You will remember
Who took his gun,
Took twenty-one companions,
White and black,
Went to shoot your way to freedom
Where two rivers meet
And the hills of the
And the hills of the
Look slow at one another—
For your sake.
Now that you are
Many years free,
And the echo of the Civil War
Has passed away,
And Brown himself
Has long been tried at law,
Hanged by the neck,
And buried in the ground—
Since Harpers Ferry
Is alive with ghosts today,
Come again to town,
You will recall
“October the Sixteenth” by Langston Hughes, 1931.
Langston Hughes, a famous African-American poet and playwright during the Harlem Renaissance, had a connection to the history at Harpers Ferry decades earlier. His grandmother, Mary Sampson Patterson Leary, had been married to Lewis Leary, one of the African American men who voluntarily joined John Brown.
Lewis Leary met John Brown’s son in late August 1859 when he arrived in Oberlin, Ohio, trying to recruit men for the army of liberation his father wanted to lead into the South. Leary decided to join Brown’s movement, but lacked funds to travel to Maryland. For almost a month, he worked and saved while keep his intended actions a secret from his wife. Just before he departed, Leary told his employer that he was setting out to “free the slaves” in Virginia…then he disappeared, without even saying goodbye to his wife or infant daughter.
Thursday, October 13, 1859. Lewis Leary and his friend John Anthony Copeland arrived at Kennedy Farm where John Brown and his tiny group had spent the summer hiding out and stockpiling weapons. Leary and Copeland joined a group that totaled twenty-two – including themselves and three other African American men.
Three days later, the hopeful liberators started toward Harpers Ferry in the darkness. As John Brown seized control of the U.S. Armory and lower town, Leary, Copeland, and John Kagi – Brown’s assistant planner – were directed to hold the rifle factory. As firing and fighting broke out, Brown’s force waited or fought back from divided positions. The trio at the rifle factory found themselves under heavy fire as militia and townsfolk started attacking the unknown forces holding parts of Harpers Ferry.
Leary, Copeland, and Kagi turned back several attacks, but then their ammunition dwindled. The three ran out the back door of the factory, toward the Shenandoah River. As they tried to escape, the militiamen shot at them. Kagi died instantaneously. Copeland managed to reach a small island, but was forced to surrender. Lewis Leary reached a rock – probably near the small island – and there fell, “shot through the body.”
Rough hands dragged Leary to the shore. Angry voices clamored and shouted about lynching him on the spot. In the end, they put him in a shop, leaving him to suffering in agony from his wound for about ten or twelve hours before his death. Lewis Leary died on October 17, 1859, in an attempt to bring freedom forcibly to the enslaved of his race.
Leary’s wife – Mary – received news of his attempt at the same time she received word of his death. In later years, she said proudly, “I am the widow of Lewis Sheridan Leary [who] fell at Harpers Ferry. I remember with pride the name. I am proud that [Brown] and his followers are not forgotten who braved death for Liberty…”
Mary wed John Mercer Langston, a leader in Ohio’s abolition movement, and Langston was the poet’s direct grandfather. But young Langston Hughes remembered falling asleep at his grandmother’s house, listening to stories of the brave man who fought for freedom and marched with John Brown. He believed the shawl his grandmother tucked around him on chilly nights had been worn by his “grandfather” on that fateful night at Harpers Ferry. In 1931 in a nation still struggling and suffering with segregation and Jim Crown laws, Langston Hughes remembered the bold stance of a white man who gathered a racially integrated band and determined to strike a blow for freedom.
Though Hughes originally wrote this piece of poetry for an African-American audience, it rings true for many readers/listeners – especially today: October 16th. Today, it’s been 160 years since John Brown, Lewis Leary, and twenty other men crept into Harpers Ferry and committed actions that propelled the nation to address the issue of slavery. Lewis Leary died and John Brown was hanged, but perhaps their desires for freedom and equality still linger as “ghosts today.”
Horowitz, Tony. Midnight Rising: John Brown and The Raid that Sparked the Civil War. (Picador, New York, 2011). References to Lewis Leary, history of John Brown.
This Shawl Belonged to Langston Hughes (True) And Was Worn By One Of John Brown’s Men At Harpers Ferry (Well) – published by National Endowment for the Humanities, 2016. Accessed October 2019: https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2016/summer/feature/shawl-belonged-langston-hughes-true-and-was-worn-one-john-brown%E2%80%99s-men-harpers-ferry-well