From Ohio History Central
John Anthony Copeland, Jr., was an African-American man. He participated in John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in October 1859.
Copeland was born to free parents in North Carolina, probably in 1834. In 1842, his family moved to Oberlin, Ohio, hoping to escape the racism of the American South. Copeland eventually enrolled in and graduated from Oberlin College. He also became actively involved in the abolitionist movement.
In 1858, Copeland participated in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Case. On September 13, a federal marshal in Oberlin arrested a runaway slave named John Price. Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the federal government was required to assist slaveholders in reclaiming their runaway slaves. The marshal knew that many Oberlin residents were committed to abolitionism. To avoid conflict with local people, he took Price to nearby Wellington. As soon as Oberlin residents heard of the marshal's actions, a group of them, including Copeland, went to Wellington. There, they joined like-minded residents of the Wellington community and attempted to free Price. The marshal and his deputies took refuge in a local hotel. After peaceful negotiations failed, the mob stormed the hotel and found Price in the attic. The group immediately returned Price to Oberlin, where they hid him in the home of Oberlin College's president. A short time later, they took Price to freedom in Canada.
A federal grand jury indicted thirty-seven of the people, including Copeland, who freed Price. Ohio authorities responded by arresting the federal marshal, his deputies, and other men involved in John Price's detention. Following negotiations between state and federal officials, the arresting officers were set free, as were thirty-five of those arrested under the federal charges. Only two of those indicted went to trial. Simeon Bushnell and Charles Langston were found guilty in federal court in April 1859. Bushnell received a sentence of sixty days in jail, while Langston's punishment was set at twenty days.
Following the dropping of charges, Copeland became involved with John Brown, a famous abolitionist and resident of Ohio. Copeland's uncle, Lewis Sheridan Leary, recruited his nephew to join Brown. In 1859, Brown was responsible for one of the most important events that led to the American Civil War. On October 16, Brown led a group of twenty-one men, including Copeland and Leary, on a raid of Harper's Ferry, Virginia (modern-day West Virginia). A federal arsenal was in the town, and Brown hoped to capture the buildings and the weapons stored inside of them. He then intended to distribute the guns and ammunition to slaves in the region, creating an army of African Americans that would march through the South and force slaveholders to release their slaves. Brown and his men succeeded in capturing the arsenal, but local residents surrounded the buildings, trapping the abolitionists inside. A detachment of United States Marines arrived and stormed the arsenal on October 18, capturing seven men, including Brown. Locals had captured Copeland two days earlier as he tried to flee from Harper's Ferry.
The state of Virginia charged Brown, Copeland, and the other detainees with treason. During this time, slave states commonly accused people who encouraged or led slave rebellions of treason against the state. The court found Brown guilty and sentenced him to death. On December 2, 1859, Brown was hanged. Copeland was also found guilty, and he was executed by hanging on December 16, 1859. Brown and his followers became martyrs for many Northerners. Some of these people feared that the United States had become a government dominated by Southern slave owners. Many white Southerners became convinced that all abolitionists shared Brown's views and his willingness to utilize violence. Brown's Harper's Ferry raid raised issues for the presidential election of 1860. It was also one of the events that led to the eventual dissolution of the United States and the civil war that followed.
Copeland's family never recovered their loved one's remains. Students at the Winchester Medical College in Winchester, Virginia, dissected Copeland's body for medical practice. In December 1859, Oberlin residents held a memorial service for Copeland and two other residents who gave their lives in Brown's raid. They also erected a monument in honor of these men.
- Nudelman, Franny. John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, & the Culture of War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
- Ohio Division of Travel and Tourism. "Ohio's Underground Railroad Freedom Stations: Traveling the State's Underground Railroad." N.p.: n.p., n.d.