Of Men and Memorials: The Strange Case of Haywood Shepherd

Of all the monuments and memorials erected to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, there may be none more misleading nor more ironic than a stone sidewalk tablet inconspicuously located near the corner of Shenandoah and Potomac streets in the town that John Brown made famous.

In Harpers Ferry, late on Sunday October 16 and into Monday, October 17, 1859 – 158 years ago this week — the abolitionist Brown seized the federal arsenal, armory and rifle works with a small army of 18 intrepid followers, in a 36-hour occupation that would end with his capture, along with that of four others, all of whom would be tried, convicted and executed for attempting to incite a slave insurrection.

In all, ten people died, including six of Brown’s men.  But the first fatality was a free African American named Haywood Shepherd, a railroad employee who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, venturing out onto the railroad trestle to see what all the ruckus was about. Hapless Haywood Shepherd was not only free, he was a man of means who owned property in Winchester, where he lived with his family, commuting on the Winchester & Potomac Railroad to Harpers Ferry.

That a widely respected free black man was allegedly a victim of friendly fire from Brown’s sentinels who ordered him to halt and, when he did not, opened fire, mortally wounding him in the darkness, apparently unaware of his race, aided and abetted those who would misuse his memory. The irony of his death was a boon to local slave owners and others enraged by what they regarded as an assault on their way of life.

Decades later, the United Daughters of the Confederacy decided that Shepherd perfectly personified the faithful slave, even though he was free.  Some 25 years after the memorial was first proposed, the UDC erected the memorial tablet in Harpers Ferry in 1931.

While noting Shepherd’s status as a “colored freeman,” the inscription went on to assert that Shepherd had exemplified “the character and faithfulness of thousands of Negroes who, under many temptations throughout subsequent years of war” remained loyal slaves.

In welcoming the assembled crowd of some 300 white and 100 blacks, the president of Storer College, an institution founded at Harpers Ferry in 1867 to educate African Americans, elided over its historical inaccuracy and insulting characterization of Shepherd to declare, “We come here with forward-looking vision, with confidence in a newer and better day…”

Following his address, the president of the UDC president spoke, waxing nostalgic about her black mammy and the lost world of subservient but happy slaves.  The lone vocal dissenter was a tiny black woman, the college musical director, who extemporaneously rejected the white Southern narrative. “Today, we are pushing forward to a larger freedom, not in the spirit of the black mammy but in the spirit of new freedom and rising youth,” spoke Pearl Tattem.

Ceremony over, the memorial stood for decades, until the National Park Service, by now overseeing the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, placed it in storage while renovating some buildings in the lower town. Confederate sympathizers smelled a conspiracy, and the North-South battle was rejoined. Under pressure, the federal overseers returned the tablet to its former location but at first sheathed it in plywood. Finally, and quietly, in June 1995, the plywood was removed, with the addition of a nearby wayside sign purporting to provide balance and context. In truth, it provided neither. It stated factually the circumstances of Shepherd’s death, then gave two opposing contemporary views of the dedication.

It also sought to offer “Another Perspective,” words written by W.E.B. Du Bois, in 1932, in which, the marker said, he “responded to the Shepherd monument.”  The words, however, were intended to be displayed on a plaque at Storer College, at a meeting of the NAACP that was held there that summer, but the trustees had refused to accept the inscription. It wasn’t until 2006 that these words found their rightful place on the campus, by then under the Park Service.

Whether the words were in reaction to the Shepherd tablet, they stood—and still stand—on their own:


John Brown

Aimed at Human Slavery

A Blow

That woke a guilty nation

With him fought

Seven Slaves and sons of slaves.

Over his crucified corpse

Marched 200,000 black soldiers

And 4,000,000 freedmen


“John Brown’s Body lies a mouldering in the grave

But his Soul Goes Marking on!”

“In gratitude this Tablet is Erected/The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People/May 21, 1932.”

Except, of course, that it wasn’t, an egregious omission for 74 years.  The wayside sign without this context now seems oddly outdated. The Shepherd tablet may well stay, as sort of an historical artifact, as are all such monuments and memorials to the Confederacy, but with a marker that seeks not “balance” but this truth: That the Shepherd tablet was part of an effort to memorialize a fictional Haywood Shepherd to suit the Lost Cause mythology that sought to whitewash the institution of slavery and the rebellion of Southern states that fought to retain it.

And, any use of Du Bois’s words should also note their rejection a year later and their much belated 21st century acceptance and placement on Camp Hill, on the former college campus above the town. The story of that plaque, too, is an incontrovertible part of history.


NOTE: My forthcoming book, “Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army,” includes an entire chapter on “Hapless Haywood Shepherd,” presenting the first full account of his life, death and descendants. Publication date is June 1, 2018, from Chicago Review Press, ISBN 978-1613735718.  The book may now be pre-ordered through various online sites or from your favorite local bookseller.


  1. Brooke C Stoddard on October 16, 2017 at 12:40 pm

    Gene, thank you for uncovering and reporting these events surrounding the Brown raid. Excellent work. People need to be confronted with facts and not spin.

  2. John Greenya on October 16, 2017 at 5:54 pm

    As always, an interesting a nd well-written piece,

  3. Gayle on April 4, 2022 at 11:49 pm

    Enjoy so much your Five for Freedom book talk in Manassas in 2018. I saw this marker today in Harper’s Ferry. It’s outrageous that stone block of hideous mischaracterization is allowed to stand in a National Park.

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