This painting depicts abolitionist martyr John Brown (1800–1859) being taken to his execution in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), on December 2, 1859. On October 16, Brown and his followers had seized the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, hoping to inspire a rebellion among enslaved African Americans in the South. The uprising failed; Brown was captured, tried, and sentenced to death.
Hovenden's heroic image of Brown recalls a Moseslike prophet or Christlike martyr (note the cross shape behind his head). Reconstruction-era viewers would have been reassured that this vision of freedom for future generations of African Americans (symbolized by the false legend of Brown blessing the slave child) had been realized by the Civil War (1861–1865). Yet the period was characterized by resurgent racism, including Jim Crow laws that codified prejudice and mob lynchings that averaged one per week.