Brown's Descendants Return To Harpers Ferry

Across the country, people are honoring the 150th anniversary of abolitionist John Brown's unsuccessful raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Most historians cite the attempt as an opening salvo in the Civil War. This weekend, more than 50 descendants of one of Brown's raiders returned to the place where Brown and his men fought and died, with the goal of freeing slaves. Karen Schaefer of member station WKSU in Kent, Ohio, reports.

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Across the country, people are honoring the 150th anniversary of abolitionist John Brown's unsuccessful raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Most historians cite the attempt as an opening salvo in the Civil War. This weekend, more than 50 descendants of one of Brown's raiders returned to the place where Brown and his men fought and died with the goal of freeing slaves.

Karen Schaefer of member station WKSU in Kent, Ohio has this story.

KAREN SCHAEFER: At the old opera house in Charles Town, West Virginia, a few miles west of Harpers Ferry, hundreds of people are gathered to watch a play about John Brown. It's just one of many events marking the 150th anniversary of Brown's famous raid.

In the audience are 55 members of the Copeland family. They are descendents of the brothers of John Anthony Copeland, a young man from Oberlin, Ohio, who accompanied Brown to Harpers Ferry in the fall of 1859. Indiana resident Darlene Hunter-Foreman(ph) says this trip is a personal pilgrimage to the place where Brown and his followers tried to seize weapons from the federal arsenal and armed Virginia slaves.

Ms. DARLENE HUNTER-FOREMAN: My little seven-year-old granddaughter looks at me. She says, well, would we be here today if Uncle John decided he didn't want to go to Harpers Ferry? Would we be free today?

Unidentified Woman: #1: Welcome, welcome, welcome to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. And we are so happy, so happy that you're here…

Unidentified Male #1: …with this plan strategically by…

SCHAEFER: At Harpers Ferry National Park, the family gets a tour of the red brick fire engine house where John Brown was finally captured by federal troops. On the night of October 16th, Brown and his 21 raiders stole across the Potomac and infiltrated the town. But from the start, the raid went terribly wrong. Some of Brown's men accidentally alerted residents to their presence.

Brown and part of his force holed up in the engine house with several hostages, including one of George Washington's sons. National Park Service guide William Banks says by the time Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived the next day with federal troops from Washington, D.C., two of Brown's sons were dead. In the ensuing battle, several more raiders were killed - among them, Lewis Leary, another Oberlin man.

Mr. WILLIAM BANKS (National Park Service Guide): And he was out there at the rocks in the middle - chased out in the middle of the river. His weapon became wet, inoperable and basically he was clubbed to death.

SCHAEFER: John Copeland was caught while trying to escape across the Shenandoah River. The violence of Brown's raid appalled many who read about it in newspaper accounts. Professor Paul Finkelman of Albany Law School in New York state is one of several historians attending a symposium in Harpers Ferry about the raid.

Professor PAUL FINKELMAN (Albany Law School): I think that for many Americans John Brown is seen as either a lunatic and the devil or the devil who is the lunatic, because after all, what he did was very violent. He came into Harpers Ferry, he seized a federal armory, a few people were killed. There was a day-and-a-half siege. And then John Brown is executed. Obviously, anybody who would do that is crazy.

SCHAEFER: But Finkelman says Brown and his raiders weren't crazy. He says Brown saw that even in the North, moral arguments had failed, and that only Civil War would free the slaves.

Prof. FINKELMAN: For John Brown and John Copeland there is no choice because there is no freedom of expression. There is no political process. There is no public debate in the South on slavery. John Brown has been very important for African-American culture because he is seen as somebody who gave his life for them and that's pretty impressive. So, he's a hero. Copeland is a hero because he was one of John Brown's raiders.

Mr. GEORGE RUTHERFORD (Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society): Over here was where the jail was. Okay, now we're going up to the hanging site.

SCHAEFER: Back in Charles Town, outside the courthouse where Brown and his men were tried and convicted for treason, George Rutherford leads members of the Copeland family along quiet city streets to the site where the raiders were executed. Rutherford and fellow historian James Tolbert are members of the Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society. Tolbert says Charles Town slave owners made their slaves watch as John Copeland and Shields Green, another black raider, were led to the scaffold.

Mr. JAMES TOLBERT (Historian, Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society): But Green and Copeland were hung in the morning, another two in the afternoon. The people in jail could see building the scaffold over here. There were no houses, no trees, nothing there. So it's sort of rough sit there and see them building your own scaffold.

SCHAEFER: Tolbert says witnesses record it took John Copeland almost 15 minutes to die. Nicole Pitts(ph) is writing a book about John's mother, Delilah, who asked to retrieve her son's body for burial. Pitts says that request was thwarted by medical students who stole Copeland's body for dissection. But she believes John Copeland's death was not in vain.

Ms. NICOLE PITTS (Writer): Somebody gave their lives for other people to have freedom. So, it could be the beginning of something instead of the end of something.

SCHAEFER: Descendents of the raiders who died at Harpers Ferry laid flowers on the site where they fell.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Schaefer.

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Correction Oct. 28, 2009

We reported that John Brown captured "one of George Washington's sons." Brown actually captured Col. Lewis Washington, the great-grandnephew of the first president.

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