Arts & Culture / Politics / The Stage / Vol. 1 No. 3-4

Shields Green

Susan Bee Alphabet of the Trees

Image Credit: Susan Bee, Alphabet of the Trees, 2012, 20″ x 24″, oil on canvas. Collection: Ruth Lepson

Shields Green*

The life lives after the life
As a seed is a void in the world-as-is
Opening paths to worlds-could-be.
If and as, where and when, remains
Sewn into the Heavenly Garment
Of the Unknown, halfway between there
And hereafter, lodged in an either
Of times’ remorseless ether
(Concoctions and fever).
Justice is never abstract but we
Abstract it at mineral peril, against
Bodies laid waste in the pillage ––
Hope’s desperate pilgrimage.


*A poem is not a monument, but my nomination for an American hero worthy of commendation is Shields Green. Green, who had liberated himself from slavery, was 23 in 1859 when he was executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia as a result of his participation in the armed struggle against slavery led by John Brown. Green had met Brown at the home of Frederick Douglass. While Douglass declined to join Brown, he reports that Green said, “I b’leve I’ll go wid de ole man.”; Douglass continued: “Shields Green was not one to shrink from hardships or dangers. He was a man of few words, and his speech was singularly broken; but his courage and self-respect made him quite a dignified character.” Douglass also reported that rather than escape capture after Harpers Ferry, “he simply said he must go down to de ole man.” In an article on Green’s trial, Steven Lubet notes that Green’s lawyer successfully argued that Dred Scott (decided just two years earlier) established that Green could not be charged with treason since he was not an enfranchised citizen who owed allegiance to the state. Denied the vote, Green had no obligation to be loyal to Virginia or to the U.S. With the treason charge thrown out, Green was convicted of murder and conspiracy. After the hanging, Green’s body was seized for defilement by dissection by medical students from Winchester, VA. Lubet reports that six years later the town of Oberlin created a memorial to Green and two other Brown freedom fighters from Oberlin. “These colored citizens of Oberlin,” the inscription reads, “the heroic associates of the immortal John Brown, gave their lives for the slave. Et nunc servitudo etiam mortua est, laus deo.”

Frederick Douglas. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Hartford: Park Publishing, 1882), pp. 187-192
Steven Lubet, “Execution in Virginia, 1859: The Trials of Green and Copeland” (2012). Faculty Working Papers. Paper 209., pp. 11-12, 25-26

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