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

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Harper's Ferry Hero Remembered:
Lewis Sheridan Leary

Lewis Sheridan Leary
The FayObserver.com, Fayetteville, North Carolina, reports that a state historical marker recognizing the life and abolitionist work of Fayetteville son Lewis Sheridan Leary was unveiled this past Thursday by the campus of Fayetteville State University (FSU). According to journalist Michael Futch, the new marker, “part of the N.C. Highway Historical Marker Program, stands at the corner of Murchison Road and Washington Street. That's at the southern entry to the historically black college.”

In the dedication speech, FSU Chancellor James Anderson declared: "Who would have thought that over 150 years ago, the actions of many individuals—but one in particular—would have such a distinct impact on history? Someone who is a son of Fayetteville, with bloodlines that run through the university.”

According to Kelli Walsh, an assistant professor of history at FSU, the exact location of the old Leary family home is unknown. But the advisory committee, of which Walsh is a part, recommended that the marker be placed on N.C. 210 (Murchison Road), giving it a connection to Fayetteville State. The roadside marker is on the same stretch of Murchison Road as historical markers honoring Hiram Revels, the nation's first black U.S. senator, and religious slave and scholar Omar Ibn Said.

The marker reads:
Lewis Leary


Free black abolitionist and conspirator in 1859 with John Brown in attack on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Killed in assault. Lived in Fayetteville.

FSU students admire the Leary marker
(Photo by Raul R. Rubiera, FayObserver.com)
According to FSU historian Bertha Miller, after being wounded in the Harper’s Ferry battle, “Leary died eight hours later, but not before dictating a note to his wife and 6-month-old daughter stating, ‘I am ready to die.’” Reading from the resolution, Miller further recalled that Leary had witnessed the cruel beating of a slave by a white man in Fayetteville in 1856. In turn, Lewis beat the white man before fleeing to Oberlin, Ohio, where his sisters had moved and married. It was there, according to Miller, that 21-year-old Leary joined the abolitionist community of Oberlin.”

“Leary is known to have been one of Brown's first recruits who committed directly to the raid. Sixteen of the raiders were white; Leary was among five African-Americans. . . . Whereas Lewis Sheridan Leary paid the ultimate price for freedom for slaves, and though the raid was not successful," Miller read, "the raid helped catapult the nation into the Civil War, which resulted in fulfilling Leary's quest for freedom for all slaves in America."

Source: Michael Futch, “Marker honors Fayetteville abolitionist Lewis Leary,” FayObserver.com (25 February 2011)

From the Archives—
Lewis S. Leary: The Katherine Mayo Interviews

Despite Oswald Garrison Villard’s success a century ago in the publication of his scholarly biography of John Brown, his popular book does not make use of half of the harvest of field research conducted by his associate, the author and journalist, Katherine Mayo. Fortunately for posterity, Mayo was able to move around the country and interview many people with direct relation to the John Brown story before they faded from this mortal scene. In keeping with the Fayetteville tribute to Lewis Sheridan Leary, I have provided a brief review of the materials gleaned by Katherine Mayo’s several interviews conducted in 1908-09. Perhaps it will be of value to those with a deeper interest in this unsung hero of the Harper’s Ferry raid.

     In 1908, Mayo met Henriette Evans, the sister of Lewis Sheridan Leary. In her notes, Mayo described Evans as "a small, bent, aged woman," dark skinned and wrinkled, with the appearance of "an Indian, not a negro." John S. Leary, brother of both Henriette and Lewis, was later a member of the North Carolina Legislature and dean of the Shaw University Law Department. Henriette's sister Delilah was the mother of Brown's other notable raider, John A. Copeland. "None of the men, on either side," Mayo noted, "were ever slaves." Julie named Lewis for a former boyfriend, Lewis Sheridan, a slave holder who "took his slaves to Liberia and manumitted them." [K. Mayo's interview with Mrs. Henriette Evans, Mother of Bruce Evans, March 5, 1908, Washington, D.C., Lewis Sheridan Leary folder, Box 12, John Brown-Oswald Garrison Villard Papers, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Hereinafter, OGV]

Lewis Leary's mother, Julie Mumrell, came to Fayetteville North Carolina in childhood when her parents emigrated from Guadeloupe. Julie married Matthew Leary, a saddler and harness maker who owned several plantations. Matthew and Julie settled on the edge of territory belonging to the indigenous Croatan people, and it was here that Lewis Leary and his siblings were born and reared [Mayo's interview with Mrs. Henriette Evans, March 5, 1908]. According to a 19th century historian, Stephen Weeks, the Croatan of North Carolina had some intermixture with English colonists on Roanoke Island dating back to the 16th century. Weeks described the Croatan people as "migratory in character, and of a whole range of colors from white to black," perhaps further reflecting mixture with people of both European and African stock. [See K. Mayo's notes from Stephen B. Weeks, "The Lost Colony of Roanoke," American Historical Society (Oct. 1891): pp. 107-46, Lewis S. Leary folder, Box 12, OGV.]

Lewis Leary's father was the son of Jeremiah O'Leary, an Irishman who had fought under Gen. Nathaniel Green in the Revolutionary War.  O'Leary married Sallie Revels, a woman of Croatan and black heritage, described as a large woman of extremely light complexion ("very white"). In fact, Sallie's family was entirely aloof from local blacks and she identified with and was recognized as Croatan. [K. Mayo's interview with Mrs. Henriette Evans, Mother of Bruce Evans, March 5, 1908]

Mayo notes that in the earlier 19th century, the North Carolina Legislature made provision for manumission by allowing enslaved people to work off the price of their purchase and then being made free by the state. "It was Matthew Leary's custom to buy slaves offered in the market, let them work out their purchase money, and then get the State to manumit them." But as Southern slavery became more hardened and reactionary in the 1830s, an act was passed repealing the power of manumission (1835). This put an end to Matthew Leary's practice. North Carolina also stripped suffrage from free men of color at this time. [Mayo's interview with Mrs. Henriette Evans, March 5, 1908].

Lewis' move to Oberlin was not entirely based on preference. According to his sister Henriette, Lewis was a passionate abolitionist who regularly moved among enslaved blacks on plantations around Fayetteville, preaching insurrection. "I would be no man's slave," he would declare. [Mayo's interview with Mrs. Henriette Evans, March 5, 1908]. Lewis' wife also recalled that he was always "preaching rebellion to the slaves round about" Fayetteville, "and finally was driven to fly. . .the place having become too hot for him." [K. Mayo's interview with Mary Patterson Leary Langston, July 27, 1909, Oberlin, Ohio, Lewis S. Leary folder, Box 12, OGV]. She may have been referring to a specific incident in which Leary had to flee to save his life. According to Lewis' sister, Henriette, the family was so concerned about Lewis' dangerous profession that they thought it best to send him to Oberlin, Ohio with her after her marriage. [Mayo's interview with Mrs. Henriette Evans, March 5, 1908].

In Oberlin, Lewis was fortunate to have a friend in James Henry Scott, his father's former apprentice back in Fayetteville. Lewis worked as a harness maker with Scott in his Oberlin shop. [K. Mayo's interview with James Henry Scott, Oberlin, Ohio, Dec. 7, 1908, Lewis S. Leary folder, Box 12, OGV]. Lewis also met Mary Patterson, whom he married in 1857. Mayo described her as "decidedly of an Indian cast of feature," with high cheek bones, "the Indian eye, nose, mouth." Mary was also from Fayetteville, North Carolina and had moved to Ohio when she was a teenager. She told Mayo that all of her family in North Carolina were "of Indian stock"; and like Lewis Leary, she was also born in a free family. In 1909, when Mayo interviewed her, Mary had long since been widowed and had married Charles H. Langston, the notable orator and activist (Mary thus also being the grandmother of Harlem's great author, Langston Hughes). Apparently the interview yielded little else because Mary "had very little to say." [K. Mayo's interview with Mary Patterson Leary Langston, July 27, 1909]

Recruited by John Brown
(Jacob Lawrence)
As to Leary's involvement in the Harper's Ferry raid, he did not tell Mary the purpose for his trip to the South, but expressed the hope that "it would benefit his health, which had not been good." Mary thought he might be going to see his family, but had some suspicion about the emotions he showed in regard to his departure. "He wept like a child over their baby" Lois, taking the infant in his arms and pacing the floor with her, apparently shaken with grief." Mary found this strange, yet Lewis never revealed the nature of his trip or the possibility that he would never return. [K. Mayo's interview with Mary Patterson Leary Langston, July 27, 1909]. But on the day of his departure, Lewis told his employer, James Henry Scott, that he was going to join Brown in a raid on the South "to free the slaves." He asked Scott to explain this to his wife in case he did not return. [K. Mayo's interview with James Henry Scott, Oberlin, Ohio, Dec. 7, 1908]

Further online reading:

Jean Libby, Hannah Geffert, and Jimica Akinloye Kenyatta (James Fisher), “Hiram Revels Related to Men in John Brown's Army,” Allies for Freedom website

Lewis Leary in Ohio History Central—Online Encyclopedia

Joshua B. Howard, “Tarheels at Harpers Ferry, October 16-18, 1859,” North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennialblog

“Remembering a Tarheel in John Brown’s Raid,” North Carolina Miscellany [University of North Carolina] (25 February 2011)

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