John Anthony Copeland and Shields Green were hanged on Dec. 16, 1859 in Charlestown, Virginia (now West Virginia) for their role in the raid on Harpers Ferry.
They were two among “Five for Freedom: The African Americans in John Brown’s Army,” whose stories are told in my 2018 book that continues to resonate more than four years later. The 18 raiders, led by Brown, seized the town’s fedral arsenal and rifle works. Brown’s plan was to incite a slave insurrection that would topple the hated institution of chattel slavery. The raid failed in its immediate objective but, many say it sparked the civil war that ultimately abolished slavery.
They were hanged together, starting at 11 a.m. on that fateful day, racially segregated from two white raiders whose execution would occur hours later. Shields Green, believed to have been a fugitive slave from South Carolina, died quickly from the hangman’s noose. But Copeland, an antislavery activist from Oberlin, Ohio, died a slow, agonizing death on the same scaffold.
At 23, Green, the youngest of the five, had been living in the Rochester, New York home of Frederick Douglass, where he first met Brown. In August 1859, the two met again with Brown at an abandoned quarry outside Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where they were recruited to join in the raid. Douglass demurred, but Green said, “I think I’ll go with the old man.” Of the raiders — white and black — there was just one survivor, Osborne Perry Anderson, an African American who published the only insider account, in 1861.
Copeland, a carpenter by trade, had spoken at antislavery meetings in Oberlin, where he had also attended the Oberlin school’s preparatory department. On Oct. 18, 1859, Green was captured by U.S. marines who stormed the federal arsenal’s fire engine house where Brown and his band had holed up. Copeland was caught, and nearly hanged on the spot, as he was attempting to escape across the Shenandoah River. From his jail cell, on the morning of his execution, he wrote to his parents, his three brother and two sisters:
“The last Sabbath with me on earth has passed away. I have seen declining behind me the western mountains for the last time. Last night, for the last time, I beheld the soft bright moon as it rose, casting its mellow light into my felon’s cell, dissipating the darkness and filtering it with that soft pleasant light which causes such thrills of joy to all those in like circumstance with myself.
“This morning, for the last time, I beheld the glorious sun of yesterday rising in the far-off East, away off in the country where our Lord Jesus Christ first proclaimed salvation to man, and now as he rises higher, and high bright light takes the place of soft moonlight, I will take my pen, for the last time, to rite you who are bound to me by those strong ties. (yea, the strongest that God ever instituted) the ties of blood and relationship…
“Dear parents, brothers and sisters, it is true that I am now in a few hours to start on a journey from which no traveler returns… We shall meet in Heaven, where we shall not be parted by the demands of the cruel and unjust monster Slavery…
“But think not that I am complaining, for I feel reconciled to meet my fate. I pray God that his will be done, not mine.
“Let me tell you that it is not the mere act of having to meet death, which I should regret… but that such an unjust institution should exist as the one which demands my life… I beg of you one and all that you will not grieve about me, but that you will thank God that he spared me time to make my peace with Him…
“And now, dear ones, attach no blame to anyone for my coming here, for not any person but myself is to blame. … I have no antipathy against anyone. I have freed my mind of all hard feelings against every living being, and I ask all who have anything against me to do the same.
“And now dear parents, brothers and sisters, I must bid you to serve your God and meet me in heaven….Dear ones, he who writes this, will in a few hours be in this world no longer…Yes, these fingers which hold the pen will, before today’s sun has reached his meridian, have laid it aside forever, and this poor soul have taken its flight to meet its God.
“And now dear ones I must bid you that last. long sad farewell. Good-day, Father, Mother, Henry, William, and Freddy, Sarah and Mary, serve your God and meet me in heaven. Your Son and Brother to eternity. John A. Copeland.”
The remains of both men went to the Medical College of Virginia, in nearby Winchester, for study and dissection by the students. Copeland’s father sought to bring his son home for a proper burial, but the students refused to relinquish the corpse to an Oberlin emissary.
The two men died in obscurity, but they were not entirely forgotten in Jefferson County. In 1929, Black veterans of the First World War founded the Copeland-Green VFW Post. Months after Copeland’s execution, a memorial service was held at Oberlin’s First Church, where Douglass had once spoke and Martin Luther King, Jr. would speak a century later. On Feb. 12, 2019, I also had the honor of speaking from the pulpit. In addition, the citizens of Oberlin erected a monument to Copeland and Green.
In Five for Freedom, I devote chapters to “The Oberlin Connection,” to the trial and punishment of the African American raiders, including John Anthony Copeland and Shields Green, and to the aftermath. It’s been my privilege to tell the story of these five “hidden figures,” treated if at all as a footnote even by historians sympathetic to the John Brown legend, many times and in many venues, both on Zoom and in person. Two more such events are scheduled for February and March. Another fallen raider, Dangerfield Newby, was memorialized on a Virginia state highway marker last May. He was nominated for that honor by fourth graders from Fairfax County, Va., whose teacher had read my book. You can still read it, too. To learn more about the marker, click here. To order Five for Freedom, click here.