Happy Birthday, John Brown!

The man who led the battle at Harpers Ferry was a genuine brother of Africans and African-Americans everywhere

Today, May 9th, is the 211th birthday of Harpers Ferry hero John Brown. When he was five years old, his pro-Bible, anti-slavery family moved to an abolitionist community in northern Ohio where Brown remained until young adulthood. At around 25, after getting married, he moved with his wife and seven children to Pennsylvania. In fact, it was here in 1834 that he opened a school to educate black youngsters. Following the death of his first wife, he married again and had an astounding 13 more offspring. In addition, he and his second wife agreed to raise a black child as one of their very own.

After meeting with Brown in 1847 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Frederick Douglass described him as a white man who through direct action is basically “… a black man… (who is) deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery … ”

In 1849, Brown moved his large family to the free black community of North Elba, New York. Two years later, he helped establish the United States League of Gileadites, which was a kind of Black Panther Party for Self Defense consisting of free and fugitive blacks and organized specifically to protect blacks from slave catchers, who had become federally empowered by the recently enacted and brutally heartless Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

He took five of his sons to Kansas in 1855 to assist in making the state a haven for anti-slavery settlers. The next year, after slavery-promoting thugs had savaged and burned the free community of Lawrence, Kansas, Brown retaliated by organizing a militia. He and four of his sons and six other men tracked down five pro-slavery reprobates along the Pottawatomie Creek and hacked them to death.

On October 16, 1859, Brown led 18 men—white and black—to the federal armory at Harpers Ferry (in what’s now West Virginia) with a plan to move through Virginia and southward freeing and recruiting blacks in order to deplete the slave states of their essential resource, i.e., enslaved human beings. His Plan B was to use the armory’s confiscated weapons to achieve abolition by force. Unfortunately, after a train came through the town and a baggage handler realized what was happening, a telegram exposing the plot was immediately wired to federal authorities who dispatched the U.S. Marines. They surrounded Brown and his group in a fire engine house and began blasting away, killing 10, including two of Brown’s sons. Brown and six others were captured, and five escaped, among them one of his sons.

Of his five black compatriots, two died in the battle; two others were captured and executed, and one escaped to Canada. Little has been written about these black heroes. Forty-four-year-old Dangerfield Newby was born enslaved but was freed by his white, Scottish father. A letter that his enslaved Virginia wife wrote was discovered in his pocket at Harpers Ferry: “Dear Husband: I want you to buy me as soon as possible, for if you do not get me, somebody else will … (and) master … may sell me and then all my bright hopes … are blasted, for there has been one bright hope to cheer me in all my troubles, that is to be with you.…” Tragically, Newby died at Harpers Ferry, and his wife was sold and transported farther south.

Lewis Sheridan Leary also died at Harpers Ferry and was survived by an infant and a wife from whom he had kept all information about his revolutionary exploits. Shields Green, of pure African ancestry, was reportedly only 23 years old when captured and executed. John Anthony Copeland, Jr., who was just 25, was born free in North Carolina and had attended Oberlin College in Ohio. Recruited into Brown’s army by his uncle Lewis Sheridan Leary he was so composed that even the trial prosecutor said, “From my … (contact) with him, I regard him as one of the most respectable persons … (who) behaved himself with … firmness … and … dignity.” His aplomb under such stressful conditions was so remarkable that upon entering the gallows, he said, “If I am dying for freedom, I could not die for a better cause … I had rather die than be a slave.” The last of the five blacks, Osborn Perry Anderson, escaped during the intense shootout and successfully found his way to Canada. But he later returned to the U.S. and joined the Union Army in 1864. He saw the end of slavery with the North’s victory and lived a free man until his death in 1872.

After Brown was wounded, captured, tried and found guilty of treason, murder and conspiracy, he declared, “If it is … necessary that I should forfeit my life for the … ends of justice and mingle my blood … with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments … so let it be done.” On December 2, 1859, he was executed—more precisely, he was politically and culturally crucified—by hanging. He was a selfless and courageous hero, an uncompromising fighter for justice, a real humanitarian, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a financier of the seminal and profoundly radical “David Walker’s Appeal,” and a genuine brother of Africans and African Americans everywhere.

He was a great man who did great things. And he deserves national acclaim. But the best I can do is simply to say, “Happy Birthday, brother! Happy Birthday!”