Alumni Profiles

Ripped from the Headlines—of 1875

Gordon Shufelt

Daniel Brown was a Black American killed by a white police officer. But unlike George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, whose killings by police made international headlines in 2020, Brown is largely unknown.

The Baltimore man died in 1875, clubbed and shot in his home by a city police officer. It was a story lost to history until Gordon Shufelt came across the case several years ago. Shufelt CLAW’78 has now written a book exploring Brown’s life and death against the backdrop of a 19th-century Baltimore riven by Civil War-era conflicts and pervasive racism.

“The case just jumped off the page,” Shufelt says. “Here was this killing by a police officer that was deeply disturbing at the time and is still disturbing to talk about today.”

The Uncommon Case of Daniel Brown (The Kent State University Press, 2021) takes readers into the volatile world that Brown inhabited and shines a light on the long history of police violence against Black people.

The book, which will be published in March, is Shufelt’s first, but it reflects a lifetime of engagement with social justice, history, and law.

Growing up in working-class Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Shufelt developed a strong sense of empathy for people who struggle to live with dignity. “People were not real privileged there,” he says. “Most of my friends were either the children or grandchildren of immigrants, many of whom worked in the factories.”

An interest in public service led him to law school and a successful career as a legal adviser and administrative law judge for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs before his retirement in 2006. While still working, Shufelt completed a doctorate in history at American University, where his research into race relations in Baltimore led him to news accounts of Daniel Brown’s killing.

Brown was in his 30s when he died. What little is known about him suggests he worked hard to build a life for himself and his wife, Keziah. He took on dangerous and physically demanding labor, bringing in enough income that Keziah was able to leave her job doing laundry.

On a summer evening in 1875, Officer Patrick McDonald showed up at Brown’s rented home after a neighbor complained of loud laughter and singing. Words were exchanged. McDonald struck the unarmed Brown in the head with his club and pulled his gun. Keziah tried to stop the violence.

“She begged the policeman right in front of his face not to shoot her husband,” Shufelt says. “And he just pushed her out of the way and shot him.”

Witnesses to the killing, which took place during a social gathering, said McDonald was confrontational from the start, uttering racially tinged threats. The officer was charged and convicted in the killing—an unusual outcome for a police shooting both then and now, Shufelt says.

But the case brought against him had little to do with seeking racial justice.

One reason that authorities pursued charges was that the witnesses were trusted Black servants for well-to-do white people. Their accounts of an egregious, unprovoked shooting were taken seriously.

Another reason was that Baltimore’s white power structure included both pro-Confederate and pro-Union factions, with the police often aligned with one side or the other. Simply put, white residents were angry with the police for reasons of their own, Shufelt says.

“Officer McDonald was not convicted because the city’s white citizens objected to the oppression of African Americans,” Shufelt writes in the book’s conclusion. “There was no consensus among whites that African Americans suffered disproportionately from police violence.”

McDonald ended up serving less than a year of a five-year sentence for manslaughter before he was released on appeal.

Ultimately, it would not be until the emergence of cell phone cameras that many white Americans began to understand what Daniel Brown’s friends and loved ones knew full well more than a century before, Shufelt says.

“The Black citizens who were upset with Daniel Brown’s killing would totally understand Black Lives Matter today,” he says. “They saw clearly how much discretion, how much unconstrained authority police could have, often outside of public view.”