HESSTON, Kan. — Levi Zook stopped in his tracks when Tony Brown greeted him in Pennsylvania Dutch on a train bound for Albuquerque, N.M.
Zook, an Amish man from New Holland, Pa., likely never expected to hear a language spoken predominately in Amish communities so far from home — and from a black man. Brown, an African-American Mennonite from Hesston, quickly revealed that the two men share religious historical Anabaptist ties. Though the simple greeting exhausted Brown’s Pennsylvania Dutch, it led to a friendship and sharing of worlds — that of the Amish, Mennonite and African-American cultures.
After Zook recovered from his surprise, the men struck up a conversation. Brown shared about his work as a sociology instructor and artist in residence at Hesston College, as well as his global travels as a baritone singer and peace advocate. He then told Zook about his friend Dwight Roth’s historical fiction book, Kinship Concealed: Amish Mennonite and African-American Family Connections, co-authored with Sharon Cranford, which documents the multiracial lineage of 18th-century Amish brothers John and Jacob Mast.
The conversation piqued Zook’s interest, and he contacted Roth to purchase a copy, which further fed his curiosity about enslaved Africans’ experiences. Brown and Zook stayed in touch. Knowing Brown shares the African slave experience through spirituals, Zook invited him to visit his congregation in Pennsylvania. On a trip representing Hesston College, Brown accepted Zook’s invitation, accompanied by director of church relations Dallas Stutzman.
Ancestry of suffering
In October, about a year after their initial meeting, Brown was in Zook’s bishop’s home to share about the experiences of enslaved Africans with about 30 Amish people.
“I was honored to be invited to share the African slave history in a culture that doesn’t generally open themselves to the outside,” Brown said.
He illustrated the slave experience by singing spirituals. He emphasized that both the enslaved Africans and the Amish have an ancestry of suffering. In return, the Amish crowd sang two songs.
Brown says many of the stories and experiences of African slaves are not well known to the Amish. But Brown wanted his presentation to be more than a history lesson. He wanted to emphasize that regardless of experiences, everyone can connect around a common humanity.
“The time I spent with these Amish friends was meaningful to me,” he said. I was pleased when Levi commented that it was a night everyone would remember.”
Brown has dedicated his life to education and building bridges across social and cultural divides. He connects with countless Hesston College students and meets with political and religious leaders around the world as a peace advocate through music. He also travels for the college with the “Common Threads” program with history instructor John Sharp, showing the intersection of stories of Anabaptist martyrs and African-American racial suffering.
His one-man show, “I Go On Singing: Paul Robeson’s Life in His Words and Songs,” is a tribute to the popular African-American performer and civil rights activist.