Tribute to victim of Brown's raid still controversial

September 03, 1995|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

HARPERS FERRY, W. VA. — HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. -- The monument to a black man killed during John Brown's pre-Civil War raid on this hillside hamlet is back in public view. So is controversy that has dogged the rectangular, 6-foot piece of granite since 1931.

This time, the controversy is about an effort to end the controversy.

The monument was erected by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy to honor Heyward Shepherd, a Baltimore and Ohio Railway Co. worker who was shot fatally during the early hours of the raid when he failed to obey a raider's command to halt.

Shepherd, a free black, was killed during Brown's raid to arm the slaves for an uprising. The raid on this picturesque town on the banks of the Potomac River across from Maryland was one of the most publicized events that eventually led to the Civil War.

When the monument was dedicated 64 years ago, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People immediately criticized it, saying that its wording misleadingly depicted slavery in positive terms and wrongly interpreted the sentiments of blacks, including Shepherd, in pre-Civil War times.

Part of the monument's inscription reads:

"To Heyward Shepherd, exemplifying the character and faithfulness of thousands of negroes who under many temptations throughout subsequent years of war, so conducted themselves that no stain was left upon a record which is the peculiar heritage of the American People, and an everlasting tribute to the best in both races."

That controversy died down, and no one apparently paid much attention to the monument. In the mid-1970s, the granite was removed during restoration of nearby buildings. It was returned in 1981 but, within hours, was covered because of criticism of its subject matter and fear of vandalism, said Don Campbell,

superintendent at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

In recent years, Southern heritage groups pressured the park service to uncover the monument once again.

Some historians agreed the monument should be visible. But park officials uncovered the monument June 9, after placing a small interpretive plaque nearby.

The plaque explains who Shepherd was and why the monument was erected.

It also includes a tribute to John Brown written by W. E. B. DuBois, an educator and author who helped form the Niagara Movement, a forerunner of the NAACP.

The poem reads:

"Here

John Brown

aimed at human slavery

a blow

that woke a guilty nation.

With him fought

seven slaves and sons of slaves.

Over his crucified corpse

marched 200,000 black soldiers

and 4,000,000 freedmen

singing

4 'John Brown's body lies a moldering in the grave

but his soul goes marching on!' "

Park officials included the tribute because DuBois wrote it about the time the monument was dedicated, and it represented an African-American's opinion of Brown.

"We believe the monument is history," Mr. Campbell said. "It's controversial, but it's history that occurred here at Harpers Ferry. What we have there now is a wayside exhibit with information that puts the monument in the context of its time. It's factual, minimal in words, and it's accurate."

But members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy have criticized the plaque, contending such monuments need no interpretation.

"The monument speaks for itself," said Elliott Cummings, commander of the Maryland division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "The park service had no right to put up an interpretive plaque. Do we have interpretive plaques at the Lincoln %o Memorial? Do people who oppose the Vietnam War get a plaque by the Vietnam Wall? Where does this concept of putting up interpretive plaques stop?"

The controversy surfaced long before the monument was even erected. The United Daughters of the Confederacy debated for two decades a monument to honor "the faithful slave" before joining with the Sons of Confederate Veterans to build the Heyward Shepherd Memorial. They chose Shepherd because he was a victim of what they believed was Brown's misguided attack on Southern life.

And NAACP criticism of the monument continues, as James Tolbert, president of the West Virginia branches of the NAACP, noted in an interview.

"Many of us would like to see that boulder carried out to the Potomac River at its deepest point and dropped," Mr. Tolbert said. "We don't for one minute accept any interpretation of the mood of slaves or free men during that time period by the Daughters of Confederacy or the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

"What they were trying to do in 1931 is define for generations the mood of black people. It's not history."

Mr. Tolbert made the same argument against the new park service effort: "We don't believe the interpretive plaque is in any way sufficient. W. E. B. DuBois and others were disturbed at the placement of the [monument] in Harpers Ferry. We would like [it] removed. It's not history."

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