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Connections with the Past:
Reflections on John Brown

Response to "Not the Alamo--Seven Points About the Harpers Ferry Raid That You Should Know"

Jean Libby

The Afrolumens Project has elsewhere published the essay by Louise A. DeCaro, Jr. on John Brown's raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.  DeCaro, a highly respected and recognized John Brown scholar, presents the often controversial event as a first blow in a war of liberation, and places it up against a celebrated historical icon of American character: The Alamo.  DeCaro's comparison begs the question of why one event is widely celebrated over another.

Jean Libby, another John Brown historian, takes issue with a few points raised by DeCaro and presents her views on the historic event and some of the personalities involved, below.  Jean Libby is editor of the website Allies for

For the original essay by Louise A. DeCaro, Jr., click here.  For more articles and correspondence on John Brown, see the letters from Jean Libby.

Dr. DeCaro concludes:

How one views the Alamo and Harper's Ferry is not a matter of historical trivia. It is a barometer of one's sense of justice in history and probably in the contemporary sense as well.
I have been asked by a correspondent whether or not I agree with it. Even though I think Lou DeCaro is an outstanding scholar, and I am personally praised in this piece, and on his excellent blogsite of issues and news items about John Brown, my answer is "No."

The reason for my disagreement is not Lou's depiction of the John Brown raid. Although I have some disagreement with his Seven Points (especially that of the reason for Brown's delay in leaving Harpers Ferry), those can be dismissed as historians' quibbles.

My problem is (1) that I remember the Alamo differently than Louis A. DeCaro and (2) I also have a fundamental difference in analysis of the participation of Dangerfield Newby as "self-interest" in comparison with the other members of Brown's army because he was seeking to free his family.

The Alamo: although iconographic in U.S. History, the siege of the Alamo took place in 1836, nine years before the entry of Texas as a slave state into the United States and the Mexican-American War. To say that Texas was "an anti-slavery state" before the battle of the Alamo and the implication that this was part of the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 is a distortion.

Tejas was a province of Mexico following the Revolution of 1821 which overthrew Spain, a slave country. One of the high marks of the Mexican Revolution was the abolition of slavery. Slavery does not overturn in a day, not where it has been entrenched for over 400 years (longer than in the U.S.) and in a huge and diverse area that was virtually ungovernable. The Mexican Revolution turned on itself and assassination and intrigue was the rule instead of law. The Constitution of 1824 was negated by 1836 and a new one substituted. This totalitarian had taken power (Generalissimo Santa Anna) and declared himself president for life. In his earlier career he had brutally policed the Indians and assisted in the capture of Hidalgo, the Father of Mexico, who was subsequently executed. Santa Anna changed sides at the end of the Revolution to support Iturbe. To say that "Mexico justly suppressed these proto-Texans at the Alamo" is like saying President Bush is defending democracy. It just isn't true.

Dangerfield Newby and Shields Green: this response is to the statement that "there was no self-interest in the group, except for Dangerfield Newby, who was fighting in the hopes of freeing his enslaved wife and family." Shields Green, who was with Frederick Douglass and John Brown when Douglass described Harpers Ferry as "a perfect steel trap" decided to "go with the old man" when Douglass wisely refused to participate in the kidnapping of hostages and attack on federal property. Shields Green, a fugitive, also had a wife and child who were still enslaved.

Carl Westmoreland of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center wrote to me in 2001 that what is important in African American thinking about John Brown is that he truly believed in racial equality, and this was without patronization. I think it is certain that Dangerfield Newby was participating in the raid on abolition grounds as much as the others. Scholar Ian Barford has found evidence, which he shared with this group, that Newby was in Ashtabula when he was recruited by Brown, not in Bridgeport, in southeastern Ohio. From handwritten notes in the carpetbag letters found at the Kennedy Farm and used as evidence in the trials of John Brown and the surviving raiders, both Dangerfield and "G"(his brother Gabriel) were part of the Underground Railroad and that is how they found out about the Ashtabula center of abolition activity. They went there to join the plan, and Gabriel may have been on his way to Virginia on August 27, 1859.

Shields Green, the forgotten man (whose actual name was Esau Brown) was assigned the role intended for Frederick Douglass in notifying the local black population of the liberation movement on the night of October 16. He went with Charles Tidd, one of the whites who had misgivings about the soundness of the plan, to take the armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Tidd went back to Maryland after cutting telegraph wires outside Charles Town and Green went south to Wheatland, the farm of George Turner (later killed by Dangerfield Newby in the fighting) and back along the new macadam road by the Shenandoah River to the Rifle Works with at least three slave recruits. At least two were killed; all three are listed as fugitive in the census of 1860, when George Turner is dead. Shields/Esau had the opportunity to stay with the outside positions, according to Osborne Anderson's account. But he risked fire to go back into the engine house to fight alongside Brown and his sons and related Thompson brothers. It is Osborne Anderson who tells us that Green has said, twice, that he will stay with John Brown. The John Brown story with these words by Green is not published by Douglass until his last autobiography. Henry Organ has written of this in John Brown Mysteries. Every year on December 16 Henry writes to me to remember the execution of Shields Green two weeks after that of John Brown.

Both Newby and Green, I believe along with Carl Westmoreland and Henry Organ, are revolutionary thinkers and planners with Brown, whom he trusts, and they do not let him down. If Newby were there for self-interest, he would not be placed in the most vulnerable position, he would have taken off for Warrenton when the town was secured.

Louis A. DeCaro is generous with praise about the work of Hannah N. Geffert and myself on regional black involvement in the John Brown raid that is recently in Prophets of Protest edited by Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John Stauffer and published by The New Press (2006). It has taken thirty years for this concept of black participation first articulated by Osborne Anderson, who saw it, and by W.E.B. Du Bois, who believed him. Lou DeCaro has written of this fundamental belief by Du Bois in comparison with Oswald Garrison Villard, who defends the white raiders as "fine American boys" but calls the black man a liar.

I know that it is very ungrateful of me to remember the Alamo in a different way than an example of white supremacy, and the Mexican government as one of justice. I am sorry, but I must.

Jean Libby

1. Received in email correspondence, Jean Libby to the Afrolumens Project, 17 October 2006.

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This page was updated October 25, 2006.