History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

Search This Blog & Links


Thursday, December 17, 2009


Brown's Raiders Honored

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — “ ... that scaffold has little dread for me ... by the taking of my life and the lives of my comrades, Virginia is but hastening on that glorious day when the slave shall rejoice in his freedom. When he can say, ‘I too am a man and am groaning no more under the yoke of oppression.’”

Those words were found in a letter written to Joshua Coppoc by his nephew, Edwin Coppoc, one of four members of abolitionist John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raiding party who was hanged in Charles Town on Dec. 16, 1859.

On Wednesday, the local NAACP branch sponsored a sesquicentennial commemoration of the executions of Coppoc, Shields Green, John Copeland and John Cook.

Coppoc wrote the letter to his uncle shortly before he and his fellow raiders were taken to the same gallows where Brown was hanged two weeks earlier in what was then a field, now the front lawn of an elegant brick home owned by Gene and Jo Ann Perkins at 515 S. Samuel St.

Two weeks ago, the 150th anniversary of Brown’s execution was witnessed by more than 200 people. Brown, portrayed by Greg Artzner, was led, arms bound in ropes, from the Jefferson County Courthouse by uniformed re-enactors and taken to the gallows by horse and wagon. Artzner stood in front of the scaffold and spoke some of the fiery abolitionist’s last words.

Wednesday’s re-enactment of the execution of his four followers drew a smaller crowd of about 60 onlookers. There were no actors standing in for the four and no wagon ride through town. The audience walked the five blocks to the hanging ground.

Copeland and Coppoc had descendants standing in for them — Judy Ashelman of Ranson, W.Va., whose great-great-grandfather on her mother’s side was Joshua Coppoc, and Brian Beatty, 37, of Stafford, Va., a descendant of Copeland.

Proxy stand-ins for Green and Cook were James Tolbert, a member of Marshall-Holly-Mason Post 102 American Legion in Charles Town, and Emily Gilbert, 14, a Harpers Ferry Middle School student.

Each stand-in placed a wreath beneath the gallows in memory of the four men hanged that day.

Cook, 27, came from a wealthy Connecticut family, attended Yale University and studied law. He was with Brown in Kansas, married a local girl and befriended many area residents.

He escaped during the raid and was captured later at Emmanuel Chapel on what is now Penn State University’s branch campus in Mont Alto, Pa.

Coppoc, 24, and his younger brother, Barclay, were Quakers from Iowa who joined Brown in 1858. Edwin was captured in the engine house in Harpers Ferry. Barclay escaped and went home.

Green, 23, an escaped slave from Charleston, S.C., and friend of Frederick Douglass, also was captured in the engine house.

Copeland, 25, was a free black born in Raleigh, N.C. His family moved to Ohio, where he attended Oberlin College. He joined Brown the night before the raid and was captured trying to escape across the Shenandoah River.

All four men were tried and convicted in the Jefferson County Courthouse.

Green and Copeland were hanged on the morning of the 16th, and Coppoc and Cook were hanged in the afternoon. The same wagon hauled all four from the jail, now site of the Charles Town Post Office, to the execution ground.

According to a report of the hangings in the Virginia Free Press newspaper, read Wednesday by Bob O’Connor, local historian and author, “Copeland stood with head erect and eyes closed ... Green stood with his hands clasped in front and rocked to and fro ... he appeared deeply affected and evidently realized the situation in which he was placed ... ”

The newspaper, reporting the afternoon hangings of Coppoc and Cook, said they shook hands on the gallows “and bid each other goodbye.” When the caps were placed over their heads Cook said, “Wait a minute. Where is Edwin’s hand?” Coppoc said, “Be quick as possible,” and the two men dropped together.

Marshall-Holly-Mason Post 102 was originally named Green-Copeland Post 63 in honor of the two condemned raiders.

Tribute to John Copeland, Edwin Coppock, Shields Green and John E. Cook, Brown's Hanged Raiders

CHARLES TOWN, WEST VA. - A small, somber crowd made its way to the gallows Wednesday morning to remember four of the men who died following their participation in John Brown's historic raid in Harpers Ferry.

Wednesday marked the 150th anniversary of the hanging of John Copeland, Edwin Coppock, Shields Green and John E. Cook, who joined forces with John Brown in 1859 to raid an arsenal in Harpers Ferry.

The men joined Brown for their own unique reasons.

Cook, 27 at the time of the raid, grew up in a wealthy Northern family and studied law at Yale, said local historian Bob O'Connor. Coppock, meanwhile, was a 24-year-old Quaker. Green, 23, was an escaped slave from Charleston, S.C., and Copeland was a free African American who had attended Oberland College.

Those who were on hand Wednesday to remember the men said the day was an important one for them. Kathi Donatucci had traveled from her home in Point of Rocks, Md., to attend. Dressed in period garb, she said she had a special interest in Coppock, who like herself was a Quaker.

"It had to be a conscience struggle for him to choose violence," she said.

Donatucci and others listened as O'Connor stood in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse and read a narration of the events that led up to the execution of the four men. Then the group marched to the site of a set of gallows that had been reconstructed where the raiders were executed.

When Cook and Coppock walked to the top of the actual gallows 150 years ago, O'Connor said they were reported to have shaken hands and bid one another farewell.

Copeland and Green were hung that same day, but at a different time. They were placed in coffins and buried not far away, although O'Connor noted that their bodies were later taken by students from a Winchester, Va., medical school who hoped to use them for research. The bodies were never recovered, and the school was destroyed by Union forces who entered the city in 1862.

During his own remarks that day, the Rev. Ernest Lyles asked the crowd to tell him what words came to mind when they thought about the men they had gathered to remember. Responses ranged from "conviction" to "strength" and "bravery."

Lyles chose another word.

"The one word I would use to describe these gentlemen is courageous," he said.

From his perspective, he said the men exemplified the definition of courageous, coming together despite racial boundaries to fight for a common cause.

"These gentlemen had the courage to challenge the unjust system of slavery. They had the courage to fight for what they believed in regardless of the consequences."

He called on those in attendance to work together in the community to exemplify courage as well, and to come together to fight poverty and ensure a racially diverse future for local government.

Nearby, Judy Ashelman, a descendant of Coppock, stood with her husband Peter near a series of wreaths that would be placed under the gallows in honor of her ancestor and the others who had died 150 years ago that day.

"It's turned out to be a really important day to me," the Jefferson County resident said shortly after the ceremony came to an end.

She said that as she prepared for the day's event, she attempted to learn more about her ancestor, and how he, as a Quaker, had chosen to take the path that he did.

"I have to believe there was a very spiritual force behind this," she said.

Coppock and the other men were just that, men, she said. Still, Ashelman said she believed in spiritual principles that are universal in nature and are still important today.

The commemoration was held through the cooperation of the Jefferson County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society.

A commemoration event took place Dec. 2 in Charles Town to mark the 150th anniversary of the day Brown was hanged.

After Harper’s Ferry
by Gwen Gunn

snow began to fall on Adirondack rocks
as wreaths were laid to decorate the Old Man’s grave
where for one hundred fifty years
he has lain since being hanged

Roy Innis was first co-founder of CORE
shaky underneath a black umbrella
followed by a line of younger activists
locals from Lake Placid travelers from afar

like Maria who told of rape and bondage in Texas
slavery still exists but at least it’s now illegal
the horrors of John Brown’s days are fewer
his violence is becoming seen as justified

black folks have always understood that slavery
maintained by force of torture of loss of family
indeed of all identity required force to end it
as slaves were sent farther south after the cotton gin

this peculiar institution grew more profitable
while the fugitive slave law made no free black safe
laws had to be broken to help them
abolitionists were terrorized and killed

passive resistance freed India from Britain
and improved civil rights in the Sixties
by facing detainment dogs even death
resistors risked their lives for their cause

but is it fair for an outsider to ask that of the victims?
moral suasion wasn’t winning after our revolution
John Brown couldn’t stand to see more ruined lives
believed he had to fight for those enslaved

American patriots fought to oust the British
the U.S. and Europe fought against the fascists
feeling there was no other way but force
now again we’re in a “just war” to free others

the Old Man in this grave farmed these hills with Africans
when most white people thought them lesser beings
his war against terror was personal profound
seems in retrospect less mad than many others

(c) 2009 by Gwen Gunn

A Pardon for John Brown: My Letter to Biographer David Reynolds and His Response

Dec 3, 2009

Dear David:

Thanks for sharing your Op-Ed and appeal in pursuit of a pardon for John Brown the abolitionist. Please be assured that I am very sympathetic and emotionally attracted to any cause that will, as you put it, rescue him from the loony bin of history.

Despite my admiration for you and your effort, I differ with the idea of seeking a pardon for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I do not think that John Brown himself would want to be pardoned until there was a clear and definitive statement--at the very least--coming from the United States government and the former slave states (and I would include northern states of course) expressing regret and admitting to the wrongs committed against African people in the USA--officially apologizing in clear and uncertain terms.

In one of the last letters (Nov. 30) that John Brown penned to his family, he wrote: "It is ground of the utmost comfort to my mind; to know that so many of you as have had the opportunity; have given full proof of your fidelity to the great family of man. Be faithful until death."

The popular criminalization of Brown in the minds of many (white) citizens is not based upon a lack of a pardon but upon the fact that our society (and implicitly) our government treat slavery like a grandiose but unpleasant mistake rather than as a crime and an injustice. Citing some remarks by Lincoln does not count as an official apology. In the name of Brown, we ought to be demanding an official apology for slavery in the name of the myriad victims of
this "slave nation," as Brown called it.

Secondly, by asking for the State of Virginia to pardon Brown, we are going to the representative entity that killed him and asking for it to officially legitimate him. If Virginia pardons Brown
without admitting its own guilt and apologizing to African Americans, the pardon will be an empty victory. Besides, even if we get him pardoned and put on a postage stamp too, until we get the final victory over slavery's stylized legacy in this nation, I doubt it would do much to change the mind of the public at large (i.e., white people).

Third, given the lack of acknowledgment of its wrongs and injustices, the government and state governments with legacies of slavery need to pardoned by African Americans, and if any symbolic gesture would have weight, it would be for a nationwide black vote as to whether or not to forgive the USA for its crimes.

Finally, pardoning John Brown might even "sanitize" him. He might end up another "American hero," one representing the mythical "true America" instead of being the one who opposed the real USA as a slave nation steeped in racism and injustice. Richard Nixon made some reference in a 1971 speech in which he used Brown to beautify the nation, rather than see the nation as Brown saw it; if we don’t get our history right as a nation, pardoning Brown will pervert his
memory and give opportunities for politicians to do more of the same.

I'm sorry that I cannot support your position, however eloquent and admirable, and however much I deeply appreciate your monumental contribution to our work. I would not willingly hold back anything good from the Old Man's legacy, but I believe we can best serve his memory by finishing up the necessary historical paper-work by advocating for a state apology and a serious consideration of reparations by our leaders.

Receive my warm regards and best wishes for a joyous holiday season.

Yours truly,
Louis A. DeCaro Jr.
A Fellow Biographer of John Brown

Dec. 3, 2009


Thanks for a very thoughtful response. I appreciate your point of view and acknowledge the potential unintended signals of a pardon. But I think the potential benefits and the simple justice of the act more than offset the risks. Coming to terms with the past is a process, not a one-time event. Our society has a tendency to personify everything, to need to make the abstract concrete by enacting it in the story of a specific human being. More than others, we build up and tear down heroes. John Brown was a man way ahead of his time, more valiant and morally driven than the acknowledged heroes of his day. I feel it important to make that truth known. The pardon is the most tangible way to make that happen, to force the kind of tough introspection and national debate required to get to the place you envision.

It’s possible that John Brown himself might indeed reject this idea. But, again, I feel he has a larger national purpose to deliver. With this president at this time in history, his time has come yet again to help take us to a better, truer democracy.



David Reynolds to David Blight, Yale University, and other scholars, in defense of a John Brown Pardon

David, you say that the pardon idea is “very wrong.” You argue that “John Brown should trouble us” and that’s all. But he’s been troubling us for 150 years, with few people standing up publicly and going beyond straddling to take a clear stance. I try to take such a stance in my op ed. Also, if we should be troubled about Brown, shouldn’t we also be troubled by Columbus’s indiscriminate torture and slaughter of thousands of natives? How about Washington’s and Jefferson’s holding of slaves, along with Jefferson’s statements about the inferiority of blacks in “Notes”? Or Jackson’s slave-holding and his cruel treatment of Native Americans? Or Lincoln’s view that blacks must be shipped out of the country because there were racial differences the prevented them from living on equal terms in America?
Well, some people are troubled these figures, but I think most Americans are right in celebrating them, even though in some cases they held views that were far more “un-American” (in the egalitarian sense) John Brown did. These figures all come with big “buts”—some of them with much bigger buts than Brown’s—and yet, rightly I think, most of us aren’t so troubled by their buts that we exile them from the pantheon of American heroes. So, why should we be troubled by Brown’s, especially since, unlike them, he was fighting for a totally integrated America in which all people would have equal rights, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender?

But, critics say, how about John Brown’s violence? It should be noted that of the 36 record political murders committed in Bleeding Kansas from 1855 to 1858, over 75% of them were committed by the proslavery side. As my op ed says, Brown in Kansas was part of a cycle of preemptive and retaliatory violence. Newspapers of the time noted that Brown was bringing Southern tactics to the Northern side. John Brown never killed women, children, or other innocents. He would not have, say, used jet planes or bombed a building in Oklahoma City, because such incidents involved the random killing of innocents. At Pottawatomie he targeted five known members of the proslavery party who had threatened to wipe out his family. He left unscathed the women and children who were in those cabins. His anger was spurred by the drunken border ruffians who had just destroyed the free-state capital of Lawrence and by Preston Brooks’s brutal beating of the antislavery senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor.

Unlike a recent administration that condoned the torture of prisoners, Brown bent over backward to be kind to his hostages. He even refused friends’ offers to break him out of jail, since he didn’t want his proslavery captors to be hurt in the process.

Besides, throughout our history, much greater violence than Brown’s has been committed by people who hold the respect of many Americans. Lincoln, for instance, was at first reluctant to wage war but resorted to “total war” when he saw that it was necessary for uprooting so deeply an entrenched evil as slavery. The Hammer-and-Anvil campaigns of Grant and Sherman included many acts of what could be called terrorism. Sherman wrote that in order to gain victory “we will remove and destroy every obstacle, if need be, take every life, every acre of land, every particle or property.” He said his goal was “extermination, not of soldiers alone, that is the least of the trouble, but of the people also.” Sherman’s scorched-earth campaign resulted in the widespread destruction of property and in thousands of civilian casualties.

John Brown saw slavery as an unprovoked war against an entire race. In Kansas and in Virginia, he was a soldier in the war for freedom. It’s easy for those sitting in the comfort of freedom to criticize someone who would take up arms to try to end slavery—a system of oppression, murder, torture, and rape. This institution was coercive and violent to the core. While we might prefer the Ghandi approach, there is nothing terroristic about defending the slaves against the horrific condition inflicted on them.

Time proved, sadly, that Brown was right in saying that slavery would be abolished only after “very much bloodshed.” 620,000 Americans gave their lives in the war over slavery. A good number of them were so inspired bv John Brown that they sang about him as they marched to their deaths.

Yes, John Brown should be pardoned.

David [Reynolds]
[Dec. 3, 2009]

No comments: