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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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Monday, December 16, 2013

Side Note--
On Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s Article in The Root

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Today's issue (Dec. 16, 2013) of the online publication, The Root, features an article by the esteemed scholar, Henry Louis Gates Jr., focusing on the Harper's Ferry raid and the death of the black railroad porter, Hayward (sometimes rendered Heywood) Shepherd.  The article is part of a series that Prof. Gates appears to do under the title, "100 Amazing Facts About the Negro," a title inspired by the 1934 classic by Joel Rogers by the same name.  Prof. Gates' interesting article has references to works by his colleague, John Stauffer, and to Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz, and other contemporary sources.

Of course, writers working outside their area of specialization can only engage the sources as presented by the authorities consulted; so articles of this nature tend to be as "balanced" as they can be, given the information either provided to or sought by the writer.  Prof. Gates has drawn largely on Midnight Rising, but as commendable as this book may be in many respects, there's much more that needs to be considered, and certainly it would be a mistake to accept this narrative as definitive or exhaustive.  Sadly, after 150 years, the truth is that much of what is assumed about the raid is comprised of recirculated notions, some of which bear closer examination.
David Strother's sketch of
Heyward Shepherd (seated)

A case in point is the supposed great irony of the shooting of Heyward Shepherd by Brown's men. It has often been pointed out that Brown's first "victim" at Harper's Ferry was a black man, although the irony in the tragedy is hardly as breathtaking when one consider that Shepherd put himself in harm's way by the utter devotion he showed toward white slaveholders.   In short, the evidence points to Shepherd having been in that small number of blacks who were loyal to the slave master and willing to live as privileged exceptions amidst the oppressed.  Shepherd was a free black living in Virginia, which is itself a point to consider.  Virginia law prohibited residence of freed blacks; it took a special dispensation and support of the local white community to allow "Heywood" to live among them.  They really liked him, they greatly mourned him, and then they used him in death (they way they used him in life) to make a literal monument in his memory to flatter their own white supremacist narcissism.

You can read the article by Henry Louis Gates Jr. here:

You will also find my comments below his article.  I have reproduced them below as well.

As a biographer and student of John Brown, unfortunately I'd have to raise questions about some of the assumptions that Dr. Gates presents as a matter of fact.  He rests a great deal on Tony Horwitz's book, which although well done, is not without limitations and bias.  There is sufficient evidence, such as from one of the "bridge tenders" named Patrick Higgins, that the Heyward Shepherd was spoken to by Brown's men and warned to cooperate.  This was a free black man--who was able to remain in Virginia because he was sponsored by his former master, who essentially privileged him.  He was a "pink poodle" in the community, had property and money, and on that night was determined to resist even basic cooperation with Brown's men.  A journalist from a Baltimore paper who covered the raid firsthand later said that Shepherd actually had given Brown's men more trouble and then tried to sneak away to warn whites.  He was a well-loved black man by all the local whites and slave masters, so with all due respect, and if one looks at Shepherd through a political lens, he was more on the side of the slave master than he was on the side of the enslaved community.  
As to the notion that Brown came to the Ferry to seize the arms, the elephant in the room is the fact that there is no proof that any arms but a case were removed.  The whole "insurrection" notion was a slave master claim.  Brown explicitly denied that he came to plunder the armory--and the evidence is on his side of the claim since for all the talk about Brown taking the arms, there is no evidence that arms were removed by his men throughout his whole time of occupying Harper's Ferry.  As Brown pointed out to reporters, he didn't need the HF guns.  His Sharps rifles were better and he had two hundred of them.  A Sharps rifle was five times as effective because the guns manufactured and stored at HF were not as easy to reload.  And as I said, for all the hackneyed claims that he came for the guns, why weren't any removed and placed on his wagon?
Unfortunately, much of our assumed understanding about Brown and the Harper's Ferry raid is based upon the testimony of slaveholders and Virginia politicians relayed through the press--much of it the pro-slavery press like the NY Herald and southern papers.  This has resulted in a standard set of errors: (1) local black disinterest, which is a myth; (2) Brown was an insurrectionist, which is not true because Brown intended no massive program of killing slave masters, but rather intended to "rescue" slaves and lead as many as possible into the mountains.  As Brown always contended, all of his fighting at HF was self-defense oriented, and as long as he had the town under his control, he was extremely benign and sought for the safe keeping of all prisoners--not the actions of an insurrectionist; and (3) Brown wanted to seize the arsenal weapons--also false, as stated above.  There is no such evidence, and there is contrary testimony.  It is all the conjecture of Virginians relayed through the press and made "factual" by historians who have not roundly considered the raid.  One popular narrative, written from one perspective, is not enough to establish what happened in 1859 at Harper's Ferry.   
As far as Brother Heyward Shepherd goes, he is best remembered in that small circle of blacks who were loyal to their oppressors, informed on people like Denmark and Gabriel, or donned a Confederate uniform to fight against the Union.  Making so much of his death sort of misses the point.     Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., Ph.D. biographer of John Brown

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