The “Colored Hero” of Harper’s Ferry
John Anthony Copeland and the War against Slavery
Cambridge University Press
16th September 2015
PRICE: $27.99 (USD)
On the night of Sunday, October 16, 1859, hoping to bring about the eventual end of slavery, radical abolitionist John Brown launched an armed attack at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Among his troops, there were only five black men, who have largely been treated as little more than “spear carriers” by Brown’s many biographers and other historians of the antebellum era. This book brings one such man, John Anthony Copeland, directly to center stage. Copeland played a leading role in the momentous Oberlin slave rescue, and he successfully escorted a fugitive to Canada, making him an ideal recruit for Brown’s invasion of Virginia. He fought bravely at Harpers Ferry, only to be captured and charged with murder and treason. With his trademark lively prose and compelling narrative style, Steven Lubet paints a vivid portrait of this young black man who gave his life for freedom.
This is an utterly compelling biography of an intelligent and committed abolitionist on the eve of the American Civil War.
Growing up in Oberlin, Ohio, John Anthony Copeland imbibed the anti-slavery message and joined in efforts to help escaping slaves to safety in Canada, as well as speaking with passion at Oberlin’s Anti-Slavery Association meetings. After helping free an ex-slave, John Price, from pernicious man stealers and shepherding him across Lake Eerie to Chatham in Canada, in 1858, John Anthony Copeland came under the influence of a staunch abolitionist called Captain John Brown, who had organised slave freeing raids and wanted to form a free community in the mountains. Unlike many abolitionists John Brown believed in using force. In October 1859 John Anthony Copeland joined what he believed was a slave freeing raid only to find himself in an insurrection, at Harper’s Ferry.
At the time and in the remaining antebellum years, John Anthony Copeland and the four other black men in Brown’s little army, were castigated as cowardly and generally ignored by prosecution and press. After the Civil War, the judge and marshal involved changed their stories – describing their admiration for John Anthony’s appearance and fortitude. In 1906 John Anthony’s aunt , Henriette Leary Evens (who’s brother Lewis Sheridan Leary was also among the men who fought at Harper’s Ferry) was among the speakers at the second annual meeting of the Niagara Movement, organised by in July 1905 by W. E. B. DuBois. The Niagara Movement lasted for three years, though some chapters continued until 1910. DuBois founded a new organization in 1910, the NAACP, whose Oberlin chapter was led by John Anthony Copeland’s great friend Elias Toussaint Jones.
I’ve heard in passing about Harper’s Ferry, when I’ve read/reviewed other books on slavery.in America, but hadn’t really understood the references made. This book corrects that deficit and adds context. The details of life for free African-Americans and the indignities they were subjected to as well as the unique community of Oberlin, are aspects of interest in this book. The writing is spirited, fluent and statements copiously supported by contemporary evidence.
Fascinating read for anyone interested in antebellum US abolitionism.