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Harpers Ferry National Historic Park is known as the setting for the raid led by abolitionist John Brown in 1859. Today, it’s a popular destination for local history and nature lovers alike.
While John Brown’s name and legacy are linked to the site, far less is known about the men who fought with him, particularly the five black men who had far more at stake than their white counterparts during the time of slavery.
Kojo explores their lesser-known lives with the author of the new book “Five For Freedom,” and gets an update on programs available today at Harpers Ferry.
- Eugene Meyer Author, "Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown's Army"(Pub: Lawrence Hill Books 2018)
- Melinda Day Lead Park Ranger, Harpers Ferry National Park
- Tyrone Brandyburg Superintendent, Harpers Ferry National Historic Park
- Marvin Greer Founder and Living Historian, Sons and Daughters of Ham
Read the Introduction of "Five For Freedom"
It was a weekday and the streets were deserted. Harpers Ferry looked very much like a ghost town, and indeed it was haunted, if not by ghosts then by history. Only sixty miles from Washington, DC, and yet seemingly more distant, Harpers Ferry was my introduction to a storied world so removed from the City of New York and its Long Island suburbs from which I’d sprung.
It was January 1965. On my way, I drove down a narrow winding road lined with ramshackle homes through the little hamlet of Knoxville, Maryland. I sensed that I had crossed some invisible threshold into Appalachia, that sad, poverty-stricken swath of rural America that most of the nation, through the Great Society programs of Lyndon Baines Johnson and Michael Harrington’s bestselling book, The Other America, had then only recently rediscovered.
I drove across the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and made a sharp right turn onto Shenandoah Street, the main drag in Harpers Ferry. Beyond the beauty of the setting, at the confluence of two fabled rivers and with a hilltop view Thomas Jefferson once pronounced “worth a voyage across the Atlantic,” is the town itself. Set between two limestone cliffs, Maryland Heights across the Potomac and Loudoun Heights across the Shenandoah, Harpers Ferry rises steeply from Shenandoah Street. Narrow, winding lanes ascend above the lower town to the heights where people lived and still live in mostly modest homes.
For more than half a century, Harpers Ferry was a factory town where federal workers made armaments for the US military. It gained fame—or infamy—for its central role in John Brown’s raid: the catalytic event that was a prelude to a fratricidal, four-year civil war. During the war, the town changed hands eleven times, and the embers of that conflagration continue to smolder more than 150 years later. The town had been battered not only by humans but also by natural causes, and I was there for the Potomac River flood of 1996, which inundated the lower town, as also happened in 1972, 1936, 1924, and 1889.
Through the decades, another constant presence was the train that disappeared into and emerged from a mountain tunnel across the Potomac, eventually carrying commuters, many of them federal workers, to and from Washington’s Union Station, or travelers to points much farther west. This view of trains crossing the Potomac bridge would become iconic for rail buffs, who park themselves and their cameras on the town’s station platform to snap pictures.
As I write this, “Black Lives Matter” has entered the lexicon. They mattered back then, too, though not so much in the Southern slave states, except as commodities, as human chattel assessed for the purposes of sales, taxes, and inheritance, along with real estate, livestock, linens, dining room furniture, china, and other family heirlooms. They mattered, too, but in quite a different way, to abolitionist John Brown and the twenty-one raiders who gathered with him to attack Harpers Ferry and seize its federal arsenal in order to foment and arm a slave insurrection.
For five of the raiders, the cause was especially personal. They were African Americans, five for freedom who came together at this time and in this place on a sacred if ill-fated mission. Their names were Osborne Perry Anderson, John Anthony Copeland, Shields Green, Lewis Sheridan Leary, and Dangerfield Newby, and they have been largely forgotten.
My first visit to Harpers Ferry had come just a little more than five years after the centennial of the 1859 raid, which would not so much be “celebrated” as “observed” by a whites-only committee that generally regarded the martyred abolitionist not as a hero but as a fanatic, if not also downright insane. But these were nuances that would escape a young visitor from north of the Mason-Dixon Line in the still-somnolent but soon-to-be-stirring 1960s.
One sign did not go unnoticed. In one of the few restored buildings, my Northern sensibilities were jarred by the following message: “This is a facility operated in an area under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of the Interior. No discrimination by segregation or other means in the furnishing of accommodations, facilities, services, or privileges on the basis of race, creed, color, ancestry, or national origin is permitted in the use of this facility. Violations of this prohibition are punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both.” This legal notice did not address the past I had come to glimpse but the still-uneasy present in the mid-1960s.
Entering the town then, I knew nothing of the African American soldiers in John Brown’s little army. But as I glimpsed Brown’s story during that brief visit, I became aware of Storer College, an institution seeded by a white Maine patron for the education of those newly freed after the Civil War. The college, on Camp Hill four hundred feet above the town, had a unique history, much of it tied to the raid and its legacy. Frederick Douglass had delivered a memorable speech there in 1881, extolling Brown but also singling out for praise Shields Green. In 1906, W. E. B. DuBois’s Niagara Movement assembled there for its second and last meeting, with Henrietta Leary Evans, Lewis Leary’s older sister, in attendance and addressing the group.
By the time of my visit, the school had only recently closed, a collateral casualty of the US Supreme Court’s decision outlawing school segregation. West Virginia had used the ruling as an excuse to cut off state funding, and the alumni, many of them educated upper-middleclass African Americans residing in the District of Columbia, were fighting over the school’s remains.
What I did not learn during my brief initial visit, and was not to know for another thirty-five years, was the story of the five African Americans with John Brown, men who had nobly committed their lives to free their enslaved brethren. Nor did I learn about Haywood Shepherd, the hapless black railroad baggage handler—a free man of color—who was the first to fall in the raid, fatally shot by one of the raiders, and how his death would make him an unlikely martyr to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy soon afterward and even on up to present times.
Such complexities were not widely known then. Moreover, so towering a figure was Brown that the five black Americans with him were consigned to the status of footnotes, if that, in the heroic narrative put forth even by those writers and historians sympathetic to the man.
Drawn by both its history and its beauty, I would return again and again over the years to Harpers Ferry, as the National Park Service renovated its rundown old buildings to period pristine condition. For many years, the black raiders were not part of its accompanying script.
Indeed, it wasn’t until 2000 that I learned of the black raiders. On assignment for the Washington Post, I wrote about Osborne Perry Anderson, the Brown army’s sole survivor, who had also written the only insider account of the raid. Born free in Pennsylvania, he met Brown in Chatham, Ontario, where, in 1858, the abolitionist convened a constitutional convention for his future republic of freed men and women. Several years after the raid, Anderson moved to Washington, DC, where he died in 1872 at the age of forty-two. He was buried in a black cemetery that would become a Metrorail parking lot, and his remains were among fifty-five thousand moved to another cemetery in the Maryland suburbs. A descendant, a man of military bearing named Dennis Howard, would be there to help dedicate a bronze plaque in Anderson’s memory at the turn of the century. I would be there, too, to report on the event.
My curiosity was piqued, but in the newspaper business you write one story, and then you move on to other stories, with little time for reflection or follow-up. In the internet age, with constant deadlines, that is even truer today. But I knew there was more to this story, and when I accepted a buyout proposal from the paper four years later—the first of many subsequent buyouts—Osborne Perry Anderson was still on my mind.
My longer article, “Sole Survivor,” appeared in the Washington Post Magazine in December 2004. I wondered why Anderson’s version of events had for so long been discounted and dismissed, even by seemingly reputable historians. Stephen B. Oates, whose 1970 To Purge This Land with Blood was the first major John Brown biography in sixty-one years, told me, “Obviously for years racism played a part. He’s been overlooked in the main because he’s black. Second, turning up stuff on him has been real difficult. It’s time this gentleman got his due.” I agreed, and I took that as a challenge.
Throughout much of his life, Anderson’s biography coincided in many places and at many times with that of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who like Anderson was of mixed race. Born free in Delaware, she had migrated north to Canada in 1851, following passage of the noxious Fugitive Slave Law. In Chatham, she published the Provincial Freeman, an abolitionist newspaper, making her the first black female publisher in North America. Anderson, a printer by trade, soon joined her. After his escape from Harpers Ferry, he wrote his account of the raid, reportedly with her help. During the war, she was a recruiter for the US Colored Troops, hastily organized after the Emancipation Proclamation, and so, apparently, was Anderson. After the war, Shadd Cary moved to the District of Columbia, where she became Howard University’s second female law school graduate and an elementary school principal. Anderson was in Washington, too, working as a messenger, according to a city directory. When he died a virtual pauper, Shadd Cary raised money for his funeral. Upon her death, she was buried at Harmony Cemetery, as was Anderson.
Maybe there’s more there, I thought. Maybe not.
I could only speculate that, though Mary Ann Shadd Cary was married (and then widowed), the two had a romantic relationship. Some of her papers are housed in Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, located in the basement of the school’s iconic Founders Hall. In 2007, acting on my suspicions, I went there to examine her papers. I could find nothing about Anderson. If there had been a closer relationship, there was no evidence in the slim files. What I did find were two letters she’d reprinted in the Provincial Freeman. They were from John Copeland, another African American raider who had been captured at Harpers Ferry and hanged. The letters were dated shortly before his execution. They were addressed to his brother and to his family back in Oberlin, Ohio, and they were heartbreaking to read. I had an epiphany. Yes, I realized, there was more to write, perhaps even a book’s worth. But it could not be about Osborne Perry Anderson alone. It had to be about all five of the African Americans who went with Brown on the rainy evening of October 16, 1859—two killed during the raid, two later hanged, one escaped. Four of the five would be described as “mulatto,” with white antecedents, including one who was the issue of a Caucasian father and an enslaved black mother. America’s original sin of slavery, in all its messy complexity, would be manifest in their stories. Thus was born the idea for this book.
Yet it is not just about these five brave men. It is about the times and the country in which they were born, grew up, and died. It is about what came after, their forgotten legacies, their descendants, and the issues their lives and deaths raised then that still resonate today. As Dennis Frye, a National Park Service historian at Harpers Ferry once told me, “This is not a story of the past. This is a story from the past that’s relevant to the present.”
For me, it’s also a personal milestone in a long journey. When I was a Columbia College senior trying to decide on a career, I was considering academia. But Jim Shenton, whose American history courses and Civil War seminar I eagerly devoured, had another idea. “You are more interested in history as it affects the present,” he said. “You should be a journalist.” Throughout, history has informed my work in journalism—and vice versa. So, too, has it been here.
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