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Five Black men who rode with John Brown

Herb Boyd | 10/17/2013, 11:25 a.m.
Few Americans were as devout and determined to end slavery in this country as John Brown
Shields Green awaiting trial

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Dangerfield Newby

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Osborne Anderson

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John Copeland

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Lewis Leary

Few Americans were as devout and determined to end slavery in this country as John Brown. To him, the human bondage of Black people was a stain on the nation’s claim to liberty, justice and equality, and because it seemed immune to moral suasion, he sought to end it in armed revolt.

When he began to tell others of his plan to ignite a slave rebellion with his attack on Harper’s Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859, many of his friends thought he was crazy and implored him to drop such an idea. Even the forthright Frederick Douglass, who befriended Brown, told him that what he aimed to do was “humanly impossible.”

But there were a number of Black men who believed in Brown and were willing to be agents of liberation, and five in particular deserve mention because they, like Brown, are often neglected in the books chronicling American history. Shields Green, Dangerfield Newby, John Copeland, Lewis Leary and Osborne Anderson were the five brave men who dared venture with Brown on a raid that, though tragically unsuccessful for them, nonetheless was the spark that set off the Civil War.

Green, according to W.E.B. Du Bois in his biography of John Brown, was a full-blooded African-American from South Carolina who had escaped from slavery. In his flight from bondage, he traveled the famed Underground Railroad all the way to Rochester, N.Y., in search of Douglass, who provided him temporary relief before pointing him on to Canada.

Newby was a free mulatto, Du Bois notes, who resided in and around Harper’s Ferry, which made him an indispensable source of information on the environment. He had a wife and seven children in slavery about 30 miles away, so his purpose for joining Brown was deeply personal.

Copeland was born free in North Carolina but migrated to Oberlin, Ohio, where he attended college there. He was by far the most educated of the men who rode with Brown, and during the raid, his courage would be tested to the fullest extent.

Leary, who was related to Copeland, was born in slavery and eventually made his way to Oberlin. He was Brown’s first recruit and may have convinced Copeland to join him in the raid.

Anderson, like Copeland, was born free in Pennsylvania and was a printer by trade. His introduction to Brown occurred in Chatham, Ontario, Canada, when the leader attended a meeting there to deliver a speech and to gather more recruits for the raid.

In hindsight, the endeavor was foolhardy and impossible, as Douglass had warned, but it might have been more successful if Brown had hewed to his plans and taken more time to commune with the local population, in effect, to get a better understanding of what was needed to inform those sympathetic to his plan.

When it was all over and done, Newby, the first to fall, and Leary were killed during the raid. Copeland and Green were captured along with Brown and several others.