BackStory: Heyward Shepherd Memorial

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Hello friends, we have just 10 days before season 3 starts. September 19th is the big day. The plan is a new episode every 9 days and Sam is here keeping us all on task, and you’re going to really enjoy the new shows we’re working on. In the meantime, I literally have 10,000 tiny pocket-size notebooks in my house left to package and ship along with a thousand T-shirts. This is all the result of a fantastic Kickstarter campaign. I’m not complaining at all. It’s great that we’re working day and night here at 99pi HQ. So, rather than reorder the feed with a repeat or make you wait another week and a half, I have a story from a radio show and then I’ve only recently started listening to that is just great. It’s called “BackStory” with the “American History Guys” and it’s just a highly enjoyable show. You don’t even need to love history to enjoy it. You just need to be curious about the world around you and like stories about how we got that way, which I guess is the definition of history but the point is I think you’re going to like it. Since 99% Invisible is obsessed with the things we build and what these things say about us, usually in direct or abstruse ways, I’m drawn to monuments because this are things we build that from the moment of their inception, they’re desperately trying to tell you a story and to give a place, or a moment in time, significance and meaning. But that meaning that’s infused into concrete and stone can be slanted, hurtful, bigoted, may be misguided or even misunderstood. Anyway, this is the story about a monument that I couldn’t get out of my head the first time I heard it on the show “BackStory.” One of the hosts of “BackStory,” the 19th-century history guy, Ed Ayers, is gonna take it from here.

Ed Ayers:
The 1890’s, the first decade of the 20th century, that veterans in both the Union and the Confederacy were dying off. Their sons and daughters noticed that they better acknowledge their enormous sacrifices and began a kind of mania, putting up monuments in towns and cities and villages all across the country. And even into the early 1930s, people were still trying to nail down all the meanings of this complicated civil war by memorializing it. And one place the memorialization of the Civil War was played out, was at one of the places where the Civil War in some ways began – Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia – where John Brown led his famous raid in 1859, a band of white and black abolitionists trying to inspire a slave rebellion. Today, there are two monuments there, One is the 6-foot tall obelisk, kind of looks like a miniature Washington monument, and that monument marks the original location of the old federal armory that was so important in John Brown’s raid. Today, across the street, maybe a hundred feet away, up against a side of a large brick building is another memorial, and that one looks like a big tombstone frankly, about the size of a refrigerator.

Todd Bolton:
It’s a large granite-inscribed monument.

Ed Ayers:
This is Todd Bolton, he works at the National Park Service in Harper’s Ferry. Two of our producers, Eric Mennel and Nell Boeschenstein, talked to him when they visited at the town. And the monument he was describing was dedicated in 1931, in honor of the first person killed in John Brown’s raid, a man by the name of Heyward Shepherd.

Todd Bolton:
There’s no images on it, no bronze, it’s text and—

Eric Mennel:
It’s like what, 6’4″ maybe? It’s about as tall as you are.

Todd Bolton:
It’s in good shape. It really is. It’s a–

Eric Mennel:
For a hunk of rock, yeah.

Todd Bolton:
For a hunk of rock, yeah, it’s in pretty good shape!

Ed Ayers:
The interesting thing about Heyward Shepherd isn’t just that he was the first person killed by Brown and his raiders, it’s that Heyward Shepherd was African-American, a free black man. A fact that has made this memorial more than a little problematic over the years, Eric and Neil tell the story.

Eric Mennel:
Heyward Shepherd worked as a porter for the B&O railroad in Harper’s Ferry. He was on duty the night of October 19th,1859, the night of John Brown’s raid. Aware of a commotion outside, Shepherd took his lantern and walked down to the train. Brown and company were on their way into town, it was dark and Shepherd was in their path. Either Brown himself or one of his men shot Shepherd, leaving him badly injured. He died shortly after.

Nell Boeschenstein:
Now Heyward Shepherd’s name might have been forgotten had it not been for the efforts of two groups, the United Daughters Confederacy and the Sons Confederate Veterans. The UDC and the SCV. They’re run by the descendants of Confederate soldiers and their job is to preserve Confederate heritage – memorials, flags, archives – that kind of stuff. In 1931, the local chapters of the UDC and the SCV erected a memorial to Heyward Shepherd in Harpers Ferry. They placed it directly across the street from the John Brown obelisk. In one long sentence, the memorial reads, “This boulder is set up by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy as a memorial to Heyward Shepherd, exemplifying the character and faithfulness of thousands of Negroes who, under many temptations throughout the subsequent eras of war, so conducted themselves that no stain was left upon a record, which is the peculiar heritage of the American people, and an everlasting tribute to the best in both races.

Eric Mennel:
Okay. So, to translate that from monument speak, “We the SCV and the UDC would like to honor Heyward Shepherd, and all the other black people in the south who were good and faithful to their white superiors, never rebelling against them, or the status quo.” The groups had a nickname for this monument, the ‘Faithful Slave Memorial.’

Nell Boeschenstein:
The “Faithful Slave” was an idea Confederate heritage groups had been pushing for years. The logic was since most slaves didn’t rebel, they must have been happy. And if they were happy, it’s because their masters treated them well. Slaves were faithful because they knew slavery was better than any other situation available to them.

Eric Mennel:
Of course, Heyward Shepherd wasn’t a slave. So even if there were such a thing as a faithful slave, Shepherd wouldn’t have fit the bill. But that was no matter, the monument was built and dedicated with plenty of fanfare and plenty of controversy. W.E.B. DuBois called the dedication a “pro-slavery celebration.” For forty years the monument stood undisturbed. During that time, the National Park Service acquired a bunch of the land and artifacts in Harpers Ferry, including the Heyward Shepherd memorial and all the problems attached to it.

Nell Boeschenstein:
Then, in the 1970s the Park Service began restoring some of the old buildings in town. In order to keep the memorial from being damaged, they put it away in a maintenance yard where it stayed for 5 years. When they put it back in its original location, they made one notable change.

Elliot Cummings:
It was covered with a wooden box.

Eric Mennel:
This is Elliot Cummings, former commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in the nearby Maryland division. Remember the SCV is one of the two groups to originally funded the memorial, so needless to say, they were upset when they found out it had been covered. Todd Bolton, the Parks Service employee says he wasn’t at the top level of memorial discussions, but he had a sense of why certain decision were being made

Todd Bolton:
My understanding was that there had been… the park had had some threats of violence or defacing of the monument, so it stayed in storage for some years.

Nell Boeschenstein:
By in storage, you mean covered? Or you—

Todd Bolton:
Covered, there was a shell over it.

Elliot Cummings:
So the wooden box was painted brown to make it blend in with the trash can covers.

Eric Mennel:
Again Elliot Cummings.

Elliot Cummings:
So it concerned me that a legitimate monument, at a National Park Service, would be covered up in that manner. We’re trying to work from there.

Eric Mennel:
In the early 90’s Cummings, the Son of Confederate Veteran members, began a letter-writing campaign to get the box removed.

Elliot Cummings:
I wrote to Bruce Babbitt, who at this time was Secretary of the Interior under Bill Clinton. I wrote to Senator Berg, who was the Senior Senator from West Virginia, where Harpers Ferry was located.

Nell Boeschenstein:
In 1995, enough political pressure mounted and forced the Park Service to uncover the memorial but they added a little something of their own. About 10 ft. to the right of the memorial is a small interpretive plaque explaining who Heyward Shepherd was and what the 1931 controversy was all about. It also offers a quote from W.E.B. DuBois, “Here John Brown aimed at human history, a blow that woke a guilty nation with him fought seven slaves and sons of slaves.” The quote goes on about John Brown but mentions neither Heyward Shepherd nor the idea of the faithful slave.

Jim Tolbert:
That other marker should have been more you know, expansive, I think. You know, because it really doesn’t say anything. It just talks about W.E.B. DuBois, that’s all it does.

Nell Boeschenstein:
This is Jim Tolbert, former president of the West Virginia NAACP. He said that he and other members of NAACP are upset that the plaque doesn’t adequately debunk the faithful slave narrative or as he puts it…

Jim Tolbert:
That is clearly a lie and I’ll just keep on calling that a lie. It’s a lie.

Eric Mennel:
And while NAACP thought the plaque said too little, the Sons of Confederate Veterans were unhappy it was there at all.

Elliot Cummings:
We’re not happy that they felt the need to put an interpretative plaque next to it. We feel that historical monuments stand on their own.

Todd Bolton:
That is our job. Our job is not to tell you to come here and this is what we want you to think about this particular part of history. We don’t do that. Our job is to present the history, to show balanced perspectives, and allow you as an individual, based on that unbiased information, to walk away with your own…..with your own conclusions.

Eric Mennel:
Today, the NAACP is still pretty upset about the whole situation but there’s only so much they can do. The Confederate heritage groups would get rid of the plaque in a heartbeat but they’ve more or less moved on. The Parks Service maintains that the memorial is an historical artifact entrusted to the U.S Government and they’ll continue to maintain that as such.

Nell Boeschenstein:
The Heyward Shepherd Memorial may have just been a monument to a particular vision of the south but it does point to something else. Over the past 150 years, there’s been little effort to memorialize slavery in a way that reflects the true scale of the experience and its reverberations. What’s clear is that slavery can’t be stored in a maintenance yard or covered up with the plywood box and one has to wonder if there will ever be an interpretive plaque big enough of to make sense of it all.

Ed Ayers:
Eric Mennel and Nell Boeschenstein are producers for “BackStory.” For pictures of the Heyward Shepherd Memorial and more about its origins, visit BackStoryRadio.Org.

Roman Mars:
That’s the story from the monuments episode of “BackStory” with the American History Guys. I’ll have a link on our website to their show and you should subscribe because you really gonna like it. 99% Invisible is me, Roman Mars, and Sam Greenspan. We are a project of KALW 91.7 local Public Radio in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architect in San Francisco. We’re distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, making public radio more public. Find out more at prx.org. You can find the show and ‘like’ the show on Facebook, I tweet @romanmars and if you live in the bay area and enjoy pizza and repetitive tasks and a real need to get paid. Well, then maybe you should get in touch, [email protected]

  1. Drew Johnson

    One should note that Harpers Ferry National Historical Park has some of the worst waysides (the object described as “the nearby Harper’s Ferry History marker”) in the National Park system. These signs do not conform with the NPS graphic identity standards (https://www.nps.gov/hfc/services/identity/) nor do they meet the interpretive standards met by waysides in most other parks. This is mainly due to decades of petty politics and the Park administration’s refusal to engage with the professional designers, writers, and interpretive media specialists at the Harpers Ferry Center (https://www.nps.gov/HFC/).

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