Who Was Heyward Shepherd? Contested History at Harpers Ferry

You probably haven’t heard of Heyward Shepherd. Not much is known about him generally. He was a free black man living in Virginia in the decades before the Civil War. He made his living as a porter on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, traveling between his home in Winchester VA and the border town of Harper’s Ferry, along the Potomac and the Shenandoah, staring across at Maryland. He was not a particularly important historical figure. Yet along Potomac Street in Harpers Ferry (the modern spelling of the place), Heyward Shepherd is remembered by two distinct markers, each only a short distance from where he was gunned down in the early hours of the morning of October 17, 1859.

Dueling Markers
The two Heyward Shepherd memorials: Harpers Ferry, WV

The markers represent two very different interpretations of the meaning of Shepherd’s death, and the meaning of the event that precipitated it: John Brown’s raid on the federal armory in the small town along the Maryland-Virginia border. Brown came to Harper’s Ferry to seize weapons from the largest federal cache in the south; his plan was to distribute them to local slaves and take to the hills, forming a guerrilla army that would sweep down the range, freeing slaves along the way: beginning and ending a war against slavery. Brown’s raid was a failure, though it did help bring about the Civil War and emancipation. Brown was a poor military commander, and made several key mistakes that night. Chief among them was allowing a train to continue through the Ferry on its way to Washington DC, where conductors would alert the federal government to send troops. As that train came into town, Heyward Shepherd tried to warn them, and he was shot by Brown’s men.

Efforts to commemorate Brown’s raid were destined to be political: it was a violent, bitterly contended act that helped bring about the greatest conflagration the nation had ever seen, and even in the war’s aftermath the questions that caused the raid had not been answered to the satisfaction of many. Yet Shepherd’s place in those politics and in those memorials was unexpected, and his outsized presence in the narratives of that night pose significant problems for historical commemoration.

*          *          *          *          *

Shepherd Memorial
The original marker, installed in 1931 along Potomac Street, Harpers Ferry, WV

Text of the Heyward Shepherd Memorial:

“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 Shepherd, 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.”

The great historian John Hope Franklin called the early 1920s the “nadir of American Race Relations” with good reason. The Civil War had been over for more than half a century, and Jim Crow – the deep and often impenetrable system of white supremacy that repressed the south’s black population – was at its height. Violence against African Americans was at its height too: a resurgent Ku Klux Klan and other white hate groups were responsible for over 160 lynchings in the decade’s first three years, massacres and riots had followed black migrants north into industrial cities in need of a workforce during the First World War, and “scientific” notions of race underlined a biological inferiority that led to, among other things, forced sterilizations that disproportionately affected African Americans.

Henry and JB
Henry poses with a replica of John Steuart Curry’s “Tragic Prelude”

Aiding and abetting this atmosphere was the myth of the Lost Cause, a trope that had been gaining academic weight over the previous few decades. The Lost Cause grew out of Reconstruction, as white supremacists sought to overturn the political, social and economic gains of African Americans after emancipation. In order to justify violent reprisals and unconstitutional restrictions, white southerners argued increasingly that slavery had been a social good: that blacks were simply not ready to take part in society on an equal footing, and that in fact black citizens had been happier as slaves – that only through meddling Yankee interference had emancipation come, not through the actions of millions of slaves who resisted, escaped, and ultimately brought about their own freedom during the war. The Lost Cause portrayed slavery as a minor issue in a war that had been fought over competing visions of America and competing ideas of honor. It allowed the re-unification of white America on emotional and economic terms, so long as African Americans were left behind.

The Shepherd memorial was a direct outgrowth of the Lost Cause myth. It portrayed Shepherd as a symbol of the “faithful Negro” who did not agitate or cause trouble; it cast him as like so many others, enslaved and free, who – according the marker – served the Confederacy willingly and enthusiastically. In so doing, it also cast Brown’s raid – an attempt to liberate slaves – as an evil act that attacked loyal blacks. These were myths, but in the south in the early 1900s they were powerful ones.

Frederick Douglass
Grave of Frederick Douglass, Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, NY

Even in the 1920s, the proposed monument was controversial. It took nearly ten years for it to be erected there near the corner of Potomac and Shenandoah, at the site of the raid. For the monument’s full story, read this excellent article from the West Virginia Archives from which this account is taken; the debates over how to portray Brown and Shepherd are fascinating. The primary opposition to the monument came, not unsurprisingly, from Storer College, a historically black college located in Harpers Ferry itself. Storer had been founded immediately after the Civil War, and was part of northern white and southern black efforts to ameliorate the damage done by slavery. Storer had been the primary actor in preserving Brown’s legacy and memory in the town; in 1881, Frederick Douglass himself delivered a oration on Brown, famously saying of the old man that “His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine – it was as the burning sun to my taper light – mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.” Thirty years later, Storer purchased an old firehouse used by Brown for his last stand, and returned it to the waterfront near its original location. A plaque was placed on the firehouse honoring Brown, one of the few public references before the Shepherd memorial. It read “That this nation might have a new birth of freedom, that slavery should be removed forever from American soil, John Brown and his men gave their lives.” This was the image that the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans hoped to subvert.

Though the monument languished with lack of local support for several years, that opposition began to fade by the start of the 1930s. When the son of a Confederate soldier became mayor, he arranged for the town’s approval of the monument. It was unveiled in October of 1931, almost 72 years to the day after the raid began. Minor changes in wording and politics had brought Storer College’s white President around; he even arranged for student singers from Storer to perform at the ceremony. This may have been a mistake on his part, for he became central to the controversy that surrounded the monument. The NAACP saw the monument as an abomination, and held a meeting at Storer a few months later; they asked to place a new marker to rebut the Shepherd one, but were rejected. The first fight over the Shepherd Memorial had ended, but it wouldn’t be the last.

*          *          *          *          *

The tablet survived the Depression and the Second World War, and by the time the Civil Rights movement was in full swing in the south, it had been largely forgotten. It still stood there on the corner of Potomac and Shenandoah, but without any fanfare – just another historical marker. By the 1950s, the National Parks Service began to create a large historical park on the southern side of town, and after consulting with the UDC it removed the tablet during construction. It remained in storage until 1981, when the UDC asked that it be brought back into public view, and the Parks Service complied. Almost immediately, calls for its removal began, and the NPS received threats that the marker would be vandalized. The Parks Service found itself in a bind: this marker was now a part of Harpers Ferry’s history as much as any other building in their purview. But in 1981, the NPS was not willing or able to grapple with the larger political meaning of the tablet. It was covered in plywood, standing in its original spot, awaiting a more permanent judgment.

In the interim, the Parks Service struggled to decide how best to handle the marker. It proposed a separate plaque as a counterweight, though the wording was weak:

John Brown’s raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry caused the death of four townspeople. One of those died in the fighting was Heyward Shepherd, a railroad baggagemaster and a free black.

Although the true identity of his assailant is uncertain, Shepherd soon became a symbol of the “faithful servant” anong those who deplored Brown’s action against the traditional southern way of life.

This monument, placed here in 1931, reflects those traditional views.

Even this could not be abided by defenders of the original monument. The new plaque was rejected by the UDC and SCV even as the NAACP and civil rights organizations demanded the removal of the original. The standoff resulted in inaction on the part of the Parks Service, and the tablet remained hidden in plain view until the mid 1990s.

*          *          *          *          *

The issue was reopened in 1994 when the head of the SCV appealed to South Carolina Senator Jesse Helms – at the time one of the right’s greatest cultural warriors – to force the issue and uncover the monument. Helms accused the park of revisionist history, saying “[t]his kind of thinking jeopardizes the heritage of all of us.” The plywood was removed, but a new tablet was added, with another few paragraphs of context. The new plaque read:

Interpretive Plaque
National Parks Service Interpretive Plaque, Harpers Ferry, WV

“On October 17, 1859, abolitionist John Brown attacked Harpers Ferry to launch a war against slavery. Heyward Shepherd, a free African-American railroad baggage master, was shot and killed by Brown’s men shortly after midnight.

Seventy-two years later, on October 10, 1931, a crowd estimated to 300 whites and 100 blacks gathered to unveil and dedicate the Shepherd Monument.

During the ceremony, voices rose to praise and denounce the monument. Conceived around the turn of the century, the monument endured controversy. In 1905, the United Daughters of the Confederacy stated that “erecting the monument would influence for good the present and coming generations, and prove that the people of the South who owned slaves valued and respected their good qualities as no one else ever did or will do.””

It was accompanied by a poem written by W.E.B. DuBois, the great writer, educator, and philosopher who had helped form the NAACP and had edited its newspaper, The Crisis. DuBois wrote:

John Brown
Aimed at Human History
A Blow
That woke a guilty nation
With him fought
Seven slaves and sons of slaves.
Over his crucified corpse
Marched 200,000 black soldiers
and 4,000,000 freedmen
‘John Brown’s Body lies a mouldering in the grave
But his Soul Goes marching on.

Though the poem was powerful, the plaque itself was a relatively weak rebuttal. But it too was greeted with derision from defenders of the faithful slave narrative. The move to uncover the monument in the first place, meanwhile, was denounced by the NAACP. It seemed there was no way for the Parks Service to make everyone happy.

*          *          *          *          *

Today, the corner of Potomac and Shenandoah looks much as it did twenty years ago, when the monument was uncovered. The granite tablet dominates the view, with the added plaque faded, warped by twenty years of sun and rain. Somehow, the attempt at modernizing the message looks older and more worn than the original. Even after a year where Confederate flags have been furled and statues have toppled, the Shepherd Memorial – which no one seems to notice anymore – stands, still largely unchallenged.

The Parks Service, which turns 100 on Thursday, has come a long way since 1995. A new Gettysburg Visitors Center shines a light on slavery as the cause of the conflict, where before there was only the same old Lost Cause myth. Confederate flags are no longer allowed at any National Parks site. Museum exhibits at Harpers Ferry don’t shy away from the true story of the Civil War, and neither do the guides there. But the Shepherd Memorial represents something that the NPS doesn’t control, despite it being on grounds they administer. It was a private memorial, donated by the town. Any attempt at ameliorating it or placing it in context has been met with resistance. So it stands there, in a kind of limbo: time has passed it by, but politics haven’t. There remains a powerful element of American society that is committed to seeing slavery and race as minor issues in our past – who are served by the myth of the faithful slave. The Shepherd memorial, which talks around its subject, building him into a martyr and a symbol instead of a man, serves that purpose. That’s where I’d like to see the Parks Service begin to address this issue.

Because we still know very little about Heyward Shepherd, upon whose memory this controversy remains built. We know he was black; we know he was free. We know he lived in Winchester, VA, where today an empty space sits between a private home and a restaurant. We know his body was laid to rest there, and remains unmarked. We know he was a symbol from the moment he was shot, but that he seems to have been a shadow before it.

We’re living through a revolution in historiography, where modern tools and interpretations are putting the focus of our study of slavery and freedom onto the people who experienced them. The story of emancipation is no longer simply one of well-meaning white abolitionists and recalcitrant slaveholders, but of a people rising up to push for and attain their own freedom. The history of free black communities throughout the country is being revitalized with new attention being paid to their influence. If we truly want to answer self-serving myths like the Shepherd Memorial, we need to start with Shepherd himself. He fits into that story somehow. Who was he? Where did he come from, and where did he want to go before he became another casualty of slavery’s violence? What about his family? His community? His story, and the story of those he loved, will be the best answer to the faithful slave: not more posturing, but a man, out of the shadows, ready to reclaim the memories and debates that have been built on his back.

2 thoughts on “Who Was Heyward Shepherd? Contested History at Harpers Ferry

  1. Very interesting especially during a time when monuments are not seen as memorials but to serve as tools as political narrative which neither supports facts or memory. The author made one glaring mistake. Jesse Helms was the Senator from North Carolina not South Carolina!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s