August 18th, 1995

NAACP Protests Uncovering of “Faithful Slave” Monument

On August 18, 1995, the NAACP sent a letter of protest to the Department of the Interior to protest the uncovering of a decades-old monument in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.

In October 1859, white abolitionist John Brown led a raid on the Harper’s Ferry Armory in what is now West Virginia, in hopes of launching a massive rebellion of enslaved black people. The raid was put down and Brown and many of his followers were convicted and hanged, but the Civil War followed soon after and the Confederacy’s loss led to widespread emancipation. A generation later, descendants of Confederate soldiers and former slave owners began efforts to create a monument at Harper's Ferry dedicated to the first casualty of the raid: Heyward Shepherd, a free black man who worked for the local railroad.

Mr. Shepherd was not enslaved; other details about his life and politics are unknown. Nevertheless, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1905 found him a fitting subject for a so-called “faithful slave monument” that would promote the message that “the white men of the South were the Negro's best friend then.” In 1920, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and the UDC agreed to jointly fund construction of the monument.

After a number of sites refused to host the monument, it was completed and dedicated in 1932 at a ceremony where speakers justified and praised slavery. The monument’s inscription in part praised “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.” Writing in 1932, black scholar and activist W.E.B. Dubois sharply criticized the monument and its dedication ceremony as a “pro-slavery celebration.”

When the National Park Service took responsibility for the Harper's Ferry site as a national historic landmark, the Hayward Shepherd monument was removed during construction. When it was returned in 1981, a plywood box covered the lengthy inscription. Following several years of complaints and pressure from the SCV, UDC, and Southern congressmen, including North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, the superintendent of the site ordered the covering removed on June 9, 1995. The West Virginia NAACP protested the decision and condemned in its August 1995 letter the monument’s implication that “all slaves were satisfied to be whipped, raped, tortured, torn away from their families and sold.”