Created and dedicated in controversy and kept under wraps in recent years, a monument to a free black man fatally shot by John Brown's abolitionist raiders has been returned quietly to public view.
Without ceremony, preview, protest or news release, the National Park Service one morning last month simply removed the plywood covering the monument to Heyward Shepherd erected in 1931 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The Park Service also placed a small interpretive plaque nearby.
Shepherd had the ironic distinction of being a free black man who was the first fatality in a raid to free blacks, and the original memorial makers tried to make the most of it. To them, his death symbolized Brown's misguided challenge to the southern way of life.
In 1931, the monument's wording and dedication opened a racial and political divide that lingered for years. The black press referred to it as the "Uncle Tom Monument." Now, the idea of the Park Service adding an "interpretive plaque" is enough to raise rebel blood pressure.
"We feel any monument speaks for itself and doesn't require interpretation by the National Park Service," said G. Elliott Cummings, Maryland commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Brown's attempt to seize this town's federal arsenal and free the slaves is cited widely as the catalyst that hastened civil war. Shepherd was no major player in that event. Rather, he was a hapless B&O Railroad employee who failed to heed a raider's command to halt, ran the other way, was wounded and died the next day.
For many years after the dedication of his monument, it was all but forgotten. In the 1970s, it was moved so restoration work could proceed on nearby buildings. Then rumors started circulating among the modern-day keepers of the Confederate flame that the 900-pound granite memorial was being "held hostage" by those who didn't like its message.
In recent months, a flurry of letters has arrived at park headquarters demanding the Shepherd memorial's re-display. Letter-writers also sought help from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who launched his own inquiry. In reply, the Park Service promised to "remove the Heyward Shepherd Monument from storage and display it" in 1995.
It just didn't say how or when.
"Our position is this is history and to get it back on public display," said Harpers Ferry Park Superintendent Don Campbell, who tried to do exactly that 15 years ago but in a process of negotiation with interested parties that ultimately doomed the effort.
Then, Confederate heritage groups and the NAACP couldn't agree on an interpretive plaque. "The problem, perhaps, was we were trying to get everyone's input," Campbell said.
This time, Campbell kept the whole process so private that only in recent days has word begun to get out that the memorial has been on display since June 9.
Off to one side is the new plaque, which identifies Shepherd as "a free African-American railroad baggage master . . . shot and killed by Brown's men shortly after midnight" Oct. 17, 1859. It notes that 300 whites and 100 blacks attended the monument's dedication, during which "voices raised to praise and denounce the monument." It also contains a tribute by W.E.B. DuBois to Brown inspired by the Shepherd monument.
"They put there just what they wanted," said Harriett Elizabeth Nichols Binkley, 74, of Charles Town, honorary president of the West Virginia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. "It still isn't the true history."
Even Campbell acknowledges it isn't the whole story. That, he said, would take up too much space, and park guides are fully equipped to provide details. The NAACP had no comment.
The monument has its origins in a 1907 Daughters of the Confederacy proposal to memorialize slaves who stayed loyal to their masters during the Civil War. Although not a slave, Shepherd did not join with the raiders, so in 1920 the Daughters asked the Sons to help erect a monument to him.
They bought the stone but had problems finding a site. The railroad refused their request in 1922 after learning that the Harpers Ferry Town Council thought the monument would "likely occasion unpleasant racial feeling." Finally, a druggist agreed to let the monument rest on his property near the train tracks.
The inscription describes Shepherd as "an industrious and respected colored freeman. . . . In pursuance of his duties as an employee of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company, he became the first victim of this attempted insurrection."
Shepherd, the monument says, exemplified "the character and faithfulness of thousands of Negroes who under many temptations throughout subsequent years 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."
At the dedication, the president of a now-defunct black college here welcomed the assembly, the school choir performed, and a black minister gave the benediction.
But the main speaker denounced abolitionism and Brown and described Shepherd as "representative of Negroes of the neighborhood, who would not take part in an effort to promote an interracial disaster."
Then the Daughters of the Confederacy president extolled the "black mammy" and southern slaveholders whose humane treatment of their human chattel, she said, prevented any large revolt.
That prompted a lone public dissent from the college's black musical director, the daughter of a Union soldier "who fought for the freedom of my people, for which John Brown struck the first blow," she said.
"Today we are . . . pushing forward to a larger freedom, not in the spirit of the black mammy but in the spirit of the new freedom and rising youth," she said.
She later was criticized by a Daughters of the Confederacy member for "discourteous" remarks. But the black press praised her and condemned the college president for his part in the "Uncle Tom Monument" ceremony.
The controversy waned and, eventually, the Park Service acquired the drugstore and in 1974 began its restoration, requiring the monument's temporary removal to a maintenance area. After becoming administrator in 1980, Campbell decided to bring it back.
Although his "shuttle diplomacy" between the NAACP and Sons and Daughters failed, a plaque was prepared and the monument returned to the site.
But that same day in 1981, Campbell learned of possible plans to deface the monument. He immediately had it cloaked in plywood to hide it from view. He had a park historian research its history and write a report, to be published.
"After completing the research, the park removed the artifact from storage," Campbell said matter-of-factly. "It is history' and presented as history." CAPTION: Rhiannon Spierkel, left, Greg Spierkel and Pauline Gregg look at the new interpretive plaque near the monument. CAPTION: "Our position is this is history and to get it back on public display," park Superintendent Don Campbell says.