Louis DeCaro, Jr. is Associate Professor of Church History at Alliance Theological Seminary. He has also kept a blog on John Brown since 2005. This interview is based on his new book, The Untold Story of Shields Green: The Life and Death of a Harper’s Ferry Raider (NYU Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write The Untold Story of Shields Green?
LD: The short answer is that I have been a student of the life and letters of John Brown for over twenty years and in 2018 it was announced that a popular movie was being produced about one of John Brown’s black Harper’s Ferry raiders, Shields Green. Originally, I intended only to write an article in advance that I hoped to have published when the film was released. When I began to gather my sources, things began to catch my eye that I had overlooked, and the first draft of my “article” turned out to be nearly one hundred pages. This led to a conversation with the amazing Clara Platter at NYU Press, who encouraged me to consider a book. The funny thing is that the movie, “Emperor,” which was finally released not too long ago, ends with a fictive conclusion about Shields Green’s son writing a book about his father. So while the fictional story in the movie brings forth a book, the movie itself prompted me to write a real book.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Untold Story of Shields Green?
LD: The story of John Brown has been misunderstood and misrepresented in conventional histories, but even sympathizers have overlooked his young raiders, especially the black raiders. The black raider Shields Green is the most challenging to find in the historical record of the Harper’s Ferry despite his storied role and yet his legacy provides insight into depth of racism in the United States.
JF: Why do we need to read The Untold Story of Shields Green?
LD: This work offers layers of historical consideration: (1) what it means to try to reconstruct a man’s story based on scattered and limited evidence; (2) what the story of Shields Green reveals about a kind of self-made black abolitionist, even as historians are starting to appreciate the antislavery story that is more appreciative of black leadership; (3) what Shields Green as a both a protagonist of justice and a victim of injustice reveals about the real nature of the United States in the antebellum era; (4) a challenge to the hackneyed, conventional narrative of John Brown and the Harper’s Ferry raid; (5) a consideration of the significance of how black people were portrayed in Brown’s time, especially Shields Green, whose image only survives through sketches made by white men; and (6) a consideration of how Green’s story was stylized, first by Frederick Douglass, and then relayed by historians down to recent history.
JF: When did you decide to become an American historian?
LD: From childhood I was always enamored by history, especially in biography (and particularly that of Abraham Lincoln), and I suppose the most compelling biographies for me were “American” stories (with the exception of my extended flirtation with the life of the Renaissance monk, Girolamo Savonarola). However, my academic and seminary training was largely centered upon European history and Reformed theology. What brought me back to the history of the United States was a passionate interest in African American history and racial justice, especially the study of Malcolm X, which yielded my first publications. Ultimately, Malcolm made me think about “American history” again, and in a sense, pointed me toward John Brown.
JF: What is your next project?
LD: I’m not sure. I’m in conversation with my editor about that now. Certainly, I intend to revisit John Brown, especially his role in Kansas and possibly prepare a narrated collection of his letters and primary documents. But I have other irons in the fire that reflect my interests in history and religion.
JF: Thanks, Louis!