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Emperor: Rediscovering an Icon of Black Liberation

By Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.

In 1882, a small notice appeared in the Huntsville [Georgia] Gazette, reporting that the skull of Shields Green, one of John Brown’s raiders, was on exhibit at a store in Athens, Georgia. This notice appeared in a few other Southern papers, suggesting the possibility that the skull may have been elsewhere displayed in the South, and that it was at a point of interest to whites.  

As this report suggests, by the later nineteenth century, the South had made a dramatic comeback from defeat in the Civil War, having taken back white supremacy with a vengeance after the betrayal of Reconstruction. From the standpoint of the white South, the skull of this little known black Harper’s Ferry raider was something of a trophy, even a relic from a time when the South was at its height as a slavocracy, and John Brown and his raiders had died on the gallows after attempting to defeat their “peculiar institution.”

But the notation of Shields Green’s skull on display was also a real referent to historical memory because there were still many people who remembered the Harper’s Ferry raid and the impact of Brown’s invasion of Virginia upon the South. In the aftermath of the raid, after Brown’s defeat and incarceration, the Southern press carried constant reports about him, including short descriptions of the several Harper’s Ferry raiders who had survived with him, and who likewise shared his fate on the gallows in 1859.

Among these many reports, the dark-skinned Shields Green was frequently described, typically in the most negative terms. Unlike the other jailed black raider, John Copeland, Virginians expressed no sympathy toward Green, known by his comrades as “Emperor.” During their trials, while the light-skinned Copeland, a recruit from Oberlin, Ohio, elicited some sympathy among Southerners, Emperor was constantly disdained. An undercover reporter for the antislavery New York Tribune even observed how Emperor was viciously harangued and abused by the prosecutor because, as a dark-skinned man, he had allegedly shown too much interest in a “mulatto” woman on one of the local plantations. After their executions, both black men’s remains were stolen away by students from the Winchester Medical College, and despite appeals from the family of Copeland, neither body was surrendered.  Of course, the “scientific” desecration of black bodies was nothing new in the South. But while the remains of Copeland and Green were irretrievably lost, it is worth noting that Emperor’s skull was somehow preserved and that nearly a quarter of century after the raid it was viewed as something of a trophy by the white South.

In 2020, the feature film, “Emperor,” was released, a largely fictionalized account of the story of Shields Green. But if the movie is historically unreliable, it is not entirely the fault of the producers. Little is known of Emperor’s life, except for a thin description in the record, largely supplied by John Brown’s daughter in later life. What is known about him with certainty is that he had fled Charleston, South Carolina, that he was widowed, and that he left a young son behind. Emperor had somehow managed to smuggle himself by boat to the harbor of New York City and finally made his way to Rochester, New York, where he came to know the abolitionist orator, Frederick Douglass. But this skeletal narrative leaves many questions unanswered, and often even historians have been presumptive in filling in some of the blanks, especially assuming that Emperor had been a slave in the South. In “Emperor,” presumption is stretched thin: Green (played by Dayo Okeniyi) kills a ruthless slave foreman who had beaten his son, and then his wife is shot and killed as Emperor makes his escape.  In the movie, too, Green makes his way overland to the North where he is enlisted by John Brown (played by James Cromwell) because of his militant reputation, which has preceded him in his flight. 

Of course, Shields Green the man who lived had a very different story. Yet a few interesting insights have turned up that will even challenge the assumptions of historians. Most notably, as a prisoner, Emperor told one journalist that he was born of free parents; he told others that he had been quite active in antislavery activities after fleeing the South, especially in the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where there was a significant population of free and fugitive blacks prior to the Civil War. Other evidence shows that Green lived in Canada for a while, probably in Ontario, adjacent to western New York State. While he did know Frederick Douglass, it appears that Emperor left Canada of his own volition, apparently because he had heard about John Brown’s efforts to enlist black men for his Virginia campaign.  Douglass was honest enough in retrospect to acknowledge that he had tried to discourage him from joining Brown, but the fact that Emperor chose to do so is far more suggestive that Green was a determined freedom fighter in his own right, not a naïve young man who was drawn into the affair by a persuasive and charismatic leader.

Shields Green, “alias Emperor,” as the Southern press referred to him, finally went to Harper’s Ferry with John Brown and his small band of freedom fighters on the evening of October 16, 1859. Delayed unnecessarily in the town by Brown’s overly scrupulous tendencies, the raiders were overtaken by local snipers and finally by US marines. After surviving a ruthless onslaught, Brown, Emperor, and three other raiders were hastily tried and then executed in December 1859. John Brown’s death became the symbol of Northern opposition to slavery, while his several raiders often remained in the shadow of the Old Man’s legacy.  For many years, one of those men, Shields Green, was treated more or less like a historical prop by writers until, in recent years, more historical attention has been paid to Brown’s black raiders. 

Still, Emperor remains the least known among the five black men who followed Brown to Virginia. There is a sense of this in the fact that he is the only raider whose image was not preserved in daguerreotype photography, and so we have only several images of Emperor made by white newspaper illustrators. Yet for the many deficiencies of the record, Emperor is no longer a complete mystery, and we may yet learn more about him.  Still, what we do know may yet prove most important in the reckoning that is due of historians: We must no longer think to narrate the end of chattel slavery according to the “top down” prerequisites of white society, including its cultural adoration of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator.” Nor is it simply enough to pull down Confederate flags and monuments.  The skull of Shields Green, if only in memory, may yet serve as the icon of a people’s struggle for freedom—a story yet to be explored, yet to be told.

Louis A. DeCaro Jr., Ph.D., is the author of two books on Malcolm X and several about the abolitionist John Brown. His most recent book, The Untold Story of Shields Green: The Life and Death of a Harper’s Ferry Raider (NYU PRESS, 2020) is available in print and audio formats.  Lou’s podcast, JOHN BROWN TODAY, is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and other major platforms. https://nyupress.org/9781479802753/the-untold-story-of-shields-green/