Was John Brown’s 1st Victim Black?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Within a famous attempt to start a slave revolt was a terrible irony.

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Interior of the engine house during John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry

Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, v. 8, no. 205 (1859 Nov. 5), p. 359 (Wikimedia Commons)Intereior

Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 60: Who were the black people killed in the raid on Harpers Ferry?

Can you imagine the headline if proslavery forces had had their own cable-network news ticker during John Brown’s infamous raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., launched on Oct. 16, 1859? “BREAKING NEWS: First victim of abolitionist terror plot in Virginia a free black man. Story developing.” Could this have been true? 

Turns out, it was true, and it was fatal.

Yet in contemporary memory, the magnitude of John Brown’s radical abolitionist persona and his white body “a-mouldering in the grave,” and what his righteous cause to start an armed slave revolt portended for a nation about to be torn in two by slavery overwhelmed the fate of his raid’s more minor characters. Those seeking the full story should pick up Tony Horwitz’s vivid 2011 account, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War.  In this column, we follow just one rifle spark to the first man shot—in the back.

The Man Who Wasn’t There 

But first, any discussion of free black men at Harpers Ferry should begin with the most important one who wasn’t there: Frederick Douglass.  Douglass and Brown had met in Springfield, Mass., a decade before. Though they couldn’t have looked more different, Douglass, Brown and their closest compatriots shared “black hearts,” the title of my colleague John Stauffer’s moving first book about interracial alliances and the eventual fallout from John Brown’s raid.

In Douglass’ own words in his newspaper, the North Star, on Feb. 11, 1848, Brown was:

“[T]hough a white gentleman … in sympathy, a black man, and … as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced by the iron of slavery. After shaking my hand with a grip peculiar to Anti-Slavery men, Mr. Brown said that for many years he had been standing by the great sea of American bondmen, and anxiously watching for some true men to rise above its dark level, possessing the energy of head and heart to demand freedom for their whole people, and congratulated myself and the cause, that he now saw much men rising in all directions, the result of which, he knew, must be the downfall of slavery. Mr. Brown is one of the most earnest and interesting men that I have met in a long time.”

Weeks before Brown was to launch his own raid of liberation, however, Douglass balked at joining him during a rendezvous at a quarry in Southern Pennsylvania. “ ‘I want you for a special purpose,’ ” Douglass recalled Brown saying in his 1881 memoir, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892 ed.). “ ‘When I strike the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them.’ ” Brown’s reason for striking Harpers Ferry: It was home to one of the most productive federal arsenals in the country. The catch: Douglass thought Brown’s plot was implausible, at best, or as he put it: “I looked at him with some astonishment, that he could rest upon a reed so weak and broken, and told him that Virginia would blow him and his hostages sky-high, rather than that he should hold Harpers Ferry an hour.”