Mysterious Emperor: A Movie, A Book, and An Author’s Reflection

—Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.

A little more than a year before the presidential election of 1860, the abolitionist John Brown made a failed effort to launch a liberation movement at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia). A great deal of popular misconception about the raid abounds even today, but Virginians at the time understood how close Brown came to actually initiating a freedom movement in October 1859, one that might have spread deep into the South if he had just moved with more expediency out of Harper’s Ferry. As it turned out, however, the abolitionist’s own tactical errors left him vulnerable to defeat and capture, finally, at the hands of United States marines.

After being found guilty in early November, a court of slaveholding Virginians sentenced John Brown to die as soon as their own laws permitted. Despite the celebrity status he had attained in newspapers across the country, he was hanged on December 2, 1859.  But Brown was not the only one to die on a Virginia gallows after the raid.  Several of his men also followed him to execution, four being hanged two weeks later (two other Harper’s Ferry raiders were executed in March 1860). Two of the raiders hanged on that December 16th were Black; they went first to the noose, racially separated from their white associates, even in death. Almost immediately afterward, their remains were stolen by local medical students.  

While alive the local press had likewise distinguished the two Black prisoners from each other on the basis of skin color: the light-skinned John Copeland from Oberlin, Ohio, was an object of sympathy to his Virginia captors. But Shields Green, also known as “Emperor,” was objectified, being the dark one, the least sympathetic figure to slaveholding society. While all the raiders were rushed through their trials, Emperor was harshly abused by the prosecutor in a manner unlike the treatment of the other prisoners. Evidently, the prosecutor learned that Green had shown an interest in a “mulatto” woman on one of the plantations prior to capture. That Emperor had dared to do so was simply more than the slaveholder could bear.  Throughout this outrageous episode, however, Emperor kept his cool.  An undercover reporter for the New York Daily Tribune was impressed, describing the incident afterward in his report. “How the negro ever sat so stolid under it, I cannot understand,” he concluded.

In recent years there has been increased attention paid to Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raiders, and some interesting books in particular have been published about the Black men who followed him to Harper’s Ferry.  While Brown’s five Black raiders have been the subject of interest to playwrights and screenplay writers for some time, the first story to cross the finish line of entertainment culture in 2020 was the movie, “Emperor,” produced by Mark Amin’s Sobini Films and released on video on August 18. According to Deadline, Sobini Films promised to donate $1 to the NAACP for every digital transaction during the first month of the movie’s release. The director of the NAACP Hollywood Bureau responded that “all too often vital narratives, such as ‘Emperor’ are left out of Hollywood and our history books.” 

As it turned out, however, Sobini’s “Emperor” is far more fiction than fact.  When the trailer for “Emperor” was posted on YouTube, a number of comments compared the movie to Quentin Tarantino’s fictional, “Django Unchained” when at least it might have been compared to Nate Parker’s 2016 film, “The Birth of a Nation,” which was based upon the story of the Nat Turner revolt of 1831.  In defense of Mark Amin and fellow script writer Pat Charles, however, there is far more information about Nat Turner in the historical record than there is for Shields Green. Although the real Emperor was known by the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass and frequently was recalled in his speeches, Black people long recognized that Whites tended to overlook Brown’s Black raiders.  As one Black editor put it in 1860, White people in the North “saw only old John Brown and seventeen white men.”  Of the five Black raiders who followed John Brown to Virginia, in fact, Shields Green “alias Emperor” was the least known.

In 2018, when I read that Amin’s movie about Shields Green was in production, it occurred to me that I might gather materials from my extensive John Brown research and perhaps publish a short piece in time for the movie’s release. I have studied Brown for more than two decades but had never paid close attention to Emperor, assuming the few facts that historians have passed down about his life were true.  I further hoped that beyond my own research, perhaps his origins in Charleston, South Carolina, would be accessible in local records. But nothing turned out as I had anticipated. Indeed, very quickly, my intention of writing a short historical piece about Green became a kind of quest to rediscover Emperor, the man who lived. 

At first, as I sifted through my files, I began to notice little things, such as small statements by Green himself, and descriptions of him as a prisoner in Virginia that pushed back against the conventional story of a fugitive slave from South Carolina who was enthralled and enlisted by John Brown.  The problem was that for the several insights that I gained, allowing me to question the conventional narrative, there was yet no substantial breakthrough—no biographically satisfying moment when I could finally “connect the dots.”  Just when I found something about Emperor, it was as if he then slipped just beyond reach.  Indeed, trying to find Shields Green in the record reminded me of a line from an Ishmael Reed poem—“By the time they catch us, we’re not there.”  Every time I thought I had caught up to Emperor, he was gone.

A good metaphor for what I’m talking about is found in the fact that every one of John Brown’s raiders, white and black, left a daguerreotype photograph of himself for history except Shields Green. While several sketches made from life show Emperor during his incarceration and last days, we don’t have a single photographic image of him, and I doubt very much that one was made in life.  The researcher who assisted me in South Carolina could not locate him in any records.  At another point in my research, I had a moment of excitement after I found evidence that another researcher had apparently found and confirmed his name and birth date; but then I discovered that this researcher seems to have died, leaving me once more without any substantial lead.  On one hand, the whole process of research was frustrating because of a dearth of sources.  On the other hand, the few leads that I did find suggested that some of the features of the conventional story of Shields Green are not trustworthy.

Almost from the onset I came to question a number of traditional claims, including the assumption that Emperor was born into slavery.  One very reliable piece of evidence suggests, in fact, that Green was a free black man from Charleston, South Carolina.  This opened up a new vista to his story, since it required that I gain some understanding of the plight of free blacks in the Lower South. As a free black man, especially a dark-skinned man, Green would have been extremely vulnerable within a slave-based, white supremacist society.  My own sense is that Shields Green may have fled to avoid unjust punishment or imprisonment based on some or another racist enactment. Perhaps he fled secretly with the intention of slipping back into South Carolina at some later point to claim his young son. 

Secondly, most traditional readings of Emperor make him appear as a kind of follower or hanger-on to Frederick Douglass. In this sense, at least, the Sobini film is probably closer to the truth in rendering Shields Green as an independently minded fighter for justice.  Douglass himself somewhat passingly diminished Green in his autobiography by saying he was “easily” persuaded by John Brown, almost as if to suggest that Green was naïve.  But I think the truth is that by 1859, Douglass himself was far too successful and comfortable to throw himself into John Brown’s plans, while Shields Green was prepared to go the distance in the field. 

As a matter of fact, there is enthralling evidence that allows for the possibility that Shields Green came north much earlier than historians have assumed, perhaps as early as 1850, and that he had involved himself in black resistance to slave catchers in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  If this is true—and I think it is quite possible, then by the time Emperor met Frederick Douglass in Rochester, the former was already looking for an occasion to resist slavery and had possibly tracked John Brown through Douglass.  The “Emperor” movie fabricates a narrative about Shields Green, rendering him as a controversial antislavery warrior who was despised and wanted by slaveholders, something that is far from the truth. However, the real Emperor was at least intentional and determined in his role.  And even though he was almost entirely unknown prior to joining John Brown, his role at Harper’s Ferry made him the most despised and controversial black man in the South, at least for several weeks—until he was hanged and his body was mutilated at the Winchester Medical College in Virginia.

Despite limitations, the more I began to revisit the narrative of Shields Green and piece together the available evidence, the more my article swelled into a small manuscript in which I questioned some of the conventional notions and tried to reconstruct his original social context. Teasing out details from the story thus allowed me to rediscover Emperor as a kind of self-made freedom fighter, a radical abolitionist in his own right, and not just a pensioner of heroes like Douglass and Brown.  As a biographer, this effort was markedly different for me: writing about Shields Green was a kind of surprise—an effort that probably would not even have occurred to me had Mark Amin had not first chosen to make a movie about him. Yet what I found about the real Emperor is starkly different from the “Emperor” movie.

In their “Emperor” screenplay, Amin and Charles not only filled in many blank spaces in the record with fiction but took considerable liberty with the known facts of Emperor’s life (played  in the movie by Dayo Okeniyi).  Contrary to the movie, we have no knowledge of the circumstances behind Green’s decision to flee northward. His wife (played by Naturi Naughton) did die, but there is no evidence she was killed. While I had hoped to find her in the record, there simply was insufficient information to identify her, and thus her death date and status remain unknown. She may very well have a been a free Black woman living under the same stressful conditions of white supremacy as her husband.  Likewise, Emperor really did leave a son behind in South Carolina,  and while I found some evidence that he was living in Charlestown years later, his identity remains unknown.  Similarly, Shields Green did not flee over land as portrayed in Amin’s “Emperor,” but rather was smuggled by boat to New York. Nor did he meet John Brown during his escape as the movie shows, but moved to Canada about 1856, and lived in Ontario, and then Rochester, New York before he joined John Brown’s raiders in 1859.  Whatever the case, Emperor was not freshly escaped from the South when he joined John Brown’s raiders, and he may have been in the North nearly a decade. As to Green himself, I suspect he had some education and was quite intentional in his radicalism, and that he may even have participated in antislavery actions prior to joining on with John Brown. Fortunately, at least Amin and Charles crafted a story that displays their protagonists—Shields Green and John Brown—as devoted antislavery men. Neither Brown (played by James Cromwell) nor Green are demeaned in the manner of one twentieth century writer, who described them respectively as “a madman and a child.” Still, Amin’s “Emperor” is long on Hollywood and short on history.

At the end of “Emperor,” Green’s adult son walks into the office of a publisher, now many years after the Harper’s Ferry raid.  Pulling out a manuscript, he places it on the editor’s desk—the camera permitting the viewer to see that it is his father’s story, the story of Shields Green. Of course, no such book by Green’s son was ever written, and the movie’s portrayal of Emperor’s fate departs even more starkly from the historical record. Yet, in what seems a strange serendipity, the making of the movie prompted the writing of my own book, and so in some mysterious way Emperor has reached back from the past to remind us that his soul, too, goes marching on.

The Untold Story of Shields GreenLouis A. DeCaro Jr. has written biographies of Malcolm X and the abolitionist John Brown, and more recently is the author of The Untold Story of Shields Green: The Life and Death of a Harper’s Ferry Raider, now available from NYU Press.

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