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John Copeland: A Hero of Harper’s Ferry

Wednesday, February 21, 2001 at 7:31 AM

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In 1859, at a small river crossing in Virginia, an event took place that would change the course of a nation. John Anthony Copeland - a young black man from Oberlin - was one of those who followed the infamous John Brown to his death at Harper's Ferry. In a nation poised for Civil War, the raid served to heighten the growing divisions between North and South. Brown was called a martyr by some, by others a dangerous fanatic. But what of the young men who followed his leadership? Was John Copeland a hero - or a hotheaded fool? 90.3's Karen Schaefer brings us his story.

DCB as James Monroe- It was a sad sight. I was sorry I had come to the building; and yet, who was I, that I should be spared a view of what my fellow-creatures had to suffer? A fine, athletic figure, he was lying on his back--the unclosed, wistful eyes staring wildly upward, as if seeking, in a better world, for some solution of the dark problems of horror and oppression so hard to be explained in this…

Karen Schaefer- On a chilly, fall morning in October of 1859, a force of 21 desperate men approached the U.S. arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. They were led by John Brown, a rabid anti-slavery campaigner who just three years before had murdered five white slave-holders in Kansas. With him were three young black men from Oberlin, among them John A. Copeland.

The object was to capture guns and ammunition for use in midnight border raids to free Southern slaves. But arrayed against Brown’s forces were local farmers, militia, and a troop of U.S. Marines led by none other than Robert E. Lee. Within 36 hours ten of Brown’s men were dead. The rest - including Brown himself - were captured and held for trial. Along with Brown, John Anthony Copeland was found of guilty of treason. Brown was hung on December 2nd. Copeland was executed two weeks later.

It was to be many years - and many bloody battles - before the slaves were finally freed by President Abraham Lincoln. Nor was slavery the primary issue in the War Between the States. But in the 1840’s and ‘50’s, the voices of those opposed to slavery rang loudly in a nation teetering on the brink of Civil War.

Nancy Hendrickson- The Copelands came to Oberlin in 1843. John and Delilah and their children were at that point free blacks outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. They felt discriminated against, even though they were free.

KS- Nancy Hendrickson and her husband Ron now own the Copeland farmhouse that still stands on Hamilton Road just outside of Oberlin. After they bought the property in 1986, the Hendrickson’s became intrigued by the stories they heard about the farm’s original owners. Drawing on historical documents and texts in the Oberlin College Archives, Nancy Hendrickson began to piece together the history of the Copeland family. She discovered that the notorious black laws of the 1830’s drove thousands of free blacks out of North Carolina to seek safe haven in the North.

NH- They ended up on the Ohio River. They’d heard stories that the slave catchers were in the area, that they had to be very careful. Their children and their families would be abducted and taken back. They were afraid. They went to a house where there was an abolitionist meeting was going on. John said that he was afraid to sit in the middle of the room for fear that he wouldn’t be able to escape.

KS- The Copelands and their eight children were typical of free black families in the Antebellum South. With their tall stature, light skins and hazel eyes, mixed-race individuals like the Copelands could - and often did - pass for white. But after the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831 - the last and bloodiest of the Southern slave revolts - even free blacks were no longer safe from persecution and enslavement. Nancy Hendrickson says John Copeland, Sr. met a man who told him about Oberlin.

NH- He said that they would come to this town called Oberlin, where they would be treated in a much more respectful manner and they would be truly free. They got about twenty miles outside of Oberlin, they asked directions and they were told that no such town existed, that it had sunk. And they said they believed they would go and look into the chasm. And they got to Oberlin on a Sunday and the townspeople saw that they were strangers. One of his first remembrances is seeing a black man and a white man walking side by side on the street.


They’d heard stories that the slave catchers
were in the area, that they had to be very careful.
Their children and their families would
be abducted and taken back.

They were afraid.



Nat Brandt- Oberlin, in many ways, stood for what was happening just before the war started, that is the whole Abolitionist Movement.

KS- Nat Brandt is a former editor of American Heritage magazine and the author of several books about Oberlin. Brandt spent several months researching Oberlin’s abolitionist ties for “The Town That Started the Civil War.”

NB- Oberlin was an unusual town at that point. It was integrated. Its school, the Oberlin College - which was founded in 1833 - a year later accepted blacks. Oberlin was a key stop on the Underground Railroad. And in fact, fugitive slaves fleeing from the South across the Ohio River, for example on their way to Canada, very often they stopped and stayed in Oberlin. It became a haven second only to Canada for runaway slaves. Oberlin was considered radical at the time. The Anti-Slavery Societies that grew up in Ohio were started in Oberlin itself. And Oberlin touted itself as welcoming runaway slaves. It was very proud of its tradition.

KS- The Copeland family also seemed to find a warm welcome in Oberlin. John Copeland, Sr. quickly found work in the town and became active in the Underground Railroad. Along with John Mercer Langston - Oberlin, indeed Ohio’s, most prominent black citizen - Copeland took part in an all-black statewide network dedicated to assisting escaping slaves. At the 1852 Ohio Black Convention, Langston and others spoke openly of their network and took measures to strengthen it.

That same year John Copeland, Sr. was named as a committee member to the Convention. But his eldest son John Anthony took a different road. Young Copeland was impressed by the firsthand accounts of escaping slaves he heard at Anti-Slavery meetings - and by his own family’s history. He soon became embroiled in a daring slave rescue that was to put Oberlin on the map.

NB- This was big news, because at that time, there was the Fugitive Slave Act. And the rescue of a slave was in direct violation of a federal law.

KS- The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it a federal crime to assist runaways, even in free states like Ohio. In his book, Nat Brandt describes the re-capture of runaway slave John Price as an ambush planned by slave catchers from Kentucky. But things quickly went wrong. Two Oberlin students spotted the Kentucky men with Price in their buggy, racing south to catch the afternoon train from Wellington. Word spread and hundreds of residents from both communities descended on the Wellington hotel where the runaway was being held. While farmers, college students, and professors staged a diversion outside, a group of bold young men - John Copeland among them - broke down the back door and spirited John Price away. Again, Nat Brandt.

NB- It was a cause (to celebrate) at the time. Certainly, it made the front pages here in New York City, where I live, in 1858 when it occurred. And when the trial occurred in 1859.

KS- In all, twenty-seven men were indicted and most spent time in the Cuyahoga County Jail. John Copeland, Jr. was not among them. It was rumored that he had accompanied John Price to Canada. Certainly Copeland’s adopted sister Katherine had already moved to Chatham, Ontario. A lower court suit against the slave catchers for kidnapping eventually won the Rescuers their release. But not before news of the unrepentant Oberlinians reached the ears of Abolitionist John Brown.

James Caccamo- John Brown is probably one of the most controversial people in American history, let alone Ohio history. And what do people think of him? Well, it’s a mix, it’s a real mix.

KS- James Caccamo is the archivist with the Historical Society of Hudson, Ohio, where John Brown and his family lived for many years. It was in his father’s church that John Brown made his first impassioned speech opposing slavery in 1837. In 1856 Brown and a small group of followers invaded the Kansas Territory, where forces on both sides of the slavery issue were battling for control of the future state. But the nation was shocked when Brown and his men brutally murdered five slave-holding white settlers.

JC- In terms of free-holding white people in Kansas and free blacks in Kansas, John Brown was a hero, because he took action. And he helped to shape the state and keep it away from the slave-holding forces. Among a lot of other people, John Brown was a terrible extremist, a terrorist. And certainly what happened at Pottawatomie Creek was not a pretty thing. After he leaves Kansas, he comes out to Ohio, he goes to New England, he goes to New York State, he goes to Canada. He’s trying to raise more money to support activities in the Kansas Territory.

KS- In fact, John Brown was planning an even more desperate attempt to free Southern slaves. In July of 1858, Brown held a clandestine meeting of free blacks in Chatham, Ontario, a predominantly black settlement and a terminus of the Underground Railroad. At Chatham, Brown unfolded a plan based on his belief that slave insurrection was the key to emancipation - and that he and his followers should strike the first blow. But news of the plan leaked out and Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was put on hold. In the spring of 1859, just as new trials of the Oberlin Rescuers were getting underway, Brown appeared in Cleveland with booty and freed slaves from his Kansas raids. His words there fell on fertile ground. Lewis Sheridan Leary - John Copeland’s young cousin - was among the crowd assembled to hear Brown speak.

JC- Older people in Brown’s generation I don’t think were as taken in. It’s that youth. I mean when you look at who goes to Harper’s Ferry and who dies in the raid, almost invariably, they’re substantially younger than Brown. There’s nobody of Brown’s generation who dies in that raid...He didn’t fool Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass didn’t want any part of it. He saw through it, told Brown not to do it - and they were good friends.

KS- Brown’s son, John, Jr., also met with Leary that year at the home of Oberlin College professor James Monroe. It was Monroe who temporarily hid the runaway John Price in his home following the Oberlin Rescue. John Copeland, Jr. was also present. The previous year, Copeland had been a student at the college, studying to be a teacher.

JC- People like Copeland. I think that what you’ve got is something pretty typical, in that idealistic young men sometimes let their common sense take a second seat to a greater ideal. You’re a young man, you’re a college student, and here’s this fiery, dynamic person with those cold, blue eyes and he’s telling you, you’ve got to do this, it’s going to work. I can honestly see how someone like Copeland might get caught up in the enthusiasm of what’s going on.

KS- No one will ever know what was in the minds of those three young men from Oberlin as they off for Harper’s Ferry in October of 1859. But even before their deaths, the minds of those who loved them were in turmoil. While in prison at Charleston awaiting execution, John Copeland wrote letters home to his family. One was published in the Oberlin Evangelist after his death. Two of Copeland’s letters are still preserved in the Oberlin College Archives.

John’s cousin Lewis Sheridan Leary, age 24, died of wounds received in the battle. Along with Shields Green - 23 - John Copeland was convicted of treason and met his death by hanging on Dec. 16, 1859. He was just 25 years old. But that was not the end of his story. The week before young Copeland was scheduled to be hung, his parents John and Delilah approached Oberlin professor James Monroe.

DCB as James Monroe- As I received them, I saw that they were in deep distress. The mother especially, exhibited such intense suffering - that it was a question whether she would sink to the floor, in utter exhaustion, before the conference could be completed. It was noticeable, however, that the grief which tortured her did not spring mainly from the thought of her son’s execution. John Brown had been executed and so had been many of the great and good. The gallows upon which her son perished seemed irradiated by the goodly fellowship in suffering of prophets and reformers. This could be borne. The intolerable agony was caused by a report, which had come over the wires, and which appeared to be well founded, that the body of her son had been, or soon would be, taken to medical college at Winchester, Virginia, for the purposes of dissection. Under these circumstances, the parents had come to me to ask that I would go promptly to Winchester and recover the body of their son.

KS- Monroe - who later wrote of his experiences - expressed serious misgivings about the undertaking. Nevertheless, armed with a telegram from the Governor of Virginia, Monroe set off for Winchester a few days later. What he found there was a countryside nearly in arms over the recent raid.

DCB as James Monroe- Great excitement still prevailed in Virginia. Soldiers were still marching and counter-marching, military reviews were being held, and that military spirit was being awakened which was maintained from that time until the close of the war. The very presence of a Northern abolitionist in Virginia, upon such an errand, in such a state of public feeling, might be regarded as, in itself, a grave offense. [Pause] It was near sunset when I reached Winchester. As I entered the clerk’s office, I was reminded that I must register my name and address. As several rough and rather spiritous looking persons were standing about, it occurred to me, that the word Oberlin written upon the page of the register, for the inspection of such people, might produce a degree of excitement unfavorable to my object in visiting the place. Calling again to mind the name of the township in which Oberlin was situated, I went promptly to the clerk’s desk, the men dividing to enable me to do so, and wrote in a good bold hand “James Monroe, Russia.” I withdrew, and the crowd went up to examine the record. I left them studying upon it.


Under these circumstances, the parents had come to me to ask that I would go promptly to Winchester and recover the body of their son.

KS- When Monroe met with the college officials, he found them willing to let Copeland’s body be taken home for burial in Oberlin. But the next morning, Monroe received a curious delegation at his room in the hotel.

DCB as James Monroe- A tall, lean, red-haired young man from Georgia acted as their chairman. “Sah,” said he, “these gentlemen and I have been appointed a committee by the medical students to explain this matter to you. It is evident, sah, that you don’t understand the facts of the case. Sah, this nigger that you are trying to get don’t belong to the Faculty. He isn’t theirs to give away. Me and my chums nearly had to fight to get him. I stood over the grave with a revolver in my hand while my chums dug him up. Now, sah, after risking our lives in this way, for the Faculty to attempt to take him from us, is mo’ than we can b’ar.”

KS- Monroe was forced to abandon his mission. But not before he saw the body of another Oberlin man - Shields Green - laid out in the dissecting room of the Winchester Medical College.

Monroe returned home empty-handed on Christmas Eve. The next day - Christmas Day, a Sunday - a memorial service for the three young men was held in Oberlin’s First Church. It was there that Monroe gave what he called a full account of his failure.

DCB as James Monroe- In one sense it was a failure, but in another sense it was not. At first I dreaded to meet the parents; but when I did meet them, I experienced unexpected relief. They had found much comfort in the fact that, by the kind providence of God, every reasonable effort had been made in their own behalf, and in the memory of their son. Their satisfaction was increased by the accounts which came in of the manly bearing of their boy in the time of the terrible ordeal; and they were finally enabled to say to the great apostle, I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

NH- I did think it had a tremendous impact on his family, especially his brothers. His younger brother William, after finishing Oberlin College, became a lawyer. After the Civil War, he went down to Little Rock, Arkansas and was actually - in the Reconstruction Period - was in the state legislature there. He ran for secretary of State. Actually, interestingly enough, he became a police officer and was the first police officer in the state of Arkansas to be killed in the line of duty.

KS- Since buying the old Copeland property, Nancy Hendrickson has traced more of the family’s history. She has also found direct descendants of the branch of the Copelands who remained in North Carolina throughout the Civil War. Thomas Copeland, 84, was born in Raleigh and now lives in California. He is a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His sister Maycie, 82, was married to a Tuskeegee airman. In recent years, housing developments have begun to creep closer to the family farm in Oberlin. Both the Copelands and the Hendrickson’s are interested in preserving it.

Thomas Copeland- It was originally about 70 acres, I think. Now Nancy Hendrickson and her husband live there in the original house, which is about a hundred and fifty years old, that John Anthony Sr. built. You know, there is still the family cemetery there, too, with all these first names on it.

Maycie Copeland- It would be nice if they just had a museum and some history and all that. But the other thing is, getting it funded is the big thing. We are going to try to do what we can.

KS- The families’ dream is to create a living history museum that would preserve a last, lingering example of a 19th century black family farm. It would also tell the story of the Copeland family. Author Nat Brandt believes it’s a story worth telling.

NB- I think they were courageous. I can’t imagine living at that time and being as brave as they were. To go up against - whether it was state authorities or federal authorities - to speak your mind, to put your words into action, I don’t think I have the guts to do that.

KS- Historians still debate the role that the Harper’s Ferry raid played in pushing the nation into Civil War. Most agree that response to the raid helped elect Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in 1860. Some may always see the actions of men like John Copeland as little more than foolhardy. But history will most likely remember him as John Copeland: A Hero of Harper’s Ferry. In Oberlin, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

The last letters of John Copeland were read by Kyle Primous.

Professor James Monroe’s story was read by David C. Barnett.

Original Music performed by Richard Anderson, Renita Jablonski, Kyle Primous and Karen Schaefer, with Bill Rice, guitar, And production assistance from audio engineers Al Dalhausen and Jeff Carlton.

Special thanks to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music for use of Richard Anderson’s recording of “Follow the Drinking Gourd”

John Copeland Timeline

1830-1837
North Carolina and other southern states institute new laws governing free blacks, making it more difficult for them to own property, conduct business, testify in court, take jobs, and move freely from town to town.

1835-1840
More than 50,000 free blacks leave North Carolina for Ohio and Indiana, often moving as whole, extended families.

1843
Copeland family arrives in Ohio and decide to ‘look into the chasm’ that is Oberlin.

1850
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is passed, making it a federal crime for anyone to help runaway slaves evade capture, even in free states like Ohio.

1850’s
John A. Copeland, Jr. attends Oberlin schools, then studies teaching at Oberlin College for one year.

1856, May 24
John Brown leads a small party of men on a retribution raid to the homes of pro-slavery settlers near Lawrence, Kansas. Five men are dragged from their homes and brutally killed. The incident brings Brown to national attention. Pro-slavery forces savage him for the attack. Some abolitionists call Brown a hero, but others express horror at the incident.

1858, July
John Brown holds the Chatham Convention, a planning and fundraising meeting for the insurrection at Harper’s Ferry. Word of the meetings leak out and the raid is postponed until the following year.

1858, Sept. 13
Residents rush from Oberlin to Wellington to rescue runaway slave John Price, who has been captured and held in a Wellington hotel pending transportation back to his Kentucky slave owner. John Copeland is among those who break down the back door and remove Price from custody. While charged along with other Rescuers for violations of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Price is never incarcerated. Rumor has it he can’t be found, because he has accompanied John Price to Canada.

1858-9
27 men stand trial in a Cleveland federal court for the rescue of John Price. All are eventually freed, but news of their ordeal brings the abolitionist cause to the attention of the nation. Copeland is among those charged, but not arrested. Word has it he disappeared, possibly going into hiding with his adopted sister in Chatham, Ontario.

1859, Oct. 16
John Brown and a force of just 21 men - including 3 blacks from Oberlin - launch their attack on the U.S. arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. His object is to arm Southern slaves with weapons seized from the raid. Within 36 hours, Brown and his men surrender to a force of local farmers, militia and U.S Marines, led by Robert E. Lee. Ten men are killed outright in the attack and the rest are later tried and hanged for treason. John Copeland is wounded and barely escapes lynching. The only Canadian in the raid - Osborne Perry Anderson, a free black man from Chatham, Ontario - escapes. His story of the Harper’s Ferry raid is chronicled in the Provincial Freeman, a Canadian newspaper published by Mary Ann Shadd of the Elgin settlement, North Buxton.

1859, Oct. 17
One of three men from Oberlin and a cousin of Copeland’s - Lewis Sheridan ‘Shad’ Leary - dies of wounds received the previous day.

1859, Dec. 2
John Brown hung in Charleston, South Carolina

1859, Dec. 16
John Copeland writes his last letter home and - along with Oberlin man Shields Green - is hung in Charleston. Green dies easily of a broken neck, but newspaper reports indicate that Copeland struggled for some time before choking to death

1859, Dec. 17
James Monroe sets off to retrieve Copeland’s body from Virginia authorities

1860, Dec. 24
Monroe returns empty-handed on Christmas Eve. A memorial service for Copeland and Green is held on Christmas Day at First Church. A year later, a memorial is erected to the memory of Copeland, Green and Lewis Leary at Westwood Cemetery. In 1972, the memorial is moved to Martin Luther King, Jr. Park, where it still stands.

1861, March 4
Abraham Lincoln inaugurated as president

1861, April 12
Shots fired on Fort Sumter - Civil War begins

Additional Information

* Oberlin College Archives
* Oberlin Electronic Group (Copeland Letters)
* Harper's Ferry National Historic Park
* John Brown

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