Every once in a while you will read about free blacks petitioning local or state government to become a slave. In the wrong hands such accounts reflect a lingering Lost Cause view that slavery was benign. Why else would a free black individual choose bondage? Many of these requests were made in the late antebellum period following John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. Many southern states, especially in the Deep South, worried about the effects of the raid on their black populations, both free and enslaved. In addition to worrying about the ramifications of the Brown raid memories of Nat Turner’s bloody insurrection were easily recalled. Visitors from the North were suspected of inciting blacks and were often forced to leave. The smallest acts of violence and arson by blacks were met with swift and brutal punishment to prevent what many perceived to be the beginning of a more general uprising. In many localities this response included a severe crackdown on the movement and rights of free blacks. Free blacks already occupied a precarious position in the South, but the increased focus on their movement may help to explain why some chose slavery over freedom.
I guess we should have anticipated such a move on this sesquicentennial of John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry. It’s an indication that Brown’s reputation has taken a significant turn since the end of the 1960s and that even Virginia may have a different outlook (at least northern Virginia) on this crucial moment on the eve of the the Civil War. While I don’t know much about David Reynolds, I am surprised to find his name attached to this project. As many of you know, Reynolds teaches at CUNY and is the author of John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, which is one of the best of the recent crop of Brown biographies. Reynolds has not issued a formal statement, but you can read his thoughts in the following news article.
Let’s remember that many Americans we honor had as many or more flaws in their character and behavior: Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, Columbus has been understandably accused of genocide, and Lincoln shared the racial prejudice of his time and long wanted to deport blacks once they were freed.
I have no interest in signing this petition, but it is available here. Interestingly, the Online poll has supporters of a pardon far ahead. I’ve never had an interest in demonizing or celebrating John Brown. That said, I’ve always found those studies that emphasized some kind of psychological imbalance to be completely off the mark. It’s nice to see historians such as Reynolds finally work to place Brown’s plan in its proper context by analyzing the extent to which his plan and actions were influenced by slave rebellions in the Caribbean and elsewhere. That we’ve spent so much time arguing that he was “crazy” tells us much more about the difficulty subsequent generations have had coming to terms with Brown.
If you happen to live in the vicinity of Harpers Ferry I encourage you to attend the inaugural event of West Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission. The event will include a panel discussion titled “Madman, Martyr, or Myth: John Brown’s Portrayal in Film” and will include clips from films and miniseries, including, among others, the “Santa Fe Trail” and “North and South”. Each clip will be followed by panel comments and discussion. Dr. Mark Snell will moderate the panel, which will consist of Dr. Charles Niemeyer of the USMC University; Ron Maxwell, director of “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals”; Dr. Walter Powell, a cultural historian who also is adjunct professor of historic preservation at Shepherd University and past president of the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association; and Beth White, adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Charleston and a member of the WV Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission. The event takes place from 6-7:30 pm this Friday on the second floor of the John Brown Museum in Harpers Ferry NHP. It is free and open to the public but seating is very limited. The WV Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission also will have an information table set up in HFNHP on Friday and Saturday.
For more information re: upcoming events surrounding the sesquicentennial of Brown’s Raid check out the NPS/Harpers Ferry website.
I‘ve been thinking about the recent press release by the Sons of Confederate Veterans on the eve of the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry. If you remember, they have chosen to commemorate the death of Heyward Shepherd, who happened to be black and working at the local train station at the time of the raid. There are a number of things that are disturbing here. Referencing Shepherd as an “unfortunate black citizen” reflects the most basic misunderstanding of black civil rights history since the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case of 1857 that blacks could not be citizens. Unfortunately, that is about par for the course when it comes to getting the basic facts right in the SCV.
What is more disturbing, however, is the blatant way in which the SCV distorts black history to serve their own agenda. Notice that at no point in their announcement did they even mention why John Brown was in Harpers Ferry. They do mention his “nefarious scheme”, but it would be helpful if the public was told what that scheme involved: How about nothing less than the freeing of the slaves. Now please don’t misunderstand me as I am not suggesting that we should not engage in serious debate about the ethics of Brown’s life and actions in Kansas and Virginia. The problem here is that the SCV has set up the parameters of debate in a way that serves their own purposes of distancing slavery from Confederate and Southern History. More to the point, why honor Heyward Shepherd at all? It is unfortunate that he was caught in the cross-fire, but does that in and of itself constitute a sufficient reason to honor him or give him his own day? Would the SCV have taken these steps if Shepherd happened to be a white baggage handler?
The bigger problem is the choice of which black man to honor. If you were just to rely on the SCV’s press release you might think that the only black individual in Harpers Ferry was Shepherd. And here is where the intentional distortion of the past occurs. There were five black with Brown at Harpers Ferry: three free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave. How do these men fit into the SCV’s understanding of this event? Why aren’t they being honored as opposed to Shepherd. I think I have an idea. Notice in the press release that Shepherd is characterized as a “faithful employee.” What possible reason could the SCV have in characterizing an employee as faithful? Of course, anyone familiar with the historiography of Southern history knows that that one word, ‘faithful’, resonates throughout the Lost Cause literature, which characterizes slavery as populated by faithful and obedient slaves.
This morning I came across an excellent video on the black legacy of John Brown and Harpers Ferry. The documentary did not focus on Brown, but on the five blacks who accompanied him: Dangerfield Newby, Lewis Sheridan Leary, Shields Green, John Anthony Copeland, Jr., Osborn Perry Anderson.
Although I skipped around a bit I am pretty sure that you will not find Shepherd’s name mentioned (perhaps a brief reference) in this 48 minute video. The importance of the Harpers Ferry Raid in the local black community is to be found in the actions of the five men mentioned above. The distance between the SCV’s preferred memory of Brown and Harpers Ferry and the history of black Americans in the area couldn’t be wider. As you will see in the video, for example, Heyward Shepherd’s death, however tragic and unfortunate, does not explain the rise of Storer College and its rich history of education and black civic activism.
Exactly what is the SCV commemorating?
The Virginia Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans has issued the following press release in recognition of “Hayward Shepherd Day”:
PRESS RELEASE : SCV DECLARES HAYWARD SHEPHERD DAY
The Army of Northern Virginia of the Sons of Confederate Veterans will kick off the Sesquicentennial of the War Between the States on Saturday, October 3, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, by holding their annual meeting beginning at 10:30 at the Block house (John Brown’s Fort). The purpose of the meeting is to announce that October 16 will be known as HAYWARD SHEPHERD DAY, honoring the unfortunate black citizen who met his death as John Brown’s first victim 150 years ago. Hayward, a faithful employee and Baggage Master of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was murdered in furtherance of John Brown’s nefarious scheme to capture the arsenal in that famous city. The SCV will honor Hayward Shepherd by placing a wreath at the 1931 marker honoring him across from the Engine House where Brown’s raid ended. Mr. Richard Hines, a well known historian from Alexandria, Virginia, will discuss the real John Brown.
Many today try to whitewash Brown’s crimes and call him a martyr. Mr. Hines will discuss Brown’s true motivations and his association with a group of famous Northern abolitionists (the Secret 6) who financed his plot and encouraged him to murder and commit crimes against his fellow Americans. The public is welcome to come see the wreath laying and hear Mr. Hines speak. [my emphasis]
Hines is a former managing editor for Southern Partisan. The SCV’s interest in Hayward Shepherd goes back to a joint project with the UDC to erect a statue commemorating Shepherd in 1931. [See here, here, and here] In choosing to begin their commemoration of the Civil War with this event the SCV has solidified its place as defenders of a Lost Cause that was lost long ago.