Frederick Douglass “being recognized more and more”

As is now widely known, thanks to stories posted during Black History Month, 2018 represents the bicentennial year of the birth of Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to become perhaps the nation’s preeminent 19th century African American abolitionist, publisher, diplomat, orator and author.

His birth is said to have occurred on Feb. 14, though the exact date is unknown, and much attention was focused on him around what would otherwise have been a routine Valentine’s Day.

But why does it take an anniversary, even an inexact one, to focus on this singular figure in American history?  The man who, President Trump, casually said during Black History Month in 2017, “has done an amazing job that is being recognized more and more.”  Surely, Douglass needs no “news peg,” even if the news is old, and certainly not fake.

While the nation is now more aware of Douglass, less well known is his relationship with another escaped slave and how his luminous career might have been cut short had he heeded the earnest request of the revolutionary abolitionist John Brown to go with him to Harpers Ferry—and presumably, with Brown, to his death—martyred too soon before he could fulfill his greater destiny.

In August 1859, Douglass met Brown at an abandoned quarry on the outskirts of Chambersburg, Pa., and with him was a wiry, dark-skinned man named Shields Green. Green had escaped from a Charleston, South Carolina plantation after his wife had died. He left a six-month old son to travel north by ship to ports unknown. Likely, he was on a cotton ship, carrying the cash crop to the textile mills of New England.

Green went to Canada West, now Ontario, where up to 40,000 free and enslaved blacks had immigrated after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, and somehow found his way to Rochester, New York and the home of Douglass, who welcomed him as a house guest. It was there he met Brown and heard of his grand plan to free the slaves.

“Shields Green was not one to shrink from hardships and dangers,” Douglass later wrote. “He was a man of few words, and his speech was singularly broken but his courage and self-respect made him quite a dignified character.”

At the Chambersburg meeting, Brown and Douglass engaged in prolonged debate over the white abolitionist’s plans.  Brown laid out his scheme to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and arm the slaves he was certain would join him.  He told Douglass he needed him to “help hive…the bees [that] will begin to swarm.” Douglass demurred, saying that Brown and his men would be walking into a “perfect steel-trap,” from which they would not emerge alive, much less succeed in their revolutionary plans.

Green sat mostly silent during the discussions. But as Douglass prepared to leave for the return trip to Rochester, he asked Green what he wanted to do, to which Green replied, “I believe I’ll go with the old man.”  And go he did, first to the farmhouse headquarters five miles from Harpers Ferry, where Brown’s small army gathered to prepare for the assault that came, at last, on the rainy Sunday evening of October 16, 1859.

The raiders at first met no resistance and succeeded in taking control of the arsenal and the town. But with dawn came the first of several local and state militia, forcing Brown and his raiders to retreat into the small arsenal fire engine house that became known as “John Brown’s fort.”

On Tuesday morning, 90 U.S. marines under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee ended the affair. Green by then was with two other raiders inside the arsenal gate and, given the opportunity to escape, repeated his desire to “go with the old man.”

Thus, he wound up with Brown in the engine house, where he was captured and taken to jail in Charlestown, the Jefferson County seat, along with Brown and others. Within weeks, he was tried, convicted and, finally, hanged on Dec. 16, 1859.  His remains were given to the Winchester Medical College for dissection.

Douglass, whom authorities suspected of complicity in Brown’s plot, became a fugitive, fleeing for a time to Canada and then to England to elude authorities. He would later express ambivalence about his decision not to join Brown, including cowardice among his explanations.

A little more than a year later, the nation was at war with itself. During the four-year conflict, 750,000 died. Douglass became a close ally of Abraham Lincoln and continued to advocate for abolition and equal rights.  The war brought the South back into the Union; three constitutional amendments were adopted that outlawed slavery and granted black males the right to due process and to vote—a short-lived victory as the unreconstructed South won the peace with oppressive Jim Crow laws.

Douglass returned to Harpers Ferry in 1881 to give a commencement speech at Storer College, founded in 1867 to educate former slaves.  In his address, he extolled Brown at length, but he reserved special praise for Shields Green. Should there ever be a monument to Brown, Douglass said, “the form and name of Shields Green should have a conspicuous place upon it.”

Statues to Brown would indeed be erected, from New York to Kansas. Statues of Douglass would also eventually find their way onto the public square—including in the U.S. Capitol building and on the courthouse lawn in his native Talbot County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Still, Green and the four other African Americans in John Brown’s raiding party remain largely unrecognized, overshadowed by their martyred leader.

It has been my mission, with my forthcoming book FIVE FOR FREEDOM: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army, to help correct this historical injustice.



  1. Ken Rossignol on March 9, 2018 at 11:45 am

    …and you are doing exactly that, a fine job of it. Hurrah for this story.

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