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Civil War History 52.2 (2006) 117-141

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Written in Stone:

Gender, Race, and the Heyward Shepherd Memorial

After nearly a decade of struggle with local authorities and the surrounding black community, on the afternoon of October 10, 1931, the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated a memorial to Heyward Shepherd, a black man and first victim of John Brown's 1859 raid, in the small town of Harpers Ferry. The ceremony opened with a welcoming address by Henry McDonald, the white president of a local black college. McDonald described the dedication not as a day to "remember discord" of the past, but rather highlighted the monument as a tribute to "fidelity to duty, faithfulness in times of stress, [and] vigorous defense of honor." He encouraged black men and women to see that whites were indeed willing to share their advantages with all those races who were submissive to the will and desires of whites. Matthew Page Andrews, a white historian from nearby Baltimore, was more explicit than McDonald in his efforts to invoke the proper black-white relations in regard to the events of Harpers Ferry and slavery. By contrasting Brown's "vociferous exit" to Shepherd's "quiet passing," he implied that blacks should imitate the faithful and humble freedman rather than the violent, crazy Brown. "Heyward Shepherd may be used to exemplify . . . what America has done for transplanted Africa," he argued, insisting that America had served as a civilizing force on the Africans, while Brown had attempted to "uncivilize" the race.1 [End Page 117]

Although some members of the African American community believed that the monument would serve to bridge the sectional gap and increase the "very best feeling between the white and colored races," the black press overwhelmingly expressed displeasure with the monument and its dedication. The Pittsburgh Courier printed an editorial by Jesse Max Barber, president of the John Brown Memorial Association, denouncing a memorial to a man who "didn't do a single thing to merit a monument." Barber challenged the speakers' comments regarding Brown and accused the South of "still hanker[ing] for the filthy institution of slavery." Perhaps most significantly, the Afro-American referred to the memorial as the "Uncle Tom Slave Monument" and proclaimed that Brown was not the criminal "rebel daughters" and Andrews had implied. It applauded Brown's use of force as "the only way" in which slavery could be ended and celebrated his violence in opposition to Shepherd's "cowardliness and ignorance." Noting that many of the speeches were not heard because of the laughter of the crowds, the paper concluded that "most of the better thinking people of Harpers Ferry look[ed] upon the whole thing with disgust." According to them, Brown, not Shepherd, remained the hero of the "better" black men and women.2

West Virginia, a border state during the Civil War, seemed an unlikely site for a faithful slave monument organized by descendants of Confederate veterans. But, in fact, the site was quite symbolic, representing a literal border between white and black memories of Brown and his raid. The notion that memory was (and still is) contested is not a new idea; historians such as David Blight and Kirk Savage have demonstrated the ways in which Northerners and Southerners, white and black, contested Civil War memory through veterans' reunions, memorial celebrations, and the construction of monuments. But the Heyward Shepherd monument and the controversy [End Page 118] that surrounded it serves as a rare instance in which white and black memories overtly confronted one another and one in which white "victory" was not guaranteed. Framed in terms of gender, race, and heroism, the debate reflected much larger ideas about slavery, race relations, and resistance to violence in the early twentieth century.3

In the early morning hours of October 17, 1859, John Brown and twenty-two of his followers seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in hope of starting an insurrection that would attract slaves from across the region. After capturing the arsenal and cutting...


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