On this dayAug 18, 1995

NAACP Protests Uncovering of Pro-Slavery Monument

On August 18, 1995, the NAACP sent a letter to the U.S. 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 and white allies to destroy the system of slavery. The raid was stopped and Brown and many of his followers were convicted and hanged. The Civil War followed soon after, however, and the Confederacy’s eventual defeat was followed by widespread emancipation.

A generation later, descendants of Confederate soldiers and former enslavers began an effort to dedicate a monument at Harper's Ferry to the first person killed in John Brown's raid: Heyward Shepherd, a free black man who worked for the local railroad. Little is known about Mr. Shepherd's life and politics, beyond the fact that he was not enslaved when he died. Despite this limited information, in 1905 the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) deemed him a fitting subject for a so-called “faithful slave monument” to 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 project.

After a number of sites refused to host the planned monument, it was completed and installed in 1932. Speakers at the dedication ceremony offered remarks justifying and even praising slavery. The monument shared this message, with an inscription that 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 Harper's Ferry site was named a national historic landmark, the National Park Service took over management. The Hayward Shepherd monument was removed during a construction project, and when returned in 1981, a plywood box had been added to cover the lengthy inscription. Over the next few years, the SCV and UDC repeatedly complained about the obstruction, joined by Southern congressmen like North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. In June 1995, the site superintendent ordered the covering removed, and the inscription was once again visible. The monument still stands today. 

The West Virginia NAACP's letter of protest, sent several weeks later, condemned the National Park Service's decision to display on federally-managed public grounds a monument that implied “all slaves were satisfied to be whipped, raped, tortured, torn away from their families and sold.”

Monuments like this one that present a false narrative, and Confederate monuments, romanticize a society founded on white supremacy and valorize those who fought on its behalf. Nearly 2000 Confederate monuments stand today throughout the United States. You can explore the location and language of those monuments in EJI's Segregation in America Report.

pro-slavery monument

About EJI

The Equal Justice Initiative works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality.

Learn more

About this website

Until we confront our history of racial injustice and its legacy, we cannot overcome the racial bias that exists today.

Learn more