By Stephanie M. Mangino
The Winchester Star
Winchester — A mystery lies at the heart of Winchester’s multiple connection to abolitionist John Brown’s violent Oct. 16, 1859, raid on Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
The first man killed in the raid — an operation begun in hopes of seizing weapons from the town’s federal armory to free the nation’s slaves — was Hayward Shepherd, a free black man from Winchester.
Although Shepherd was buried in his hometown with great ceremony, his burial site in what was referred to as the “Old Colored Cemetery” is unknown today.
As The John Brown 150th Anniversary Quad-State Committee gets ready to start commemorating the raid with events starting in April, Sally Coates, visitor and community relations manager for the Winchester-Frederick County Convention and Visitors Bureau, is trying to give Hayward Shepherd his due.
But few traces of Shepherd remain.
By 1901, The [Winchester] Evening Star reported the grave of Shepherd was in a sad state. “Nearly forty years have passed and his people are now enjoying the privileges of the free born, but his grave remains solitary and impoverished and neglected,” the paper stated.
The 1901 article that describes Shepherd’s neglected grave doesn’t state the cemetery’s location.
Some people may assume the cemetery would be Orrick Cemetery at Valley Avenue and Southwerk Street in Winchester, but that was a fairly new burial ground at the time of Shepherd’s death, Coates said. She’s heard of, but can find no record for, an older African-American graveyard on East Lane near Mount Hebron Cemetery.
Shepherd, who was a railroad baggage master in Harpers Ferry, lived at 438 N. Kent St. in a home that no longer stands.
He and his wife, Sarah, had six children, four of whom were living when she died in 1902, according to another article from The Evening Star.
Coates, also a genealogist, said she has placed messages on a host of online genealogy bulletin boards, trying to find some of Shepherd’s descendants, but so far hasn’t “gotten one bite.”
“It’s frustrating,” she said of the research into Shepherd, whose first name has been alternately spelled Heywood, Heyward, and Haywood in various accounts of his death. “I’ve definitely hit my brick wall,” Coates said.
“Poor Hayward,” Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Natalie Wills said in a wistful tone as she and Coates talked about his unknown gravesite. “It’s so sad. It really is.”
In trying to locate his grave and tell his story, “now’s the time to right a wrong, in some way,” Wills said.
The two women also hope that Shepherd’s story will help draw eyes toward Winchester’s commemoration of the raid in Harpers Ferry, a town that was part of Virginia in 1859.
Still, more than Shepherd’s life and death link Winchester to John Brown’s raid.
Militia units based in Winchester took the train to Harpers Ferry to respond to the raid. Judge Richard Parker, who presided over Brown’s treason trial in Charles Town, W.Va., and sentenced him to death, lived in Winchester and is buried in Mount Hebron, Coates said.
And finally, it’s believed that a cadaver used at the long-defunct Winchester Medical College was one of Brown’s raiders — perhaps even one of his sons. Some say that Union troops later burned down the college in retaliation, she said.
An exhibit detailing the city’s connections to the raid, “From the First Shot to the Gallows: Winchester’s Involvement with the John Brown Raid,” will run from April 1 until Oct. 31 at The Hollingsworth Mill at 1360 S. Pleasant Valley Road.
The Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society is sponsoring the free exhibit, which will feature, among other things, the uniform George Washington Kurtz wore when his militia unit from Winchester responded to the raid in Harpers Ferry.
Another exhibition, “A Militia, A Medical College, and A Judge: Winchester’s Connection to the John Brown Raid,” will be presented through Shenandoah University. It will run from June 1 to Oct. 31 at the Winchester-Frederick County Visitors Center in SU’s Davis Hall at 1400 S. Pleasant Valley Road.
At the end of October, SU Associate Professor James Bryant II will present a lecture on the raid. His talk is sponsored by the historical society, SU, and the CVB.
The commemoration of the raid will feature events not only in Virginia, but also Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
The raid’s importance to history is also great enough that the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission will kick off its Signature Tour Series June 25-26 at Harpers Ferry (W.Va.) National Historical Park.
The commemoration also has been named a Top 100 Event in North America by the American Bus Association, which provides a yearly listing of major group travel events in the United States and Canada.
“This observance will provide an unprecedented opportunity to reflect on and revisit the life of John Brown as it relates to the broader context of slavery, the abolitionist movement, and the American Civil Rights Movement. All activities will lead up to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War,” the ABA guide states.
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Winchester Star, Used by Permission