words and photos by Charlotte Gintert
The house that abolitionist John Brown lived in at the intersection of Diagonal Road, Copley Road, Maple Street, and South Portage Path has a new look and new life.
Gone is the sullen grey paint of the exterior, gone are the black drapes in the windows. Most significantly, the interior has been revitalized with a new exhibit.
The John Brown House was built sometime around 1830. It was much smaller then, only consisting of the two front rooms and a loft. When Colonel Simon Perkins, son of Akron’s co-founder General Simon Perkins, and his wife Grace moved from Warren to Akron, they rented the house while their large stone mansion was being built on their farm diagonally across the road.
Perkins eventually bought the house and its property and rented the building out, most notably to John Brown in 1844.
Perkins hired Brown to care for his sheep and help manage a wool business. The partnership lasted for 10 years, but Brown only lived in the Akron house for the first two. He moved to Springfield, Mass. in 1846 to expand their business. Some of his sons remained at the Akron house until the Perkins and Brown partnership dissolved.
Brown famously went on to lead the Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas and a slave uprising, the raid on Harper’s Ferry in Virginia, in 1859.
Brown was found guilty of treason and executed in December 1859. But today, he is remembered as a leader of the anti-slavery movement whose actions may have lit the first sparks of the American Civil War.
The Portage Country Club added the south room while renting the John Brown House several decades later. Charles Perkins, son of the Colonel, expanded the house to its present size.
The house was willed to the Summit County Historical Society in 1943. The only visible original features are the floors of the two front rooms.
The house had been closed to tours for the past couple of years, but reopened to the public on May 9. With a grant from the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom via The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the Society was able to renovate the exterior with new cedar siding and a polymer roof.
Contributing grants from the Akron Community Foundation, the GAR Foundation, the Charles E. & Mabel M. Ritchie Memorial Foundation and local artist Woodrow Nash made it possible to install a new long term exhibit entitled “Family, Farm, Freedom” about John Brown’s life and the broader themes of slavery in America and civil rights. The exhibit, by Communications Exhibits Inc. of Canal Fulton, includes hands-on activities which encourage visitors to interact with the themes and key concepts.
The rear gallery houses temporary exhibits from the National Museum of African American History & Culture and “Telling a People’s Story: African American Children’s Illustrated Literature” from the Miami University Art Museum. The books represented in this exhibit are on loan from the Akron-Summit County Public Library and are available for visitors to peruse.
Society President and CEO Leianne Neff Heppner said that her goal is for the rear galley to be a space for rotating exhibits which focus on diversity and culture. She also hopes that the space will continue to provide an opportunity to collaborate with the community and local universities.
Work continues at the John Brown House. In the coming months, Woodrow Nash will be installing at least 5 busts of John Brown’s African American companions at Harper’s Ferry. An ADA ramp and restroom will be installed to make the house accessible to all visitors. The parking lot will be expanded and paved to allow easier access for vehicles.
The Society’s properties are open to tours Wednesday through Saturday, 1 pm – 4 pm. Free children’s programming focused on the illustration exhibit will be held at the John Brown House on Tuesdays at 11 am from June 11 to July 9.
Charlotte Gintert is an archaeologist by day and a photographer by sunrise and sunset. You can check out her photos at www.capturedglimpses.com and follow her on Instagram at @capturedglimpses.