Removing Old Monuments and Erecting New Ones

Nearly 160 years ago this month, abolitionist John Brown led 18 men down a dark country road to Harpers Ferry, located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers some 60 miles upstream from Washington, D.C.  His plan was to seize the federal arsenal and armory, take hostages and foment a slave rebellion.

The assault lasted all of 36 hours before U.S. marines, under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee, ended it. Several died; Brown and four of his men were captured, tried, convicted and hanged a few weeks later. Brown became the martyred hero of Harpers Ferry, inspiring films, books, art and music. Monuments were erected to him from Harpers Ferry to Kansas.

Treated largely as footnotes, if at all, were five African American men who went with Brown to Harpers Ferry, overshadowed by their fiery commander and virtually lost to history. Sometimes they are lumped together and mentioned in passing. But never have they been accorded their rightful place of honor. There is no mention of them in the now two-year old National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall in Washington.

As the country battles over controversial monuments to the Confederacy, and when color and race continue to define and divide us in often insidious and horrific ways, it is long past time that they these five fighters for freedom be recognized.

Their names were Osborne Perry Anderson, John Anthony Copeland, Shields Green, Lewis Sheridan Leary and Dangerfield Newby. Four were free men of color and of mixed racial background, the fifth a fugitive slave said to be descended from African royalty. All, of course, were abolitionists, but their reasons and routes in joining Brown varied. Newby joined to free his enslaved wife and their children, whose owner threatened to sell them South, with no regard for family ties.  Copeland and Leary were from Oberlin, Ohio and related through marriage. Copeland had attended the college for a time.

Green had been a slave in Charleston, South Carolina who fled north and lived for a time with Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York. Douglass would later proclaim that should there ever be a monument to Brown, there should be a prominent place on it for Green as well. But that has yet to happen.

Osborne Anderson, born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, came to Brown from Canada, where he had been among the tens of thousands of free and enslaved African Americans who immigrated there after passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Anderson was the sole survivor and wrote the only inside account of the raid. He never fully recovered his health, scarred by the ordeal, and died in 1872.

Eventually, in 1895, an obelisk memorializing Brown would be erected on railroad property in Harpers Ferry.  In 1931, another memorial was dedicated, this time to a free man of color, Haywood Shepherd, who worked for the railroad and, ironically, was the first fatality of the raid. Soon after midnight, on Oct. 17, 1859, he had gone out to see what the ruckus was about and, ordered by Brown’s men to halt, had reversed course instead and was shot in the back. He died the next day.

Though he was never a slave and, in fact, was a man of means, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans chose to make him emblematic of the “character and faithfulness of thousands of Negroes,” who despite “many temptations throughout subsequent years of war,” remained loyal to their masters, though the wording on the tablet fudged it a bit.  Some 300 whites and 100 blacks attended the dedication, at which the UDC president waxed nostalgic about her black mammy. There was no ambiguity in her address.

The sidewalk tablet sat at the corner of Shenandoah and Potomac streets without incident until the mid-1990s when the National Park Service moved it into storage during some building renovations. The keepers of the Lost Cause saw a conspiracy to suppress Southern history. They even enlisted U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).  Members of the local NAACP suggested the memorial tablet be dumped into the Potomac River and left there. Eventually, the tablet was restored to its former location, but this time with an additional display for “balance.”

The accompanying tablet claimed to provide “another perspective” but created a false equivalency and an historical inaccuracy. It reproduces words W.E.B. DuBois wrote, it says, in response to the Shepherd memorial. But these words were to be engraved on another plaque a year later, to be placed on the campus of Storer College, a school for blacks, on the hill above Harpers Ferry. The trustees rejected it. It was not until 2006 that it was located at the former site of the school, which had closed in 1955 and is now a National Park Service training center.

The Shepherd tablet ranks number eight on the Independent Media Institute’s Make It Right Project’s Ten Most Unwanted Confederate Statues, recognizing it for what it truly is, a memorial to the Lost Cause.  It belongs not out on a public sidewalk but inside a museum, displayed with the proper context.

The five African American soldiers, meanwhile, deserve at last their own monument. Let it be here in this river town, in a prominent spot where their names can be seen and their sacrifice appreciated. This is not a story of the past, a park ranger told me. This is a story from the past that is relevant to the present, as we continue to grapple with issues of race and the sanctity of families torn asunder under the color of law.

Anderson, Copeland, Leary, Green and Newby died to set us free, but the struggle continues. Theirs is very much an American story. As the Confederate generals are dismounted from their granite horses, let us honor instead these forgotten men whose legacy lives on.

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