Over 50 African-American gravestones recently found in the Potomac River are from the cemetery where Osborne P. Anderson was buried. His headstone, however, still remains missing.
Osborne Perry Anderson is a familiar name with Jefferson County historians as an African-American raider who survived the John Brown actions of Harpers Ferry in 1859.
Anderson had been interred in the Columbian Harmony Cemetery when he died on Dec. 18, 1872. He was buried there along with other prominent African Americans including Mary Lincoln’s seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley. The cemetery for nearly 100 years was known as Washington’s “most prominent burial site for Americans of African descent.”
In the 1960s, those human remains from the cemetery were transferred to the National Harmony Memorial Park in Prince George’s County, Maryland, to make way for development, which included the building of the Rhode Island-Brentwood Metro station near Edgewood, Maryland. Those officials who removed the remains of the 37,000 African Americans sold their headstones. Thus, the bodies transferred to the new location had no gravestones to mark their burial sites.
In 2016, Virginia State Senator Richard Stuart and his wife discovered several headstones on the property they had recently purchased along the Potomac River in King George County, near Dalgren, Virginia, south of Washington. The gravestones, identified as coming originally from the Columbian Harmony Cemetery, were being used to prevent erosion of their 1,400-acre property that is located along the Potomac River. Since that discovery, Senator Stuart has been working with several government and nonprofit agencies to recover as many of the gravestones as possible.
Fifty-five of those missing headstones have been recovered so far, with workers continuing to search the two-mile shoreline to see if they can find more.
Osborne P. Anderson was one of five black raiders who worked in conjunction with John Brown during his raid on Harpers Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859. Anderson had been selected by the newspaper he worked for, The Provincial Freeman, to represent their business, located in Chatham, Ontario, in support of John Brown’s activities.
Anderson, who was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, attended Oberlin College, and was a printer in Chatham. John Brown held his Constitutional Convention in Chatham in May 1858. Anderson attended the convention as did Martin Delany. Delany, who was born in Charlestown, Virginia (now Charles Town) helped Brown organize that convention. John Brown’s raid of Harpers Ferry in October 1859 was part of his plan to try to put the plantation slavery system out of business.
Anderson was one of seven raiders who survived the raid by escaping. Anderson and Albert Hazlett were present in Harpers Ferry but fled after John Brown and several others got trapped in the engine house.
Anderson wrote the only account of the raid published by an African American. His book is called “A Voice from Harpers Ferry 1859.” The writing of the book was aided by Anderson’s boss, Mary Ann Shadd, who was also originally interred in the Columbian Harmony Cemetery. Mary Ann Shadd was the first African-American female newspaper publisher in North America. She was the publisher of The Provincial Freeman in Chatham.
Anderson’s book “A Voice from Harpers Ferry 1859” is out of print but was published in its entirety in Jean Libby’s book, “Black Voices From Harpers Ferry,” published in 1979. Jean Libby is a California researcher who has spent much of her life tracking John Brown and his family, including documenting, locating, publishing and displaying over a dozen photographs taken of John Brown in her volume “John Brown Photo Chronology.” That book was printed in conjunction with a photo display Ms. Libby produced for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in 2009.
In his book, Anderson explained why he and Hazlett left, thinking at the time that John Brown and his men had been captured and maybe even had been already killed.
Here’s what Anderson said: “We therefore, upon consultation, as our work for the day was clearly finished, and gain a position where in the future we could work with better success, than to recklessly invite capture and brutality in the hands of our enemies. The charge of deserting our brave old leader and fleeing from danger has been circulated to our detriment, but I have the consolation to know that reckless as were the half-civilized hordes against whom we contended the entire day, as much as they might wish to disparage his men, they would never have charged us. They know better. John Brown’s men at Harpers Ferry were and are a unit in their devotion to John Brown and the cause he espoused. To desert him would have been to belie every manly characteristic for which Albert Hazlett, at least, was known by the party to be distinguished, at the same time it would have endangered the future of such deserter or deserters. … We could not aid John Brown by remaining. We might, by joining the men at the Farm [author’s note – he is speaking of the Kennedy Farm in southern Washington County, Maryland, where the raid was planned], devise plans for his succor; or our experience might become available for some future occasion.”
According to Anderson’s account, he and Hazlett fled up the hill behind the arsenal, followed the river north, and crossed into Maryland. They found no one remaining at the Kennedy Farm and escaped northward instead, toward Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where they hoped to receive help from Mary Ritner. Mrs. Ritner, an avowed abolitionist, operated a boarding house in Chambersburg. She had aided John Brown and his men in various ways prior to the raid. The two raiders were hoping she would help them.
Hazlett could not keep up with Anderson along the way, so the two split up and ventured out alone. Hazlett was later captured north of Shippensburg, returned for trial in Charlestown, found guilty and was hanged on March 16, 1860.
Anderson returned to his home in West Chester, only to be turned away by his own father for his activities in Harpers Ferry. Anderson eventually found his way back to Chatham, in southeastern Ontario, Canada, a town that was a safe haven for African Americans fleeing slavery and an abolitionist hot bed. Unofficially, Chatham was the terminus of the famed Underground Railroad.
Chatham today is a Sister City to Harpers Ferry.
Bob O’Connor is a Charles Town resident who has written 21 books of nonfiction and historical fiction. View his books at boboconnorbooks.com.