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The Magnet and the Iron: John Brown and George L. Stearns The Stories Behind the Busts

Booker T. Washington

In 1897, Booker T. Washington, the first president of Tuskegee University (then known as the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute), came to Boston to speak at the dedication of the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial in Boston. In his moving speech, he commended not just Shaw, but all those individuals involved with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment:

“[Shaw] would have us bind up with his own undying fame and memory and retain by the side of his monument, the name of John A. Andrew, who, with prophetic vision and strong arm, helped to make the existence of the 54th Regiment possible; and that of George L. Stearns, who, with hidden generosity and a great sweet heart, helped to turn the darkest hour into day, and in doing so, freely gave service, fortune and life itself to the cause which this day commemorates. Nor would he have us forget those brother officers, living and dead, who by their baptism in blood and fire, in defense of union and freedom, gave us an example of the highest and purest patriotism.”

Mary Stearns and Washington had exchanged letters for years previous to the memorial’s dedication. While in Boston, Stearns presented Washington with a plaster copy of Edward A. Brackett’s bust of John Brown. This bust today remains at Tuskegee University.

Upon her death in 1901, Washington wrote an ode to Mary Stearns in the Boston Transcript, calling her “one of the truest and wisest of friends” of the black community. In her will, Stearns had willed $1,000 to Tuskegee for the Mary E. Stearns Scholarship and instructed that a third of the remainder of her estate’s holdings be donated to the George L. Stearns Memorial Fund for the purpose of promoting the “education and elevation of the youth of the South, and especially of the youth of the colored race, in whose interest and welfare my deceased husband George L. Stearns ever felt such a profound interest and to which he gave such devoted service.”