It's 2016 and There Is a Monument Standing at Harpers Ferry, a Major Abolitionist Historical Site, Glorifying Slave Owners
Harpers Ferry is a landmark of America’s abolitionist movement, famous as the last stand of radical anti-slavery activist John Brown. That’s why it’s particularly troubling that the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group which seeks to rewrite history in favor of the South, has erected a racist monument at the site, just feet from a memorial to those who fought against slavery.
The historical significance of Harpers Ferry dates to 1859, when 19 men entered the region with the aim of seizing the arsenal there and starting an uprising that would result in an autonomous state for formerly enslaved African Americans. Led by militant abolitionist John Brown, the fighters were successful in taking the town. The next day, President James Buchanan ordered Lt. Colonel Robert E. Lee—the same man who would later lead the Confederate army—to retake Harpers Ferry. On October 18, surrounded and refusing to surrender, John Brown and his men were captured alive by 88 Marines.
Heather Cottin, who teaches U.S. history at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, discussed Brown’s goals in making such a bold effort toward ending slavery.
“Brown’s plan was to take the weapons from the arsenal and bring them into the Appalachian Mountains that ran through the South,” Cottin said. “The plan was to encourage the bravest enslaved people to escape west into the mountains from Virginia to Georgia. They would train with the weapons [and] organize into a guerrilla army eventually large enough to challenge pro-slavery forces throughout the South.”
“Brown and his ‘19 men so true’ even wrote a Constitution of the United States which would have distributed the land and wealth of the country into the hands of the workers and farmers.”
After his capture, Brown refused the opportunity to escape. On November 2, he was convicted of inciting slaves to rebel, first-degree murder and treason. His composure reportedly only showed signs of cracking when authorities denied him the right to see his wife the night before his execution. Brown was hanged a month to the day following his conviction. His last words would come to echo in the ears of history.
“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”
With the noose still around his neck, Brown’s body was laid in a coffin which was sent to be buried in New York.
Today Harpers Ferry is a tourist attraction, about an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C. According to the National Parks Service, 300,000 people visit the national park each year, many of them to pay tribute to the man who bore arms to end slavery.
With the Black Lives Matter movement gaining in strength and militancy, I wanted to see how history was reflected at the site. Previous generations of Americans were taught that John Brown was a terrorist madman. I wondered how the NPS would present his legacy
Standing near the site of his original fort, I saw a granite monument erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to Heyward Shephard, a black man who was killed during the raid on Harpers Ferry. The monument describes him as “exemplifying the character and faithfulness of thousands of negroes.” The display next to the monument explains that “the United Daughters of the Confederacy stated that ‘erecting the monument would influence for good the present and coming generations, and prove that the people of the South who owned slaves valued and respected their good qualities as no one else ever did or will do.’”
In the year 2016, it seems both ludicrous and insulting to suggest that slave owners “valued and respected” their human chattel. Indeed, a monument that exists to revise history in favor of white Southern plantation holders and their descendants seems more than just out of touch; it’s a disgusting attempt to recast the dehumanizing institution of slavery as an innocuous institution, its perpetuators merely misunderstood by history. Particularly since it stands just a stone’s throw away from the site where America’s most famous abolitionist sacrificed his life for racial justice.
Requests for comment via email and phone from the United Daughters of the Confederacy went unanswered by time of press. A librarian I spoke with over the phone told me she did not “have the authority” to comment on the memorial. George McHugh, spokesman for the NPS, says, “there have been no discussions regarding removal or relocation of the Memorial and there have been no recorded attempts at vandalism.”
After witnessing the UDC memorial and reflecting on its purpose for placing it there, I walked to where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet. The countryside is astonishingly beautiful, and with the village much as it has been for the last 100 years, it’s easy to imagine the people who escaped from slavery camping out by John Brown’s fort as the Civil War raged just miles away.
A man posed his two children at the railing of the outlook, both wearing Confederate uniforms. I watched as he took their photo and asked if I could do the same. He said yes, and I asked if he bought the uniforms here at Harpers Ferry.
“I wish!” he told me. “My wife bought them online.”
With Trump as our president come January, now might be a good time for the National Park Service to show which side of history it's on. Otherwise, we might see Confederate grays for sale at Harpers Ferry someday.