"This is John Brown in 1859 and here's James Brown in 1959," Hagerstown author Ed Maliskas said while on a recent visit to the Kennedy Farm in southeastern Washington County. He gestured at an old farmhouse where John Brown planned his raid and a former Elks lodge behind the farmhouse where James Brown once electrified audiences. This connection is the source of Maliskas' new book, "John Brown to James Brown."
On the cold, crisp morning, there was dew on the ground and a golden orange sun in the sky. Far down winding Sharpsburg roads with signs like "Falling Rocks" and "Narrow Bridge," John Brown built a collective of fighters and ammunition so that slave descendants like James Brown could be free.
Members of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, known as Colored Elks or Black Elks, were moved by W.E.B. DuBois' biographical account of John Brown.
"They thought that Abraham Lincoln was great, but they thought John Brown was better as far as who did something to really end slavery," Maliskas explained. "They think without that precipitating factor, the United States could have gone on [and continued slavery]."
The remote two-story log cabin where Brown prayed, planned and stocked supplies still had privacy concerns. Impoverished neighbors who rented the farm behind the Kennedy farmhouse could peer through the windows, and "officials were getting increasingly inquisitive," according to Maliskas' book.
Inside, Maliskas noted that Brown led daily devotions and encouraged the discussion of religion and slavery. Maliskas even cited that Osborne Anderson, a black participant of Brown's raid, described the Kennedy Farm atmosphere as free of "hateful prejudice" where "no ghost of distinction found space to enter ..."
Brown announced the last-minute date of his raid out of fear that his plot would be foiled before it began. He was later hanged for planning the raid, and two years after that, the Civil War began.
The Black Elks valued this historical tie to slavery's denouement. By the early 1950s, the organization owned the Kennedy Farm.
"When this land was purchased by the Black Elks," Maliskas said, "they were the largest, most influential black fraternal organization in the United States at the height of the civil rights movement, so they had a lot of influence."
So much influence that Black Elks leader J. Finley Wilson was invited to the White House in 1935 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in hopes of gaining the Black Elks' political support.
At the Kennedy Farm, the Black Elks had plans to fulfill their mission of African-American empowerment. "Make a retirement center, youth center, pool, tennis courts, almost 200 cabins were supposed to get here," Malisksas said. He called those plans "the single largest building project in southern Washington County." That plan did not happen because county officials declined the Black Elks' repeated requests to improve local roads.
"The membership was saying, we're coming in on buses. Sometimes we can't even get our buses around here. It's ridiculous ... We've got these gigantic plans, and we've got to have better roads, and the county straightened up one little area there. There was a place where it got flooded, and you can run into a telephone pole. And that's apparently all they did."
Somehow, even with poor roads, summer weekends at the Kennedy Farm in the 1950s and '60s had the top soul music talent of the time. Kennedy Farm, then known as John Brown's Farm, was a chitlin circuit stop where African-American entertainers performed for segregated black audiences.
"Inside there, for 15 years, on almost every summer weekend were 400 or so young black people dancing up a storm to Little Richard, and James Brown, and Ike and Tina Turner, and Aretha Franklin," Maliskas shared in enthusiastic wonder. "All these people were in there."
From the outside, the Elks lodge building doesn't seem able to contain 400 people. Likely, many concertgoers were scattered across the sloping lawn.
With Black Elks connections across West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C., Maliskas noted that there were African-Americans from a 50- to 75-mile radius despite few black families in the surrounding area.
The next month at Fisherman's Hall in Charles Town, West Virginia, Maliskas had a small book launch party in partnership with the Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society.
Leonard Cooper, dressed in a long blue pinstripe suit jacket, blue slacks, and a matching hat, can remember John Brown's Farm. His brother Raymond, who is 10 years younger than Leonard, was also familiar with the popular dances he performed later at nearby youth-oriented venues like 701 Club and Shamrock. Both brothers carry a regal confidence, symbolized in leaving Maliskas' book launch party in elegant fur coats.
"Oh my God, honey, don't mess with my brain," Leonard Cooper said after being asked his most memorable experiences on John Brown's farm. "It's in the book."
When pressed further, Leonard Cooper opened up about dancing for concertgoers before the acts came on stage. For Cooper, the main event was dancing, not the artists.
"My sister and I, we would practice at home. We would find all these different dances that we can do then we go to John Brown's farm. They would tell us, 'Yo, Cooper, give us the new dance y'all got!'"
Those dances included the "backslop" and the "mashed potato." Leonard and Raymond Cooper continued their sibling rivalry by turning Fisherman's Hall into a dance floor. Maliskas' wife, Judi, got her phone out to capture the brothers comparing their dance moves.
"George Jefferson did the backslop, remember that?," Raymond Cooper asked before he slid his feet back in a smooth, but slightly jerking motion.
Leonard started moving his feet as well. "Mama would do the shuffle. See my feet?"
Raymond Cooper didn't always agree with his brother, and would try to correct his moves. "That's the mashed potato."
"Nah," Leonard Cooper disagreed. He was emboldened by another former John Brown's Farm dancer who said Leonard Cooper was right. The big brother showcased his memory in re-enacting buck dancing, an early form of tap dancing, done by his father.
John Brown's Farm was described by Leonard Cooper and others as a place for mature African-Americans where there was little to no fighting compared with rowdier youth-centric venues. Being old enough to go to John Brown's Farm was a treasured accomplishment. Concertgoers went to John Brown's farm by any means necessary, whether that was in a car with no seats, or a vehicle with no transmission that required backing up to enter.
This time represented a turning point in the segregation era, when black musicians were on the cusp of mainstream acceptance.
"This building is being rented out for these R&B concerts, and R&B used to be called race music, even in Billboard Magazine," Maliskas said when he was back on the farm. "As this music crossed over from being ethno-centered race music into becoming America's music, by the time you get to Motown you got a dynamo."
While white audiences embraced R&B music, black-owned music venues gained new competition.
"These mid-size places on the chitlin circuit just got priced out of business," Maliskas said. "James Brown is like, 'I can finance my own album, 'Live At The Apollo,' I'm on television, I can't play here anymore.' The popular music priced them out of the market, which is another missing revenue stream for the Elks. So finally, they gave it up and began looking for a buyer in late '65."
The old Elks lodge is now in disrepair, though John Brown's former home has been restored thanks to the work of property owner South Lynn, who runs D.C.-based flooring company, Universal Floors.
Maliskas has dreams that the Elks lodge will return to its past glory as a history site on par with Harper's Ferry National Historical Park. He imagines school buses of children coming to see the mannequins of James Brown and Ray Charles.
"This is a black history thing," Leonard Cooper said after dancing. "I'm hoping they can get these ["John Brown to James Brown"] books in school ... you can come from this."