On October 16, 1859, John Brown and his band of eighteen raiders descended on Harpers Ferry. In an ill-fated attempt to incite a slave insurrection, they seized the federal arsenal, took hostages, and retreated to a fire engine house where they barricaded themselves until a contingent of US Marines battered their way in on October 18. The raiders were routed, and several were captured. Soon after, they were tried, convicted, and hanged. Among Brown’s fighters were five African American men—John Copeland, Shields Green, Dangerfield Newby, Lewis Leary, and Osborne Perry Anderson—whose lives and deaths have long been overshadowed by their martyred leader and who, even today, are little remembered. Only Anderson survived, later publishing the lone insider account of the event that, most historians agree, was a catalyst to the catastrophic American Civil War that followed. Five for Freedom is the story of these five brave men, the circumstances in which they were born and raised, how they came together at this fateful time and place, and the legacies they left behind. It is an American story that continues to resonate.
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About the Author
Eugene L. Meyer is an award-winning journalist and author and a former longtime reporter and editor at the Washington Post whose work has also appeared in the New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, and many other national and regional publications. He is a contributing editor for Bethesda magazine and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
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From the nation's capital, Interstate 66 follows a southeasterly path through northern Virginia, from the plush DC suburbs of Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, among the nation's richest, into the horse country of Prince William, and Fauquier, with their still-rural settings, quaint small towns, commercial strips, and large-lot subdivisions — creeping suburbia.
This is also a route into the heart of what was once slave country, not something readily apparent to the casual visitor or even to most who live here. Of course there are road signs for Manassas Battlefield and Manassas Historic District. (Why historic? The signs give no hint.) Other signs signal Dulles Airport North, SplashDown Waterpark, Jiffy Lube Live amphitheater, and Freedom Aquatic and Fitness Center. Traffic streams by at 10 AM as you pause at the Virginia Welcome Center (sponsored by GEICO), which offers information about everything Virginian, with the notable exceptions of slavery and African Americans in the region's hidden history.
The exit 47 sign promises food but makes no mention of my reason for leaving the interstate, the Afro-American Historical Association, tucked away off the main street in The Plains (a town that promotes itself as "The Gateway to Hunt Country!"). It is here where past and present meet, as researchers pore over old court dockets and other records that track, to borrow Hannah Arendt's phrase, the banality of evil, meticulously and shamelessly recorded in official documents reflecting the codification — indeed the normalization — of slavery.
The dry documentation of the South's "peculiar institution," such a striking euphemism for slavery, is manifest in the court dockets: A Free Negro charged with being found "without attested copy of his Register of Freedom, Fees paid to Jailor, discharged, September 23, 1850"; "Benjamin Berry, charged with permitting unlawful assemblage of Negroes, guilty by jury verdict, fined $25 plus costs, November 26, 1835"; another slave, charged with "being permitted to go at large + hire himself out," fine paid to court by his owner, Isham Keith, December 23, 1845. So it goes, page after page.
It could have been different, if only ...
* * *
The success of the American Revolution did not bode well for the new nation's then seven hundred thousand enslaved men, women, and children.
The British had played a major role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, transporting an estimated 3.4 million slaves from Africa to North America before Parliament abolished the practice throughout the British Empire in 1807.
John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore and the colonial governor of Virginia in 1775, had issued a proclamation freeing runaway slaves willing to fight the revolutionaries. From the British warship HMS Fowey, he issued the invitation on November 14, sending ripples of alarm throughout Tidewater, a bastion of revolutionary fervor. The patriots responded by stressing that the British slave trade was an ongoing concern, and who knew what the fate of the renegade slaves would be should the Crown prevail. "Be not then, ye negroes, tempted by this proclamation to ruin yourselves," declared a letter published in Alexander Purdie's Virginia Gazette on November 17.
Soon after the proclamation, some three hundred slaves rallied to the British cause. They were called Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment. As many as eight hundred men joined up. Then smallpox struck, and by June 1776, the month before the Declaration of Independence, the force was down to 150.
Of course, Great Britain lost the war, and a new nation was formed that made slavery as much a part of its founding documents as the contrasting Bill of Rights: for purposes of "representative" government, slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person, an implicit recognition that an individual could be both chattel property and count in the Census.
The British would go on to abolish slavery in 1834. Yet, as American slaveholders would protest to critics, they had inherited a system that many claimed to despise and that was foisted upon them by the British slave trade between Africa and the colonies.
Southern ambivalence toward the "peculiar institution" was manifested in various ways. There were so-called emancipationists, presumably slaveholders who would gradually free their slaves, if only in their wills. There were also abolitionists, though not many. Further, there was sentiment to send slaves, whether born in this country or not, "back" to Africa.
In 1808, the US Congress banned the importation of more slaves into the United States. Some states, notably Virginia, also sought to restrict the importation of slaves by nonresidents. Such measures were certainly of no benefit to the slaves, who did not all suffer in silence.
The record shows that some Virginia slaves resorted to violence. From 1800 to 1833, the governor reviewed eighty-eight cases of slaves charged with murder or attempted murder of whites, twenty-seven of attempted poisoning, and fifteen cases of arson.
Gabriel, an enslaved blacksmith later known by his master's surname, Prosser, and who lived six miles outside of Richmond, planned a large slave revolt for the summer of 1800. The plan was discovered, resulting in the execution by hanging of Gabriel and twenty-five other slaves. As was typical following failed slave rebellions, the commonwealth and other Southern states adopted laws prohibiting slaves from becoming educated, assembling, or even being hired out. Other laws further restricted free persons of color. The growth of the free black population in Virginia was especially threatening to slaveholders, who saw them as potentially subversive agents who could embolden their slaves to revolt.
As white fears of living among such a large and potentially mutinous population heightened, efforts arose to reduce the black population through a movement seen as charitable and high-minded, one that would end slavery but also end the black presence. "Colonization," it was called, and some of the most progressive white citizens, impelled by their sense of morality and their opposition in principle to slavery, joined the effort to transport the slaves to Africa. It was a movement that was, ironically, inspired in part by the founding of Liberia on the west coast of Africa in 1819 by free persons of color; even into the 1850s, and later, it was a course of action black abolitionists seriously considered.
"Our own country is blackened with the victims of slavery, already amounting to nearly two millions of souls," the Auxiliary Society of Frederick County for the Colonization of the Free People of Colour in the United States wrote in its annual report, published in Winchester in 1820. The auxiliary had been formed three years earlier as a branch of the American Colonization Society, which a Presbyterian minister from New Jersey established in 1816. The society, an odd coalition of abolitionists and Chesapeake planters who owned slaves, had been instrumental in helping to found Liberia in 1821 for freeborn American blacks. While deploring the evils of slavery, the Virginia auxiliary at least was ready to cast blame elsewhere:
While we deprecate the horrors of slavery, it is consoling to reflect that our country is originally guiltless of the crime, which was legalized by G. Britain under our colonial government, and consummated by commercial avarice, at a time when our powerless legislatures vainly implored the mother country to abolish a trade so impious in its character and dreadful in its consequences. In the year 1772, Virginia discouraged the importation of slaves by the imposition of duties, and supplicated the throne to remove the evil; and in 1778, having broken the fetters of British tyranny, she passed a law prohibiting the further importation of slaves.
The issue of slavery was front and center at a Virginia constitutional convention in 1829. Delegates from the mountainous western sections who owned few slaves generally supported abolition but also wanted the franchise rules rewritten so that slaves would not count in the Census, which determined representation. Antislavery advocate Alexander Campbell, a representative from the west, reported on one caucus he attended in Richmond "on the question of general emancipation" at which he "heard several gentlemen of Eastern Virginia, men owning hundreds of slaves say that, if Virginia would agree to fix upon some agreeable time, after which all should be free, they would cheerfully not only vote for it, but would set all their slaves free, for they believed slavery to be the greatest curse ... a burden from which neither they nor their fathers could rid themselves, but which they could not and would not longer endure." In the end, though, a new state constitution was narrowly approved that maintained the status quo.
Such high-minded discussions, however, were soon overshadowed by other events. In 1830, there were 469,000 slaves in Virginia. In a six-month period from May through October, owners posted thirty-eight ads for runaways. Between 1820 and 1830, 265 slaves had gone missing.
In August 1831, Nat Turner, a slave born October 2, 1800, just five months before John Brown entered the world in Torrington, Connecticut, led an insurrection that resulted in the murders of fifty-one whites in Southampton County, in Southside Virginia. Turner was a preacher who believed himself to be a prophet, which infused the revolt with religious fervor. Turner had seen a vision as early as 1825 that seemed to propel him toward a destiny of bloody rebellion. His vision was even more apocalyptic on May 12, 1828, when, as he explained, "I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first."
Turner's first victims were his owner Joseph Travis, Travis's wife and nine-year-old son, and a hired hand, murdered as they slept. Two other slaves killed an infant asleep in a cradle, then tossed it into the fireplace. It was August 31, 1831. Turner's hatchet-wielding posse grew as it freed more slaves, and the carnage continued over two days. The uprising was then quickly quelled, but its leader avoided capture for two months, until October 30, when a farmer found him, weak and emaciated and ready to surrender.
Twenty judges, all slaveholders, tried and convicted more than fifty slaves for participating in the rebellion, and the slaves were then executed. Outside the law, outraged whites responded with their own rampage, lynching blacks indiscriminately. Turner was hanged on November 11 in the county seat of Jerusalem, having been convicted of "conspiring to rebel and making insurrection."
Religion, many whites were convinced, could lead to no good when enslaved blacks were fair game for agitating preachers. "The case of NatTurner warns us," a writer in the Richmond Enquirer opined. "No black man ought to be permitted to turn a preacher through the country. The law must be enforced — or the tragedy of Southampton appeals to us in vain."
As was common following such rebellions, Nat Turner's led to laws across Southern states prohibiting African Americans to preach, or even to learn to read or write. In Mississippi, legislators declared it "'unlawful for any slave, free Negro, or mulatto to preach the gospel' under pain of receiving 39 lashes upon the naked back of the ... preacher." North Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland passed similar laws. Virginia enacted a law prohibiting both slaves and free blacks from preaching or attending nighttime religious meetings without permission. The penalty: a public whipping of thirty-nine lashes.
The Nat Turner rebellion brought into sharp focus the awful dilemma — moral as well as physical, even perhaps existential — that faced white Southerners of conscience. "We may shut our eyes and avert our faces, if we please," wrote one anguished South Carolinian quoted in the Richmond Enquirer, "but there it is, dark and evil at our doors; and meet the question we must, at no distant day. ... What is to be done? Oh! My God, I do not know, but something must be done."
Slaveholders and even whites who didn't have slaves were terrified by these events, fearful that they presaged more violent rebellions. As the South Carolinian had said, almost despairingly, something had to be done about slavery. That seemingly intractable issue would be put before the Virginia legislature when it convened on December 5.
The 1831–1832 session of the Virginia General Assembly would be the stage for an unprecedented sweeping debate over slavery, with opposing resolutions introduced to either abolish slavery or affirm it in perpetuity. As it convened, the legislature received some forty petitions from all corners of the commonwealth and signed by two thousand citizens variously urging emancipation (gradual or immediate), colonization, or the expulsion of free blacks, who might inspire further subversion or outright rebellion.
A petition for outright abolition came from the Virginia Society of Friends (Quakers) after their yearly meeting, held in Charles City County, a plantation-rich rural area on the James River east of Richmond. The petition, dated December 14, 1831, urged the Senate and House of Delegates to declare slavery "an evil in our Country an evil which has been of long continuance, and is now of increasing magnitude. We allude to the condition of the African race in our land." Slavery, the petition said, was a "system repugnant to the laws of God, and subversive of the rights, and destructive to the happiness of man."
The petition asked for the emancipation of and granting of "the inalienable rights of men" to all enslaved African Americans in the commonwealth. "We, therefore, solemnly believe that some efficient system for the abolition of slavery in the Commonwealth and restoration of the African race to the inalienable rights of man is imperiously demanded by the laws of God, and inseparably connected with the best interests of the Commonwealth at large."
Another petition, this one from Buckingham County, in the central Piedmont south of the James, on December 16, also sought gradual emancipation but for less noble reasons. The petitioners feared the black population was growing too fast compared to the stagnant growth of the white populace. At current growth rates, the petitioners projected a black population by 1867 of 1,186,000 and by 1894 of 2,372,000, resulting in "four colored to one white person," which it deemed "a menace." Loudoun County petitioners for gradual emancipation also wanted all free blacks expelled from the commonwealth. Petitioners from Northampton County, at the southern tip of Virginia's Eastern Shore, suspecting free blacks of "dangerous intrigues with our slaves," wanted them all shipped to Liberia. Similarly, on December 9, Fauquier County residents sought state funding "to transport free persons of Color to the coast of Africa, and also, the power to purchase slaves and transport them likewise." In neighboring Culpepper, petitioners worried that slaves and free blacks were taking jobs away from white workers and urged that no blacks — free or enslaved — be "placed as an apprentice in any manner whatsoever to learn a trade or art under severe and onerous penalty."
In the midst of this outpouring of citizen sentiment, Governor John Floyd delivered his annual message to the Virginia General Assembly on December 6, 1831. In calling for stricter measures controlling slaves, coupled with colonization, he evoked the horrors of the Turner rebellion:
Whilst we were enjoying the abundance of last season, reposing in the peace and quiet of domestic comfort and safety, we were suddenly aroused from that security by receiving information, that a portion of our fellow-citizens had fallen victims to the relentless fury of assassins and murderers, even whilst wrapped in profound sleep, and that those bloody deeds had been perpetrated in a spirit of wantonness and cruelty, unknown to savage warfare, even in their most revolting form.
In August last, a banditti of slaves, consisting of but few at first, and not at any time exceeding a greater number than seventy, rose upon some of the unsuspecting and defenceless inhabitants of Southampton, and under circumstances of the most shocking and horrid barbarity, put to death sixty-one persons, of whom the greater number were women and helpless children.
To crush the rebellion, Floyd had called on infantry regiments, augmented by naval forces. With slaves stirred up by black preachers like Turner and by free persons of color, Floyd warned, "all communities are liable to suffer from the dagger of the murderer and midnight assassin."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Five for Freedom"
Copyright © 2018 Eugene L. Meyer.
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Table of Contents
Cast of Characters ix
Author's Note xiii
1 Beginnings 1
2 One Bright Hope 13
3 The Oberlin Connection 27
4 North to Canada 46
5 The Road to Harpers Ferry 67
6 The Raid 83
7 Trial and Punishment 104
8 Remains of the Day 122
9 The Aftermath 138
10 Hapless Haywood Shepherd 159
11 To Preserve This Sacred Shrine 177
12 Commemorations 192