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The Making of a Maine Abolitionist, Pan-Africanist & Pioneering Black Journalist

by Andy O’Brien

Sometime during the winter of 1815, a mixed-race boy named John Brown arrived at a stately farmhouse in the Back Cove neighborhood of Portland. It was the first time the 15-year-old had had a chance to see his father, John R. Russwurm, in many months, as he’d been away at boarding school in Montreal. Sadly, his father wasn’t long for this world, and the boy would have to struggle to make his way in a racist society that offered few opportunities for people of color. Nevertheless, in the ensuing years, the boy would grow into a very accomplished man, becoming the first African American to graduate Bowdoin College, co-founding the first Black newspaper in the United States, and becoming a colonial leader in the nation of Liberia.

John Brown Russwurm was born in Port Antonio, in the British colony of Jamaica, on October 1, 1799, to a white father and Black mother. Little is known about his mother except that she was probably Creole — of mixed African and European descent. She died when John Brown was very young, possibly during childbirth. His father, John R. Russwurm, was the son of German immigrants and born to an upper-class family in Virginia, where many of his family members owned slaves. He was sent to boarding school in England and spent some time there before going to seek his fortune in Jamaica. He worked there as a trader, a justice of the peace, and an assistant judge of the eastern Jamaican parish of Portland.

Historian Winston James writes in his book, The Struggles of John Brown Russwurm: The Life and Writings of a Pan-Africanist Pioneer,that John Brown’s mother may have been enslaved or free, but his father apparently loved her and treated her as his wife even if he couldn’t marry her due to laws that made interracial marriage illegal. Historian Carl Patrick Burrowes notes that Portland parish was home to 415 whites and 180 people of color and surrounded by thousands of acres of coffee and sugar plantations worked by 7,600 enslaved people of African descent. Given the lack of European women in the colony, it was not uncommon for white men to partner with Black women.

“If John’s mother was free, his white slaveholding father might have lived openly with her and the child, as was the custom in Jamaica,” wrote James. “He likely formed a deeper bond with them than would have been possible in the more restrictive context of the United States, where such unions were either illegal or heavily frowned upon.”           

By James’ account, John Brown’s father loved his son and sought to protect him from the vicious racism of the period. When the boy was eight, his father sent him to get his education in Montreal — an opportunity his mother would have been denied due to her race and gender. The love his father had for him, along with his elite education, likely helped shape the man John Brown would become — a proud, highly educated Black man who was never ashamed of his racial heritage.

In 1812, the elder Russwurm moved to Maine from Jamaica in the hope that the cooler New England climate would be better for his health, which had been failing in recent years. It’s not clear why he chose to move to the District of Maine, which was still a territory of Massachusetts, but Burrowes speculates that he probably had trading partners here, as Maine merchants commonly imported sugar, coffee and molasses from the West Indies.

“The waterfront in Russwurm’s new home was reminiscent of Jamaica,” wrote Burrowes. “According to one observer, Portland’s waterfront ‘resounded with the song of Negro stevedores,’ whenever ‘a cargo of coffee or molasses came alongside a wharf or when lumber was being loaded aboard.’ Laboring along side these dockworkers were black sailors whom one historian has described as ‘politically astute and worldly,’ bearers of a black diasporic consciousness.”

John R. Russwurm was able to reestablish his business in Portland. The following year, on March 4, 1813, the 53-year-old Russwurm married a widow in her early 20s, named Susan Waterman, and moved her and her three young children to a 75-acre farm at 238 Ocean Ave., a property that’s now on the National Register of Historic Places. A year later she gave birth to their first child, Francis Edward Russwurm.

The elder Russwurm often spoke of a mixed-race boy named John Brown who lived in Montreal, but he was likely worried his wife would reject his son due to his race, so he initially kept the true nature of their relationship a secret. But as his health began to deteriorate, he finally told her the truth about the “mulatto” boy in Quebec.    

An enlightened, kind and generous woman, Susan “decided at once to adopt the boy into her family and he was immediately sent for,” according to a quote from her published in the Maryland Colonialization Journal. She insisted he be given his father’s name, so the boy became known as John Brown Russwurm. Susan loved the younger Russwurm as her own child and pledged to her husband that she would always have a home for his son if he needed one. Susan and John Brown remained very close until the end of his life, in 1851. And John R. Russwurm was always very proud of his son’s “fine personal appearance and manners,” and didn’t hide their relationship from his acquaintances in Maine, according to an article in the Portland Daily Press from the 1870s.

“He introduced him into the best society in Portland, where he was honored and respected,” the Press reporter wrote. “He attended the best schools and had all the privileges that other boys of the best families enjoyed.”

But John Brown had only been at the farmhouse a few months before his father died. His stepmother later wrote that the boy, orphaned at 16, was left “entirely in my care, with a small legacy, which I intended he should make use of to finish his education.”

Russwurm lived with the family while attending school part-time, but racial discrimination in schools was very common in New England. Susan wrote that it was “rather difficult at that time to get a colored boy into a good school where he would receive an equal share of attention with white boys, and this I was very particular should be the case.”

According to James, Russwurm’s wealthy white relatives in Virginia refused to support him after his father’s death and rarely even answered his letters. In one angry letter to his older cousin, John Sumner Russwurm, sent in July of 1819, he complained about not receiving a response. “After having waited a considerable time, I concluded to address you once more, and that for the last, if you saw fit not to answer it,” wrote Russwurm. “Concerning myself, nothing more shall ever escape me concerning my situation in life.”

Seven years apparently passed before his cousin wrote him back, but he did so only to find out how much money his uncle left him. According to James, “a tricky Maine lawyer” was holding onto the money ($2,000), and John Sumner eventually “got his cut, but at the expense of others.”

Grieving his father’s death, rejected by his father’s relatives and struggling with racial discrimination, Russwurm may have felt like he was a burden to his new family and longed for his home in Jamaica. Right before his 18th birthday, in the spring of 1817, he decided to set off for the colony of his birth despite his stepmother’s reservations.

“I shall never forget the day I carried him to Portland and parted company with him — the sorrow he expressed with parting with my children, particularly his infant brother, showed how strongly he was attached to us all,” she wrote three decades later. “I offered to bring him back, and try and get some good man for his guardian. He said ‘no; that will not better my color. If I was a white boy, I would never leave your family, but I think it is best for me to go.’”

Susan received a “sorrowful” letter from Jamaica a few months later. Young John had hoped his father’s old friends would provide him assistance, but he learned they had died and he could find no other connections or support on the island. Before her letter instructing him to come right home arrived, he was already on his way back to Maine. Knowing his stepmother had remarried, to a man named William Hawes, John Brown didn’t want to impose, so he stayed in town in Portland and didn’t go out to the farm. After all, the household there had since grown to include not only John’s half brother and his three stepbrothers, but also two of William’s children from his previous marriage. Susan and William subsequently had six more children together.

One day Susan received word that John was seen around town looking “cast down” and she spent a sleepless night worrying about her adopted son. The next morning she sent a man to Portland “with strict orders not to return without John, and before 9 o’clock, he arrived,” Susan recalled. “I was much relieved, and the children as much rejoiced.”

Susan soon found John Brown his guardian — a man named Calvin Stockbridge who owned the paper mill that employed her husband. Stockbridge was a prominent merchant and a “mainstay of Baptist church in North Yarmouth.” In 1819, Stockbridge funded Russwurm’s education at Hebron Academy, a strict college preparatory school founded in 1804.

That July, Russwurm wrote to a cousin in Tennessee that “Maine will doubtless be separated [from Massachusetts] though not without some opposition.” Seven months later on March 15, 1820, Maine was accepted into the union as a free state in the Missouri Compromise.

But it was only a temporary compromise. Abolitionist rabblerousers, like Russwurm would later become, helped build the movement to tilt public opinion and force America’s reckoning with the dehumanizing institution of slavery.

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