John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry: The Oberlin – and Evans Family – Connection

Adapted with permission from Elusive Utopia: The Struggle for Racial Equality in Oberlin, Ohio by Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser (LSU Press, 2018)

            On the night of October 16, 1859, the militant white abolitionist John Brown led a multiracial “army” of 18 men in an assault on the United States armory, arsenal and rifle works in Harpers Ferry, Virginia.  Brown hoped to seize military weapons, instigate a slave insurrection in the surrounding countryside, induce widespread panic, and foment a large-scale war over slavery.  At first it looked like his audacious plan might succeed.  Within a few hours, Brown and his followers occupied the armory, captured a handful of hostages, and waited for droves of enslaved people to join their crusade.  Unaware of Brown’s design, however, they failed to appear.  On October 17, local militia laid siege to the armory, freed most of the hostages, and effectively isolated Brown’s men.  After nightfall, U.S. Marines under the command of Robert E. Lee arrived, and on the morning of October 18, the Marines overwhelmed what remained of Brown’s army.  In all, ten of the raiders were killed and seven were captured and arrested, including Brown himself.  The captured men were transported to Charles Town, Virginia, to stand trial in state court on charges of murder, inciting rebellion, and treason.

             News of the Harpers Ferry Raid hit Oberlin especially hard because two of the raiders were Oberlin residents: John Anthony Copeland (also known as John Copeland, Jr.), and Lewis Sheridan Leary.  Both were free-born African Americans who had migrated to Oberlin from North Carolina. Significantly, they were related to each other:  Lewis Sheridan Leary was John Anthony Copeland’s uncle, even though Copeland, age 25, was a year older.  At the heart of this familial connection were the marriages of the brothers Henry Evans and Wilson Bruce Evans to the sisters Henrietta Leary and Sarah Jane Leary, respectively.  John Anthony Copeland was a son of John Copeland and Delilah Evans Copeland, Henry and Wilson Bruce Evans’s sister, while Lewis Sheridan Leary was a brother of Henrietta Leary Evans and Sarah Jane Leary Evans.  Both John Anthony Copeland and Lewis Sheridan Leary had participated in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, although only Copeland was indicted for his role in that event–and he successfully evaded arrest and trial.

            At Harpers Ferry, Leary died in the maelstrom of battle while Copeland was among the raiders captured alive and held for trial.  Once the identities of Leary and Copeland became known, Democratic newspapers throughout the country tied the raid to Oberlin’s alleged extremism, unnerving some of the community’s white leaders.  Henry Cowles, editor of the Oberlin Evangelist, took to its pages to dissociate the town from Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry as much as possible. “We have no fellowship with bloody violence,” Cowles insisted.  “We deplore it when used even against slave-holders.”  Significantly, however, he drew a racial distinction among local residents. “The attempts made to implicate our whitefellow-citizens of Oberlin, in this movement at Harper’s Ferry, are utterly without foundation in truth,” he wrote confidently. Concerning the role of black townspeople he seemed less certain.  “Two colored men, sometimes resident here, were with Brown in this tragedy,” he acknowledged. “How they came there we know not; but we do know that such violence meets and has ever met among our citizens with decided reprobation.”  To a twenty-first century ear, Cowles’s attempt to exonerate “our white fellow-citizens of Oberlin” while admitting the complicity of “two colored men, sometimes resident here” sounds plainly racist.  The phrase “sometimes resident here” was also disingenuous since John Anthony Copeland had lived in Oberlin for more than fifteen years and Lewis Sheridan Leary for the last three. 

            Yet a sense of racial solidarity undoubtedly factored into the decisions of Copeland and Leary to enlist in John Brown’s project.  Moreover, they acted with the foreknowledge of Oberlin’s most prominent African American: John Mercer Langston, an Oberlin College graduate, lawyer, and elected official. In his autobiography, published in 1894, Langston described how, before the raid on Harpers Ferry, John Brown, Jr., sought him out in Oberlin and outlined his father’s plan. “My father is John Brown of Ossawatomie, who proposes to strike at an early day, a blow which shall shake and destroy American slavery itself,” the junior Brown explained to Langston as the two men walked through Oberlin from Langston’s law office to his home at midday. “For this purpose we need, and I seek to secure, men of nerve and courage.”  According to Langston’s recollection, after lunch he and Brown retired to the parlor, where Brown elaborated on his father’s plan, and Langston, though skeptical of its chances for success, agreed to introduce Brown to potential volunteers.  “In this connection, the names of Sheridan Leary and John Copeland . . . come quickly and unbidden to the memory,” Langston wrote, “and their heroic and manly decision to die, if need be, with John Brown as their leader, challenges the admiration of those who witnessed their conduct and heard their words.”

In the immediate aftermath of the raid on Harpers Ferry, John Mercer Langston said nothing about his involvement in the enterprise, but his brother Charles, who had recently served time in jail for his role in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, openly praised Brown for his righteousness and courage.  In a statement published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Charles Langston argued that Brown’s actions were consistent with both “Biblical principles” and the ideals of the American Revolution. “Did not he obey God by resisting tyrants?” Langston asked rhetorically. “Did he not in all things show his implicit faith in the equality of all men? and their unalienable right to life and liberty?”

            James A. Thome, a white abolitionist who had enrolled in the Oberlin Institute in 1835 and later served on the school’s faculty, also championed John Brown.  Whereas Henry Cowles sought to distance Oberlin from the raid on Harpers Ferry, in the same issue of the Evangelist,Thome declared, “God’s hand is in this transaction, and his people should see it, should discern this sign of the times, and should give the nation warning. They should fearlessly proclaim in the ears of the panic-stricken south the natural right inherent in the slaves to rise against their oppressors and achieve their liberties by sword and torch.”

            In the weeks that elapsed between Brown’s capture (October 18), conviction (November 2), and execution (December 2), white Oberlinians came increasingly to affirm Brown’s choice of means as well as his moral purpose.  On the day of his hanging, the chapel bell rang for an hour, and that evening townspeople gathered for a series of prayers and speeches in Brown’s honor.  Yet in the end, it was the execution of John Anthony Copeland, one of Oberlin’s own, that had the most profound impact on the community by deepening townspeople’s appreciation of Black bravery and commitment.

In the weeks preceding his death on December 16, Copeland penned a series of letters to his family and friends, and much of their content soon became public. In his first letter, dated November 26 and published on December 12, he assured his parents that he was at peace with himself and with God.  “If die I must,” he wrote, “I shall try to meet my fate as a man who can suffer in the glorious cause in which I have been engaged, without a groan, and meet my Maker in heaven as a Christian man who through the saving grace of God has made his peace with Him.”

In a letter to his brother dated December 10 and published on the day he died, Copeland drew a direct parallel between the fight against slavery and the American Revolution against British tyranny.  “I am so soon to stand and suffer death for doing what George Washington, the so-called father of this great but slavery-cursed country, was made a hero for doing,” he asserted. “Washington entered the field to fight for the freedom of the American people–not for the white man alone, but for both black and white.”  Copeland also highlighted the sacrifices made by men of color in fighting and winning the War of Independence. “The blood of black men flowed as freely as that of white men,” he insisted. “Yes, the very first blood that was spilt was that of a negro.  It was the blood of that heroic man, (though black he was,) Cyrus [sic] Attucks. And some of the very last blood shed was that of black men. To the truth of this, history, though prejudiced, is compelled to attest.”

            Copeland’s correspondence laid out the radical vision of Oberlin’s Black abolitionists.  A final letter, drafted on the morning of his execution and published posthumously, reaffirmed his sense of moral purpose and his faith in God.  “It is not the mere act of having to meet death that causes me regret (if I should express regret), but that such an unjust institution should exist as that which requires my life, and not only my life, but that of those to whom my life bears but the relative value of Zero to that which is infinite,” he wrote his family. “I beg of you one and all, not to grieve for me, but to thank God that He has spared me to make my peace with Him.”

            On the evening of December 16, after the news of Copeland’s death reached Oberlin, townspeople gathered at the college chapel to express “sympathy for the bereaved parents and friends, and indignation against the cruel oppression is so fast driving good men mad.”  Most of the speakers were men of color, including John Mercer Langston and John Watson, a leader of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue.  Before adjourning, the meeting voted that a committee be appointed “to erect a monument in the Cemetery, in memory of Leary and Copeland, our martyred fellow-citizens.” 

            Desperate to prevent the desecration of their son’s body and wishing to provide him a proper burial, Copeland’s parents the next day asked James Monroe, an Oberlin College professor and Oberlin’s representative in the Ohio legislature, to journey to Virginia to retrieve the corpse.  John Copeland, Sr., had previously sent inquiries to the state’s governor about the prospect of recovering his son’s body.  The governor had responded that, as a free person of color, the father could not legally enter Virginia but that government authorities would turn the body over to the family’s designated agent so long as he was white. At John and Delilah Copeland’s personal request, Monroe reluctantly agreed to undertake this assignment.

            To the dismay of the Copelands and the wider Oberlin community, Monroe failed in his mission. By the time he reached Virginia, custody of the corpse had been transferred to the Winchester Medical College. Although the College’s president and faculty agreed to turn it over to Monroe, the school’s students claimed it as their own for dissection purposes and successfully secreted it away.  Monroe returned to Oberlin empty handed on December 24.

            The next day Oberlinians again assembled to honor John Anthony Copeland’s life and to mourn his death. On “short notice,” an estimated 3000 people flocked to First Church to listen to Professor Henry E. Peck’s funeral sermon venerating Copeland and to hear James Monroe’s narrative of his unsuccessful attempt to retrieve the young martyr’s body.  In the course of his story, Monroe mentioned that while at the Winchester Medical College, he had encountered the corpse of Shields Green, another African American hanged for his role in the Harpers Ferry Raid. Monroe thought he recognized Green as a fellow Oberlinian. Although Monroe was almost certainly mistaken, when the local committee appointed to erect a monument memorializing Leary and Copeland issued a public circular describing the project, they added Green to the list of intended honorees.

            Aimed at potential donors outside the Oberlin community, the circular was framed as a paean to Black masculinity. The purpose of the proposed monument, it announced, was

To Commemorate the Manly Virtues of those Noble Representatives of the Colored Race of the Nineteenth Century, John A. Copeland, Lewis Leary and Shields Green, who, for the Cause of Freedom, laid down their lives at Harper’s Ferry and Charlestown, Va., October 17, and December 16, 1859.

While the circular noted that those who attended Copeland’s funeral service in Oberlin had already donated $175 toward erection of the monument, it argued that the project was more than just a local enterprise of transitory significance. At issue was the reputation of Black Americans for generations to come:  “The more money we raise the more noble the monument we rear to the memory–not of a man only–but of a race.”             Appended to the circular were the names of eleven Oberlinians who comprised the monument committee.  The committee’s composition was notable for its racial balance.  Six members were white while five members were persons of color, including Henry Evans.  Compared to the demographic profile of the town as a whole, Blacks were overrepresented.  Equally important, the monument project represented an interracial commitment to ending slavery by force of arms if necessary. By courageous example, Oberlin’s African American activists had persuaded local white abolitionists that methods of moral suasion and political mobilization were no longer adequate.  Even the Rescuers’ strategy of collective civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action appeared insufficient to the task at hand.  The Slave Power’s mounting influence threatened freedom throughout the nation.  By 1860, Black and white Oberlinians were primed to fight a civil war for emancipation and for the equal rights of all regardless of color.