The “Emperor” Has No Clothes, A Monumental Message, and More

Happy Labor Day Weekend!  What an odd time to be celebrating labor’s contribution to the country when so many millions are out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic. Walking in the mall, as we did this past week, is a ghostly experience, since so many shops are shuttered. Similarly, more and more Lease signs are popping up in the storefronts of now vacant retail spaces. On my morning walk to downtown Silver Spring, Md.  I snapped photos of a few of these newly vacant storefronts, their former occupants victims of a pandemic with no end in sight. One sign pleaded: “Cheer Up. KEEP Fighting.” What’s it like where you live and used to shop?


Last February, a film publicist contacted me about a soon-to-be-released film “Emperor,” said to be based on the life of Shields Green, an escaped slave and one of the FIVE FOR FREEDOM: The African Americans in John Brown’s Army I had written an entire book about. The cast was coming to D.C. in a few weeks. Would I be interested in interviewing them, possibly for a piece in the Washington Post?  I viewed the trailer and was chagrined to learn that the film bore little relation to the facts.

The movie was to be released in theaters on Friday, March 20. Then the pandemic hit. The film’s release was put on indefinite hold.  Finally, it is available for streaming (at $5.99) on Amazon Prime. A bit reluctantly, I watched it the other day. It is largely fictional, of course, but, to my surprise, as an action flick with lots of shooting and some great chase scenes, it wasn’t bad. Someone coming to the story with no knowledge of history might even think it is history.

But it is not.  The true story:  Shields Green, also known as Esau Brown, was said to be descended from African royalty, thus his nickname “Emperor.” He was born enslaved in 1836 on a Charleston, South Carolina area plantation. In 1857 or 1858, after his wife had died (the cause is unknown), he escaped, leaving behind a year-old son. There is some evidence that he boarded a ship, most likely carrying cotton, from Charleston harbor north to New England, where the textile mills were located. He may have gone briefly to Canada, though there is no hard evidence, but he did find his way to the Rochester, N.Y. home of Frederick Douglass. There he lived for a time and was self-employed as a clothes cleaner. It was in Douglass’s home that he first met John Brown.

In August 1859, Douglass and Green met with Brown at an abandoned quarry outside Chambersburg, Pa. There Brown sought to recruit Douglass for his ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry, where he planned to seize the federal arsenal and incite a slave rebellion.  Douglass warned Brown that he would be walking into “a perfect steel trap,” from which he would never emerge alive, and declined the invitation. As the famed black abolitionist was getting ready to leave, he turned to Green, who said, “I think I’ll go with the old man.”  These two quotes stand out in the film for their historical accuracy. The rest: fiction.

Contrary to what’s on screen, Green did not escape to the north over land, was not determined or make any effort to return and free the son he’d left behind, did not shoot lots of white people prior to the Harpers Ferry raid, which the film shows as a daylight attack on some kind of fort, not the nighttime seizure of the arsenal and town that actually occurred. Nor did Green encounter Levi Coffin, an abolitionist and Underground Railroad leader in Indiana and Ohio, when he crossed into Maryland.  Nor did he survive.  Green was captured with Brown and others at Harpers Ferry, indicted, tried, convicted, and hanged on Dec. 16, 1859. His remains were sent to the Medical College of Virginia, in Winchester, for dissecting. But why let truth stand in the way of a good story?


We seem to be now in a time of reckoning over this country’s original sin of slavery and its enduring legacy. But toppling statues and putting up yard signs are the easy part.  Eliminating structural racism in supposedly liberal suburbs is much harder.  Or so I wrote in the Washington Post’s Local Opinions section on Sunday, Aug. 30. Read my column by clicking here.


The story of FIVE FOR FREEDOM lives on, and I am delighted that there is continued interest more than two years after publication.  On Tuesday, Sept. 8, I’ll be reprising the history and answering questions in a Zoom presentation sponsored by the Alexandria, Va. public library.  All are welcome to watch, listen and participate in the post-talk discussion. But to do that, the library asks that you register online.  The event is free.  To learn more and to register, please click here.


Time traveling from the 19th into the 20th century, from one fraught period to another, I reviewed 1939: A People’s History for Moment magazine online in June. To read my review, click here.


  1. Cathy Baldau on September 5, 2020 at 7:37 am

    Nice post, Gene! I just heard of this film recently so I’ll have to watch to be prepared for questions in Harpers Ferry. I will do the same with Good Lord Bird coming out next month. I finally finished that book. It does not stray as far from history as Emperor seems to, but it certainly meanders here and there. And of course, the main character is fictional. The good news is these books and films spark an interest that hopefully leads folks to want to learn more. And you’re right, sometimes truth is more compelling than fiction.

    • Gene Meyer on September 5, 2020 at 2:45 pm

      I tried not to read Good Lord Bird while I was working on FIVE FOR FREEDOM to make sure that his voice would not influence mine. Good Lord Bird, as I understand it, does not pretend to be historically accurate but is presented as fiction. Emperor was not. The hope is that both will somehow lead viewers to read FFF along with other nonfiction history of the period. The concern is that they will not but rather be accepted as the true story.

  2. Brenda Pitts on September 6, 2020 at 7:58 pm

    Hi Gene! I watched the Emperor and enjoyed it as a fictional story. It seems like very little of the story is based on Shields Green and Harpers Ferry. Knowing how far it wandered from the truth troubled me. It’s a good example of how a true story can be fictionalized for the big screen. Good Lord Bird didn’t do much for me either. I’m glad you spent the time to uncover the truth!

    Take care,

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