Thursday, February 13, 2003 at 2:39 PM
Families are important to most of us - the central force that shapes and sustains our lives. For African-Americans denied normal family life during the generations of slavery, families are especially important. But for that same reason, it's often difficult for African-American families to know their heritage, to trace the lives of ancestors whose unwritten stories are little more than family memory. One Oberlin family recently recaptured a heritage that was nearly lost, but has since become an important part of the American story. As ideastream's correspondent Karen Schaefer reports, descendants of the Copeland family are still learning what the lives of a pair of famous brothers mean to them today.
At a river crossing in Virginia on a chilly October morning in 1859, an event unfolded that would change the course of a nation. A band of 21 desperate men under the leadership of John Brown attacked the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The raiders lost the battle and many lost their lives. But that day a blow was struck that led the country one step closer to Civil War - and the abolition of slavery.
Among those who died was a young man from Oberlin. John Anthony Copeland was just 25 years old when he was hanged for treason at a Charles Town prison. His was a family of abolitionists. His father John Senior was reputed to be a conductor on the Underground Railroad. So were two Oberlin cousins. Young Copeland had assisted in a daring slave rescue in 1858 that led to a warrant for his arrest. But John was never jailed, some believed, because he was escorting the runaway across the border to Canada.
From prison, John wrote a last letter home to his three young brothers. William Copeland was eleven years younger than John, but he took his brother’s final words to heart.
Teresa Rector: Our history has been so lost. In the history books or archives or whatever, comparatively speaking, there isn’t much… and that’s where I was coming from with William. This man’s history needs to be written, the world needs to know about him.
Last summer, descendants of the Copeland family met for the first time in the small college town where their history is written large. Teresa Rector came to Oberlin from Washington, D.C. to share the story of her husband’s ancestor. It’s a story she pieced together from military and college archives, from newspapers, and from sketchy government records. It’s flavored by her own experience as an African-American. She recalls what she told an Oberlin College librarian when he asked her how, at 19, William happened to join an all-white Ohio regiment in the last year of the war.
Teresa Rector: ...he said, did he pass? Was he passing? [laughter] And I said, well, I don’t know, and, of course, I got a little insulted. You know, I said, well, I hardly think so. I said, number one, his family was very well known in the area… and I said, well, you know, I guess they just took him in!
Those others included members of other Oberlin black families who also served in all-white regiments. William personally witnessed the surrender of Lee’s army at the Appomattox Courthouse. After he was mustered out in October of 1865, he returned home to go back to school at Oberlin College. Five years later, William moved to Arkansas where he served two terms in the Arkansas state legislature in the Reconstruction government of the South. Although his record as a statesman has been lost, a 1985 issue of the Arkansas Historical Quarterly describes Copeland this way:
A Democratic newspaper described William L. Copeland of Crittendon County, candidate for the position of secretary of state on the Republican ticket in 1876, as ‘a well-posted parliamentarian, a fluent and rather graceful talker, and withal a man of good political information...
Teresa Rector: At some point in the middle 1870’s, the Democrats and the poor class of whites who were in that part of Arkansas felt threatened by the blacks and the radical Republicans. You know, the Republicans were in control at that time. And they felt threatened by all the Republicans who had been helping all the black folks to get into office and to slave to become self-sufficient and make something of themselves. And so, there was a time then in the mid-1870’s when there was a rebellion in Arkansas and especially in the northern part of the hill country, where the lower economic whites and the Klu Klux Klan ran the blacks out of office in Crittendon County.
Teresa Rector isn’t sure that William Copeland was one of those told to close up his desk and leave. But a few years later, he moved to Little Rock, got a job as a postal clerk, then joined the police force. It was there he died in 1885, bludgeoned to death by the man he was trying to arrest. William Copeland was the first black police officer in Arkansas to die in the line of duty.
Teresa Rector: As a result of this research that I did on William Copeland, he was brought to the attention of the Little Rock Police Department, that May, they paid homage to their fallen officers - and William’s name was on the list.
William’s name is also inscribed on the National Fallen Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. But like his brother John, commemorated both at Harper’s Ferry and in Oberlin, William’s story was unfamiliar to many descendants of the Copeland family. Daniel David Jensen is a retired Wisconsin fireman and police officer. With his blue eyes and blond hair, Jensen says he didn’t know he was descended from William’s brother Henry.
Daniel David Jensen: Oh, no, no, they’re not black, they’re Hawaiian. And that’s what I was raised to believe until about five weeks ago when my cousin Sharon told me about the first Copeland reunion. My sister lives in Syracuse. When I called her and told her, she was kind of quiet. She said, maybe there’s a mistake somewhere. I said, no, I don’t think so - it’s true. These are our ancestors.
Dan Jensen isn’t the first person to discover a racial heritage he didn’t expect. But he believes his story and that of his Copeland heritage is part of the history of America.
Daniel David Jensen: The Copelands are great. I don’t care what color their skins are. To this day, I’m proud of it, the fact that I’m a Copeland.
In Oberlin, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.
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