John Anthony Copeland Jr.

by Lisa Y. Henderson

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John Anthony Copeland, Jr. (1834–1859) was born free in Raleigh, North Carolina, to John Anthony Copeland, who was born into slavery in 1808, and Delilah Evans, born free in 1809. Copeland, Sr. was emancipated about 1815. The family lived near Hillsborough, North Carolina, until 1843, when the family migrated to Cincinnati and then Oberlin, Ohio, where some of his wife’s brothers and their families also lived.

John Copeland, Jr. worked as a carpenter and briefly attended Oberlin College. As a young man, he became involved in the Oberlin Anti-Slavery Society.  In September, 1858, with his uncles Henry and Wilson Bruce Evans, Copeland was one of the thirty-seven men involved in 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 September 1859, Copeland was recruited to John Brown’s armed group by his uncle, 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.

At Harper’s Ferry, Copeland and John Henry Kagi, a white raider, were to seize control of Hall’s Rifle Works. Kagi and several others were killed while swimming across the Shenandoah River to escape. Copeland was captured alive, and he, John Brown, and five others were held for federal trial.  Copeland was found guilty of treason and murder and sentenced to death by hanging.

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.”

Copeland’s family continued his struggle by taking up arms during the Civil War. His father served as a cook for the 55th Ohio Infantry, and his younger brother Henry E. Copeland served as a first sergeant in Douglass’s Independent Battery of Colored Artillery in Kansas.

Adapted from http://www.nccivilwar150.com/history/john-brown-nc.htm. Photo courtesy of Kansas Historical Society.