The Untold Story of Shields Green: The Life and Death of a Harper’s Ferry Raider

New York Univ. Oct. 2020. 248p. ISBN 9781479802753. $28. HIST
The story of John Brown’s (1800–59) ill-fated raid on the Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) is well known. However, the lives of his Black raiders are far less known than that of Brown and his white coconspirators. DeCaro (church history, Alliance Theological Seminary; Freedom’s Dawn) seeks to rescue the story of one Black raider, “Emperor” Shields Green from history’s shadows. Any attempt to reconstruct his life can only be done provisionally. He was born near Charleston, SC, although his birth date and whether he was born free or enslaved is unknown. Much more is known about Green’s life during his time with Brown, the raid, and his subsequent trial and execution. DeCaro does an excellent job interrogating the sources, and attempting to find the real Green among the racist stereotypes and language found in both Southern and Northern newspapers. What emerges is a portrait of a man willing to die if it meant an end to slavery.
VERDICT DeCaro has assembled fragments of Green’s life from the historical record in a judicious and thoughtful biography. Readers interested in antebellum, African American, and Civil War history will enjoy this brief biography.
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