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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, September 28, 2019

Re-introducing Emperor: A New Book on the Well-Known, Little Known Shields Green

Last year, when it was announced that Mark Sobini's film production company was making a movie about Shields Green, one of John Brown's raiders, I thought I might write a piece for a magazine about the "real story" of the man who called himself "Emperor."  I knew that my files--now pretty extensive after two decades of research on Brown--had scattered bits and pieces about Shields Green, so I began to put them together with no anticipation of presenting more than the standard narrative.  However, when I began to read some of the material in my files, I found discrepancies and questions.  In a relatively short time, the article I intended to write became too long for an article.  I also realized that I could not leave some stones unturned, and had to do some more research, using sources as accessible as the New York Public Reference Library and as distant as the South Carolina Historical Society.
William Jewett of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper made this sketch of raiders Shields Green, John Copeland and Albert Hazlett in jail.  It is the least reliable of the sketches made at that time.  Readers of Emperor Rediscovered will find out why.

In August, I was offered a publication contract by NYU Press for a book to be published early in 2020 entitled, Emperor Rediscovered.  As it turns out, assuming Sobini's "Emperor" is released this fall, my Emperor book will follow on its heels within a few months.  The book is unlike other biographies that I have written in that the amount of actual information we have about Shields Green is much more limited.  It is also a far deeper and more extensive consideration of his life than what is offered by Eugene Meyer's 2018 publication, Five for Freedom, which covers the lives of the black Harper's Ferry raiders.  Despite his skewed description of John Brown, Meyer did a good job of telling the stories of the black men who went to Harper's Ferry with John Brown.  But to no surprise, the weakest part of Five for Freedom is the part about Shields Green.  Consequently, some of Emperor Rediscovered involves evaluating the standard narrative of Green, and then sort of restarting the story based upon what can be known by deep research.   Those who are familiar with Emperor's story may be surprised to find that the evidence suggests a more nuanced account with some untold possibilities.  What was Emperor's background?  When did he flee the South?  What road brought him back to the South and why?   What parts of the conventional narrative are trustworthy and what parts have to be set aside? How many sketches of Emperor have survived and which one is the truest to the record of the man?

Well, the manuscript is with the editor now, so--as they say--it's on.  I'm looking forward to the movie to be released this fall, but I can pretty much guarantee that the story in the film is quite fictive, so I hope my original intention is still accomplished.  The cinematic Emperor is about to be introduced to a large movie-watching audience, so it's important that the real man who lived also has a showcase for those who want to gain more than a superficial understanding of his life and involvement with John Brown.--LD

Emperor Rediscovered: The Untold Story of Harper's Ferry Raider Shields Green will be published by New York University Press in May 2020.

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