By Alfred Brophy
I’ve been talking about our memory of the era of slavery some here of late. Perhaps you’ll be interested in this.
Back in the 1930s the United Daughters of the Confederacy put up a statue dedicated to Hayward Shepard, an African American man who was killed at Harper’s Ferry. He was the first person killed in John Brown’s raid.
The monument reads
On the night of October 16, 1859, Heyward Shepard, an industrious and respected colored freeman was mortally wounded by John Brown’s raiders in pursuance of his duties as an employee of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company. He became the first victim of the attempted insurrection.
This boulder is erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans as a memorial to Heyward Shepherd, exemplifying the character and faithfulness of thousands of negroes who, under many temptations through subsequent years of war, so conducted themselves that no stain was left upon a record which is the peculiar heritage of the American people, and an everlasting tribute to the best on both races.
Now, why did the UDC put this up? The idea was that if they could show that slaves and free blacks wouldn’t join Brown’s rebellion that slavery wasn’t so bad. If free blacks wouldn’t join, it would show that they were on the side of the slaveholders rather than the violent abolitionists.
This, of course, was controversial. The NAACP protested against it, because it suggested that the slaves accepted their lot and benefited, perhaps even liked, slavery. Of course, while some saw him as devil, an abolitionist nut who fomented Civil War, others saw him as a hero. W.E.B. DuBois proposed a counter-monument to the Heyward Shepard monument in 1932, which would read:
Here / John Brown / Aimed at human slavery / A Blow / That woke a guilty nation. / With him fought / Seven slaves and sons of slaves. / And 4,000,000 freemen / Singing / “John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grace / But his Soul goes marching on!” / In gratitude this Tablet is erected / The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People / May 21, 1932.
Still, the town put up the monument. It remained on display until the 1980s when, during renovations, it was removed. You know what? It’s back up again, though this time with a plaque that helps put it into context. I think that’s probably the best possible result: let visitors to Harper’s Ferry know that these sentiments existed and that they were part of an attempt to re-write the history of slavery. Unfortunately, that attempt was pretty successful. And that deserves a post all its own.
If you’re interested in learning more about this, you might enjoy a book by The Making of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park: A Devil, Two Rivers, and a Dream. I wrote a review of it recently for H-Net, which is available here.
The photograph of “John Brown’s Fort” by Marsha Wassel is from the National Park Service’s website on Harper’s Ferry.