Here’s my homie’s background. When Brown was five years old, his family moved to an abolitionist community in northern Ohio where he remained until young adulthood. At around age 25 after getting married, he relocated with his wife and seven children to Pennsylvania.
In fact, it was here in 1834 that he opened a school to educate Black youngsters. Following the death of his first wife, he married again and they had an astounding 13 more offspring. In addition, he and his spouse agreed to raise a Black child as one of their very own.
In 1849, Brown moved his large family to the free Black community of North Elba, N.Y. Two years later, he helped establish the United States League of Gileadites, which was a kind of Black Panther Party For Self Defense consisting of free and fugitive Blacks and organized specifically to protect Blacks from slave catchers who had become federally empowered by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
He took five of his sons to Kansas in 1855 to assist in making it a haven for anti-slavery settlers. The next year, after slavery-promoting thugs had savaged and burned the free state community of Lawrence, Kansas, Brown in retaliation organized a militia in the Osawatomie River area. And retaliate he did, along with four of his sons and six other men who tracked down five pro-slavery reprobates along the Pottawatomie Creek and hacked them to death.
He returned to Ohio later that same year and received major financial backing from prominent New England abolitionists as a reward for having relentlessly battled slavery.
On October 16, 1859, Brown, with three collaborators assigned to remain at their posts to serve as rear guard, led the remaining 18 of his 21 men- 16 white and 5 Black- to the federal armory at Harpers Ferry (in what is now West Virginia) as Plan A for the purpose of moving through Virginia and southward freeing and recruiting Blacks in order to deplete the slave states of their essential resource, i.e., enslaved human beings. And for him, if that didn’t succeed, his Plan B was to use the armory’s confiscated weapons to achieve abolition by force.
Unfortunately, after a train came through the town and a baggage handler realized what was happening, a telegram exposing the plot was immediately wired to federal authorities who dispatched the U.S. Marines. And they, along with local military men, surrounded Brown and his justice warriors in a fire engine house and began blasting away, killing ten, including two of Brown’s sons. He and six others were captured, and five escaped, among them one of his sons.
Of his five brave Black cohorts, two died in the shoot-out, with two others being captured and executed and one escaping to Canada. Little has been written about these audacious and selfless Black combatants, so it is necessary that something be written here about them.
Dangerfield Newby, age 54, was born enslaved but was freed by his white Scottish father. A letter that his enslaved Virginia wife wrote was discovered in his pocket at Harpers Ferry and it read “Dear Husband: I want you to buy me as soon as possible, for if you do not get me, somebody else will… (and) master… may sell me and then all my bright hopes… are blasted, for there has been one bright hope to cheer me in all my troubles, that is to be with you, for if I… never see you, this earth will have no charms for me.” Tragically, though, Newby died at Harpers Ferry and his wife was sold and transported farther south.
Lewis Sheridan Leary, a 24-year-old harnessmaker from Ohio, had participated in the 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue wherein he succeeded in helping to forcibly take John Price- a fugitive who had escaped slavery but was recaptured- from U.S. Marshals. Leary died eight days after being wounded at Harpers Ferry and was survived by an infant and his wife from whom he had hid all information about his freedom-fighting.
John Anthony Copeland Jr., age 25, was born free in North Carolina and had attended Oberlin College in Ohio. Recruited by his uncle, Lewis Sheridan Leary, to Brown’s army, he was so composed that even the trial prosecutor said “From my… (contact) with him, I regard him as one of the most respectable persons… (who) behaved himself with… firmness… and… dignity.” His aplomb under such stressful conditions was so remarkable that upon entering the gallows, he said “If I am dying for freedom, I could not die for a better cause… I had rather die than be a slave.”
Osborn Perry Anderson, 29-years-old, escaped during the intense shootout and fled to Canada. But he later returned to the U.S. and joined the Union Army in 1864. He saw the end of slavery with the North’s victory and lived a free man until his death in 1872.
After Brown was wounded, captured, tried, and found guilty of treason, murder, and conspiracy, he declared “If it is … necessary that I should forfeit my life for the … ends of justice and mingle my blood … with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments …, so let it be done.” Although he was executed on December 2, 1859, he ultimately succeeded in executing slavery.
Happy Birthday, Brother- and Ancestor- John Brown!