As we crossed the river the first time, I did my best rendition for P – “Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you.” I could do no justice at all to the song, what with Paul Robeson rumbling away in my memory. But still, it’s one of my favorites – even though the James, not the Shenandoah, is the river I know best.
But when we crested the hill to Harper’s Ferry, I knew I had never known the might of that river, not really. There at the confluence – what a beautiful word – of the Potomac, whose very name calls for George Washington for me, and the Shenandoah, which seems to me a common people’s river – that confluence stole all my breath. The canyons beyond it – Appalachian Canyons bedraggled with stone and cedar – the soft rush of the rivers. Then, I stood in the most beautiful place in the world.
I know there are political and geographic, military and social reasons John Brown took his stand here – the guns, the armory, the proximity to Mason and Dixon’s line – but somehow, I also think he chose this place because it is a natural symbol – a crossroads made from nothing humans have done, a place that speaks of the way right and love and justice are offered to all.
On the lowest street, just diagonally across the corner from John Brown’s fort, a memorial to Heyward Shepard, a free man of color who was the first person killed in John Brown’s raid, rests. The memorial reads:
On the night of October 16, 1859, Heyward Shepard, an industrious and respected colored freeman was mortally wounded by John Brown’s raiders in pursuance of his duties as an employee of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company. He became the first victim of the attempted insurrection.
This boulder is erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans as a memorial to Heyward Shepard, exemplifying the character and faithfulness of thousands of negroes who, under many temptations through subsequent years of war, so conducted themselves that no stain was left upon a record which is the peculiar heritage of the American people, and an everlasting tribute to the best on both races.
I cannot help but wonder exactly what “temptations” these Confederate Sons and Daughters felt these enslaved and free people of color were good to resist. – the temptation to be free, to have choice, to fight for their human rights.
I grew up with some vague sense that John Brown was wrong, some sense that he was violent, crazy, misguided, blood-seeking. I’m sure that perception came from being raised in the South, where so much of our identity is tied up with the Confederacy, a sad interweaving I wish we would remember but let slide into the mist, too.
Now, though, when I see W.E.B. DuBois commemorating John Brown with a barefoot walk to the fort at the first Niagara Movement meeting, when I think that Brown believed strongly enough in the horror of slavery, when I see memorials like the one to Heyward Sheperd that use him as a pawn in the positioning of oppression, John Brown – with his wild beard flying – becomes hero to me.
As I sat on the edge of the Shenandoah Saturday, I looked up and saw that someone had climbed the rocks across the river – hiked a steep hill, surely breathless with effort – so that they could stand and fly a Confederate flag above Harper’s Ferry. I was angry, saddened, baffled it not surprised. But then, my friend Damien reminded me of this – that battle has long been over. When that flag flies, it’s memory, not victory. And John Brown led the way.
The confluences of history and justice are not always beautiful, but they are – always – powerful.
To John Brown, to W.E.B. DuBois, to Martin Luther King, Jr, to Malcolm X, to Dorothy Haight, and, yes, to Heyward Shepard, I saw a mighty, Thank You. We are not there yet, but I am still walking, pushing my bare feet into your mighty footsteps.
What is your impression of John Brown? Where did you learn about him?