Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Inside John Copeland

Your book traces the life of John Anthony Copeland, Jr. How did you discover the story of such a little-known historical figure?

I first encountered John Copeland when researching my earlier book, Fugitive Justice, about resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Four chapters in that book covered the Oberlin Rescue and focused on the subsequent trials of the rescuers. Copeland was indicted for his role in the rescue, but he was never arrested and therefore did not appear at the trials. I made a mental note to return to his story, which ultimately led to three years of research into his life.

Tell us a bit about Copeland and his place in American history.

African-American resistance to slavery took three forms: flight from the slave states, rescue and support for fugitives, and eventually armed resistance. John Anthony Copeland was one of the few people who engaged in all three. As a child, he fled North Carolina with his parents, eventually settling in Oberlin, Ohio. As a young man, he was one of the leaders of the Oberlin Rescue, in which a fugitive was wrested from the grasp of slavehunters. And of course, he joined John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, in their failed attempt to free the slaves of Virginia by force.

What made you decide to share this story in The “Colored Hero” of Harper’s Ferry?

“Colored Hero” is the third book in my exploration of resistance to slavery in the 1850s. The great success of the Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment has tended somewhat to obscure the history of abolitionism in the ante-bellum era, and the story of the foot soldiers in that movement has not often been told. John Anthony Copeland was one such foot soldier, who played an leading role in two of the most important armed struggles against slavery, and I thought that his life would illuminate the nature of armed resistance.

How did you conduct research into Copeland’s life?

I began with the record of the trials following the Oberlin Rescue, in which John Anthony Copeland was mentioned a number of times. From there, I branched out into archives in Ohio, North Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia, and (surprisingly) Ontario. I also looked at contemporaneous newspaper accounts. The papers of John Brown’s biographers – Oswald Garrison Villard and Richard Hinton – also had important information. Eventually, I found seven letters written by Copeland, and a number of memoirs, manuscripts, and legal documents that had never been seen since the nineteenth century.

What was the most surprising discovery you made?

There were many surprises about Copeland and his relatives’ lives in both Ohio and North Carolina. The biggest surprise was the discovery that Copeland’s childhood friend, James Monroe Jones, had been a delegate to John Brown’s Chatham Conference and a signatory on Brown’s Provisional Constitution. Copeland himself accompanied a fugitive slave to Chatham only a few months after the conference, which provided him with his first opportunity to become acquainted with Brown’s plans to invade Harper’s Ferry.

What new insights about John Brown’s raid, the abolitionist movement, and the Civil War does Copeland’s full story provide?

John Brown had hoped to recruit an army of African-Americans to invade the South and free the slaves. In the end, however, he attracted only five black men to his command (along with sixteen whites), one of whom was John Anthony Copeland. The story of Copeland’s life helps us understand how a free black man in the North could be motivated to risk his life in the cause of freedom.

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