considered the perfect man to play John Brown. Kerry did the play for a church production, and was certain he and John Brown had parted ways. But one of his daughters at the time was in high school. And one of her teachers had heard about the performance, sparking a note to be delivered to his daughter: “Dad John Brown? Let’s talk.”
So, Kerry bought a few old-time clothes, did a skit for a high school class, and began to realize maybe John Brown wasn’t going anywhere.
The teacher raved about his performance, and encouraged him to do more. Before he knew it, he was performing at various events around Lawrence and connected with Baldwin City’s Maple Leaf Festival. Now, he has people come up to him and ask “how you doing, John,” and joking about how much white dye he must use for his hair and long beard.”
“I do answer to John now,” Kerry says.
Usually, Kerry does six to eight performances a year, with the majority coming at the Black Jack property, a site he helped save and get listed as a National Historic Landmark. But Kerry, 62, would like to do more performances.
“I have people come up to me and say they never liked history, but having it told in this way makes it interesting,” he says. “I would like to make this a part-time profession, but what I really want to do is get the story out about John Brown because I believe in him. I get the feeling I’m supposed to be doing this.”
Kerry believes that John Brown is one of the five most important figures in American history.
Proving why he has not made his fortune compiling lists on the Internet, Kerry admits he doesn’t know who the other four are. “I just know John Brown has to be in the top five.”
Kerry is firm about that for a reason. He believes there hadn’t ever been a figure quite like John Brown.
“There were a lot of people who were abolitionists but didn’t like black people,” Kerry says. “They were racists, but they were racists with a heart. But Brown wasn’t that way. He literally saw every slave in America as one of his brothers and sisters.”
Kerry, though, understands why Brown was controversial in his time, and continues to be so today. It was primarily the violence. Brown would not only kill, but at times — like the Pottawatomie Massacre — would seem to do so with a certain zeal. That can be tough to defend, but Kerry says he tries to remind people that men should be judged in the times that they lived.
“I try to let people know what Kansas was like then,” Kerry says. “He wasn’t doing this out of nothing. It was an escalation of violence, but there had been violence before.”
Kerry says he tells people trying to imagine what Kansas was like from 1854 to 1859 to remember the stories of what Iraq was like in 2004 to 2009.
“He was a peaceful man up until he came to Kansas,” Kerry says. “Kansas radicalized him because of how bad the situation was out here.”
Kerry often begins his performances by popping onto the stage while someone is lecturing about the Bleeding Kansas period. “I’ll say excuse me, brother,” Kerry explains. “I’m John Brown and may I tell a story?”
What comes next it is always unscripted, but has become so natural to Kerry that he could perform it at the drop of a hat.
“I usually will tell about a black boy I had befriended and how I saw him beaten with a metal coal shovel,” Kerry says of the performance. “That usually changes the mood. I don’t tell it any differently in front of 7th graders than I do adults. I talk about the beatings and the shootings because everyone deserves to know.”
John Brown’s story helps people understand Kansas’ story. For a time, there was no place more important than Kansas. It is where beliefs turned to blood, and where ordinary men undertook the extraordinary task of drawing the line on slavery. For Kerry, a native Kansan whose family history in Douglas County dates to about 1860, it’s important that people understand that history.
But that may not be the most important takeaway from John Brown’s story. As odd as it may sound, the takeaway is we all can act a bit like John Brown. It’s widely agreed that we should leave the pistols and broadswords in storage. Just like Kerry, we shouldn’t attempt to be John Brown. But we should remember to speak like him at times. We should use those words he so often chose to start a conversation. Brother. Sister. The world might be better if we said those with as much zeal as America’s most famous zealot.
“Love your fellow man,” Kerry says of the lesson he hopes people take from John Brown. “He knew — he didn’t believe — he knew all men were brothers and sisters. That is something we all talk about, but we haven’t yet learned.”
— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at email@example.com.