About John Anthony Copeland, Jr.
John Anthony Copeland, Jr. (1834–1859) was born a free black in Raleigh, North Carolina. In 1843 when he was a child, his family moved north to Oberlin, Ohio, where he later attended Oberlin College. He became involved in abolitionist and antislavery activities, and participated in the successful Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. Copeland joined John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, was captured, convicted of treason, and hanged on December 16, 1859.
Copeland's parents were John Anthony Copeland, who was born into slavery in 1808, near Raleigh, North Carolina, and Delilah Evans, born a free black in 1809. Copeland, Sr. was emancipated as a boy about 1815. As a young man, he married Evans and they lived near Hillsboro, North Carolina until 1843, when the family fled racial persecution, first to Cincinnati, Ohio and then to Oberlin. Some of his wife's brothers and their families also settled there. The Copelands lived on the southeast corner of Professor and Morgan Streets.
The son became a carpenter and briefly attended Oberlin College. His high quality of literacy and self-expression was demonstrated by later letters to his family (see below). As a young man, he became involved in the Oberlin Anti-Slavery Society. Together with his maternal uncles, Henry and Wilson Bruce Evans, in September, 1858, Copeland was one of the thirty-seven men involved in the incident known as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, to free John Price, a runaway slave who had been captured and held by authorities under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. The men freed the slave and helped him escape to Canada. In a negotiated deal between state and federal officials, only two men were tried for their part. They received light sentences, in part due to Charles Henry Langston's eloquence.
In September 1859 Copeland was recruited to John Brown's armed group by his uncle and fellow raider, Lewis Sheridan Leary. Brown led twenty-one followers, sixteen white and five black men, and captured the armory guards of Harpers Ferry, then part of Virginia, where they took control of the Federal arsenal. The raiders were soon pinned down by Virginia militiamen until U.S. marines led by Robert E. Lee arrived to apprehend them.
Copeland's role in the Harpers Ferry assault was to seize control of Hall's Rifle Works, along with John Henry Kagi, a white raider. Kagi and several others were killed while trying to escape from the Rifle Works by swimming across the Shenandoah River. Copeland was captured alive, taken in the middle of the river.
Copeland, Brown, and five others were held for federal trial. At the trial, Copeland was found guilty of treason and murder and sentenced to death by hanging.
Copeland wrote to his family to make meaning from his sacrifice. Six days before his execution, he wrote to his brother, referring to the American Revolution:
"And now, brother, for having lent my aid to a general no less brave [than George Washington], and engaged in a cause no less honorable and glorious, I am to suffer death. Washington entered the field to fight for the freedom of the American people - not for the white man alone, but for both black and white. Nor were they white men alone who fought for the freedom of this country. The blood of black men flowed as freely as the blood of white men. Yes, the very first blood that was spilt was that of a negro...But this you know as well as I do,...the claims which we, as colored men, have on the American people.
Another letter reflected the religious influence of his Oberlin upbringing. In a December 16 letter, Copeland wrote to console his family:
Why should you sorrow? Why should your hearts be racked with grief? Have I not everything to gain and nothing to lose by the change? I fully believe that not only myself but also all three of my poor comrades who are to ascend the same scaffold- (a scaffold already made sacred to the cause of freedom, by the death of that great champion of human freedom, Capt. JOHN BROWN) we are prepared to meet our God.
The letters were circulated beyond the family to the abolitionist public.
Speaking of Copeland, the trial's prosecuting attorney said:
"From my intercourse with him I regarded him as one of the most respectable prisoners we had. . . . He was a copper-colored Negro, behaved himself with as much firmness as any of them, and with far more dignity. If it had been possible to recommend a pardon for any of them, it would have been for this man Copeland, as I regretted as much, if not more, at seeing him executed than any other one of the party."
Copeland was executed at Charles Town, West Virginia, (then part of Virginia) on December 16, 1859. On his way to the gallows he reportedly said, "If I am dying for freedom, I could not die for a better cause. I had rather die than be a slave."
Copeland's parents appealed to Gov. Henry Wise of Virginia to claim their son's body, but he refused. After the execution, medical students dug up the bodies of Copeland and his fellow raider Shields Green and took them to a Winchester Medical College anatomy laboratory for training dissections. This was according to laws at the time that allocated bodies of criminals to medical schools. Professor James Monroe of Oberlin College, a friend of the Copelands, went to Virginia on behalf of the family to try to reclaim Copeland's remains. He found Green's instead and left it there. "We visited the dissecting rooms. The body of Copeland was not there, but I was startled to find the body of another Oberlin neighbor whom I had often met upon our streets, a colored man named Shields Greene." Medical students at Winchester Medical College also claimed the body of Brown's son Watson for use as a teaching cadaver. Union troops burned the college down during the Civil War, said to be in retaliation for these acts. The remains of Watson Brown were reinterred beside his father in New York state about 1881.
Legacy and honors
On December 25, 1859, a memorial service was held in Oberlin for Copeland, Green, and Lewis Sheridan Leary, who died during the raid.
A cenotaph was erected in 1865, after the Civil War, in Westwood Cemetery to honor the three "citizens of Oberlin." The monument was moved in 1977 to Martin Luther King, Jr. Park on Vine Street in Oberlin. The inscription reads:
"These colored citizens of Oberlin, the heroic associates of the immortal John Brown, gave their lives for the slave. Et nunc servitudo etiam mortua est, laus deo. (And thus slavery is finally dead, thanks be to God.) S. Green died at Charleston, Va., Dec. 16, 1859, age 23 years. J. A. Copeland died at Charleston, Va., Dec. 16, 1859, age 25 years. L. S. Leary died at Harper's Ferry, Va., Oct 20, 1859, age 24 years."