The five black men who raided Harpers Ferry with John Brown have been forgotten
By EUGENE L. MEYER | Special To The Washington Post | Published: October 13, 2019
It was chilly and damp on Sunday evening on Oct. 16, 1859, when abolitionist John Brown climbed onto a horse-drawn wagon for the five-mile ride down a dark country road to Harpers Ferry. There he and his small band of men would seize the town and its federal arsenal in a futile attempt to foment a slave rebellion and bring down the South's "peculiar institution" of slavery.
In front were two men shouldering arms. Behind were 16 more, marching two abreast in silence, "as solemnly as a funeral procession," and that's exactly what it was. None would survive, except for the author of those words, Osborne Perry Anderson, who would also write the only insider account of the raid that rocked America.
Anderson was one of five African Americans who went with Brown to Harpers Ferry. Every October, on the anniversary of the raid, much attention is focused on Brown, the radical white abolitionist who would be tried, convicted and hanged less than two months later. Brown would become legendary in a nation still grappling with its original sin of slavery.
For far too long, the five African Americans have been overlooked, overshadowed by their martyred commander, treated as footnotes, if at all, in the John Brown saga. When they are mentioned, it is often in passing, and they are lumped together, as "five black men" also accompanied Brown to Harpers Ferry. But each came for different reasons and by different routes that are worth recalling on the 160th anniversary of the raid, and as the country also marks four centuries since the first enslaved Africans were brought to its shores.
Four were free men of color. The fifth had fled from slavery in Charleston, South Carolina, and was said to be African royalty. He went by Shields Green, and his nickname was "Emperor." Two were from Oberlin, Ohio — one, John Anthony Copeland, had attended the college's preparatory department.
Anderson was from Chester County, Pennsylvania, the son of a mixed-race man born in Fauquier County, Virginia, and a red-haired woman said to be from Ireland or Scotland.
The fifth, Dangerfield Newby, was born enslaved in the Piedmont of Virginia, the oldest of 11 children of a white farmer, Henry Newby, and Elsey Pollard, of mixed racial background and owned by another man, John Fox, who allowed them to live as husband and wife. To free his family, with Fox's permission, Henry Newby moved them to Ohio in 1858. Dangerfield Newby, a blacksmith by trade, had meanwhile established an enduring union with an enslaved woman named Harriet with whom he had as many as seven children.
Facing financial ruin, her enslaver, Dr. Lewis Jennings, of Brentsville, Virginia, planned to sell her and their children south, to the cotton plantations of Louisiana, where life was much harsher for those enslaved than in the upper South. Newby, moving back and forth between Ohio and Virginia, sought to negotiate their purchase. Accounts differ, but by 1859, the deal had fallen through, and Newby joined with Brown, hoping to liberate his family.
In the spring and summer of 1859, Harriet wrote three letters to Newby, at 39 the oldest in Brown's band. Each was addressed to "Dear Husband" and signed "Your affectionate wife." In her last letter, on Aug. 16, she wrote: " I want you to buy me as soon as possible, for if you do not get me some body else will ... their has ben one bright hope to cheer me in all my troubles that is to be with you ..."
By enlisting with Brown, Newby also clung to hope. He could not foresee what lay ahead. His death came on the morning of Oct. 17, when, on the streets of Harpers Ferry, he was shot down by a sniper. Angry townspeople cut off his genitals and his ears for souvenirs and left him for the hogs. Harriet and the children were sold south a few months later.
Brown's insurrection ended after 36 hours when 90 marines, under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee, battered their way into the arsenal fire engine house where the insurrectionists had holed up. One of the black men from Oberlin, Lewis Leary, was mortally wounded trying to escape across the Shenandoah River after the raid. He left a wife and young daughter.
Brown was badly injured but survived to face justice meted out by a judge and 12 jurors, all slave holders. Convicted with him and also hanged were Shields Green and John Copeland.
Virginia Gov. Henry A. Wise received hundreds of letters, many of them seeking Brown's release or the commutation of his death sentence. There were no such appeals specifically on behalf of the black raiders, even from abolitionist groups.
Copeland refused to die a bitter man. From his cell, on the morning of his execution, he wrote to his family in Oberlin: "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."
Brown's corpse was respectfully transported to his farm at North Elba, New York, in the Adirondacks, where he was buried. The remains of Copeland and Green were given to the Medical College of Virginia, in Winchester, for students to dissect. To the abolitionist cause, Brown was a hero; his African American soldiers, all but forgotten.
As historians have noted, the raid was a catalyst to the Civil War, which erupted a little more than a year later. It ultimately freed 4 million enslaved men, women and led to passage of three constitutional amendments.
At the raid's centennial, in 1959, in the Southern-sympathizing West Virginia panhandle, Brown was portrayed as a villain, and weekend crowds cheered his "capture" by Civil War re-enactors. The black raiders went unmentioned.
By 2009, at the sesquicentennial, the country had seemingly changed, with Barack Obama its first African American president. The National Park Service, which oversaw and organized the commemoration, sought out descendants and invited them to attend. Both John Copeland and Dangerfield Newby were part of the presentations. Of the five men, only Shields Green was unrepresented by descendants.
Meyer, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, is the author of "Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown's Army."