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.

Anderson was the only Black survivor and eventually made his way back to Canada, where, with the assistance of Mary Shadd, he wrote his remarkable story about the raid, called “A Voice from Harper’s Ferry.” Later, he would return to the States and volunteer as a soldier for the Union.

Copeland and Green were both executed along with Brown, and like their fearless leader, they died with dignity.

Leary’s widow married Charles Langston, the brother of John Mercer Langston, the first Black elected official in the nation. Mary Leary would become the grandmother of Langston Hughes, and as you can see, he was named after his grandfather’s surname.

When Du Bois wrote his book on Brown in 1909, it was 50 years after Brown’s death, and Du Bois closed his account with a quote from Brown before he went to the gallows.

“You had better … prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question,” Brown warned the slaveholders. “It must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it, and the sooner you commence that preparation, the better for you. You may dispose of me very easily—I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled—this Negro question, I mean. The end of that is not yet.”

And John Brown’s final words are no less prophetic and heedful today as they were in the moments before his life was snatched from him.

Activities

  • Find out more: Much more needs to be known about John Brown and his vision, and why the Black men and others who rode with him believed so passionately in his quest. Obviously, he was a man possessed of great charisma, but we need to understand the details of his plans after taking the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.
  • Discussion: Any discussion about Brown is connected to a better overall understanding of the Black men. Were they ever in doubt of the plan? What were some of their hopes and dreams if the raid had been successful? How did their families feel about what they were doing?
  • PLace in context: When Brown launched his raid in 1859, it was nine years after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, which meant it was open season on runaway slaves, even if they thought they were safe in the North. The raid occurred five years after Brown’s fight for the emancipation of slaves in Kansas, so further combat from him should not have come as a surprise to his enemies.

This Week in Black History

  • Oct. 16, 1995: Minister Louis Farrakhan leads an assembly of a reported 2 million people at the Million Man March in Washington, D.C.
  • Oct. 19, 1943: The great actor, singer, political activist and humanitarian Paul Robeson debuts as Othello at the Shubert Theater in New York City.
  • Oct. 21, 1917: Trumpeter John Birks Gillespie, known to the world as “Dizzy,” is born in Cheraw, S.C.