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The fate of John Brown

Eighth-graders deliberate whether abolitionist is guilty or not guilty

Kentwood — Eighth-grader Calvin Ranger – playing abolitionist John Brown – took the stand after a class period-and-a-half on trial.

His fate was in the hands of his fellow Pinewood Middle School students-turned-jurors.

The abolitionist took the oath, his hand on a copy of The Founders’ Constitution. He then pleaded the Fifth, refusing to answer questions posed by prosecuting attorneys Jaycie Green and Kamrynn Smith about how the events at Harpers Ferry unfolded on Oct.16, 1859.

But when questioned by defense attorney Elijah Bernstein, he described his deepest held personal conviction. 

“Here before God in the presence of these witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery,” said a solemn Ranger, repeating a pledge Brown had made in his earlier days as an activist.

As it would be, Brown’s life ended as a result of his conviction. The abolitionist was found guilty of treason for the raid on Harpers Ferry, of murder and of inciting a slave insurrection. He was hanged. 

Role-playing History

Pinewood Middle School history teacher Steven Soderquist has had his students reenact the trial for the past 22 years, just before they begin studying the Civil War. 

Students play attorneys, witnesses and jurors, and it’s up to them to form their own conclusions and ultimately decide for themselves if Brown should be found guilty. 

Reece Emeott, who plays Owen Brown, continuously pleads the Fifth when asked about his father by the prosecution

They always wrestle with supporting Brown’s cause and the reality of his actions, explained Soderquist, who plays the judge. This year’s jury began on the “not guilty” side, 11-1, but then talked through the situation. When returning to the classroom, they read the guilty verdict.

“It came down to something simple,” Soderquist said. “Was he at Harpers Ferry? Yeah. Did he raid the federal arsenal? Yeah. Is it treasonous? Yes.”

Brown’s action can also be seen as justifiable, he said:  “There’s no greater cause than that of of trying to end slavery,” he said. But the only crime defined in the U.S. Constitution is treason, and students were unwilling to overlook that fact.

That’s usually the outcome, Soderquist said. Despite the need for slavery to end, he’s only had Brown declared innocent twice.

Attorneys Jaycie Gasper and Elijah Bernstein present closing arguments

History is Complex

Over the years, Soderquist has modified the activity based on students’ suggestions to make it better. He wants students to think about the complexity of the situation, the time period and issues in society pre-Civil War.

“The idea is that it’s not as simple as we make it out to be,” Soderquist said. “John Brown is given maybe two paragraphs in the history textbooks, and we give it six days,” he said.

Students consider justice, slavery, God, the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the United States as they consider Brown’s fate, and develop a “more profound understanding of independence and freedom for everybody.”

Calvin Ranger, playing John Brown, takes an oath before testifying

It’s also a great way to “make 200-year-old men interesting,” he said.

Students also learn more about what leads up to a trial and how one unfolds. “Before, I didn’t really understand much about how the judicial system works. I’ve learned a lot more about that and the processes behind it,” Elijah said.

Staying true to his role as defense attorney, he argued that illegal acts were imperative to the founding of the country. “The Declaration of Independence was considered an act of treason, but they did it.” 

Middle-schoolers-slash-prosecuting attorneys enjoyed preparing and delivering their questions and statements.

“I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer, so this has been a really good opportunity for me to see how it works,” Jaycie said.

Added Kamrynn: “It’s definitely a helpful way to learn about history and what goes on in an actual courtroom. It was a lot of fun getting to see how it works.”

Students also played witnesses, historical figures with connections to Brown including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Robert E. Lee, J.E.B Stuart and Gov. Henry Wise of Virginia. 

Jalil Cohran took on the perspective of a journalist and abolitionist.

“It was very interesting, because you got to learn how the judicial system works in different ways. Me, being William Lloyd Garrison, was weird, but fun at the same time. He wanted to (work to end slavery) the peaceful way instead of the violent way. I thought that was very interesting.”

Explore more unique video stories of students learning, interesting school programs and educators working to help all children succeed.

The jury stands after reentering the courtroom following deliberations
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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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