African Americans have been a part of the Harpers Ferry story since before the American Revolution. The first black arrived here in the mid-1700s as a slave to Robert Harper. By the time of John Brown's Raid in 1859, about ten percent of the town's residents were black. The town's 150 slaves, considered property, could be rented out, sold, used as collateral for business transactions, or given away. Another 150 "free" blacks often worked as laborers or teamsters, but some prospered as skilled masons, plasterers, butchers, and blacksmiths.
Enslaved people seeking freedom, most of them undocumented in the historical record, eloped from or traversed Harpers Ferry on their way to the North or West. Two stories are known better than most. In 1844, Joseph Blanhum, a free black man who operated a ferry at the town, was convicted, fined $100, and sentenced to three years in prison for helping seven Fauquier County men escape from bondage to a Mr. Diggers. Another man, Wesley Harris, had been born in slavery in Martinsburg but hired to Margaret Carroll, a white widow who operated a tavern in town. She treated him kindly, but her overseer did not. When, in 1853, he attempted to beat Harris, Harris instead beat the overseer. The man told Harris’s owner in Martinsburg, who determined to sell him. Carroll informed Harris, and he decided to leave Harpers Ferry for the North. Three brothers with the surname of Matterson joined him. Heading for Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, they stopped in Taneytown, Maryland, where they were captured. Shot in the arm and near death, Harris was left in Taneytown, while the three brothers were taken to Westminster, then Baltimore, and sold. Harris recovered and escaped again, passing through Gettysburg and Philadelphia, where William Still recorded his story, then settled in Canada, where he found work on the Great Western Railroad.
During the Civil War, when the Union Army held Harpers Ferry, refugees from slavery traveled there in search of freedom—sometimes entire extended families, occasionally with wagons. By March of 1862 Federal forces established a “contraband” camp (the refugees were officially known as contraband) at Harpers Ferry to accommodate them. That same month one area resident, David Hunter Strother, remarked that “Hitherto the Negroes who had gone went light-handed and as fugitives; now the exodus has commenced in open day, laden with the spoils of the Egyptians. The sensation created is profound.”
Following the Civil War, New England Freewill Baptist missionaries acquired several vacant Armory buildings on Camp Hill and, in 1867, started Storer College, an integrated school designed primarily to educate former slaves but open to students of all races and both genders. Frederick Douglass served as a trustee of the college, and delivered a memorable oration on the subject of John Brown here in 1881.
By the end of the 19th century, the promise of freedom and equality for blacks had been buried by Jim Crow laws and legal segregation. To combat these injustices, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and other leading African-Americans created the Niagara Movement, which held its second conference on the campus of Storer College in 1906. The Niagara Movement was a forerunner to the NAACP.
In 1954, legal segregation was finally ended by the landmark school desegregation decision handed down by the Supreme Court in Brown v. The Board of Education. A year later Storer College closed its doors. Today the National Park Service continues the college's educational mission by using part of the old campus as a training facility.
On October 16, 17, and 18, 1859, John Brown and his “Provisional Army of the United States” took possession of the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown had come to arm an uprising of slaves. Instead, the raid drew militia companies and federal troops from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. On the morning of October 18, a storming party of 12 Marines broke down the door of the Armory’s fire enginehouse, taking Brown and the remaining raiders captive.
Brown, charged for “conspiring with slaves to commit treason and murder,” was tried, convicted, and hanged in Charles Town on December 2, 1859. Before the sentence was carried out, however, Brown issued a prophetic warning:
I wish to say furthermore, that you had better – all you people at the South – prepare yourselves for a settlement of that question that must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it. The sooner you are prepared the better. You may dispose of me very easily; I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled – this negro question I mean – the end of that is not yet.
Even as John Brown’s Raid was unfolding, Harpers Ferry residents George and Mary Mauzy described the events of the raid in a series of emotional letters to their daughter and son-in-law, James and Eugenia Burton.
John Brown’s Raid remains part of the legacy of our nation’s struggle with slavery.
- Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. “John Brown"
Don Redman (1900-1964)
Born July 29, 1900, in Piedmont, West Virginia, to a music teacher and a vocalist, Donald Matthew Redman was destined to make music. Redman played the trumpet by the age of three and all wind instruments by the time he was twelve.
In 1916, Redman came to Storer College. During his four years here Don Redman was an involved and energetic student with talents that extended well beyond music. Along with being in the college band, chorus, and jazz orchestra, he was a member of the college debating society, and a regular participant in oratorical competitions. He also played on the college baseball, basketball teams and was the quarterback of the football team.
While at Storer, Don was under the musical tutelage of longtime band master, John Wesley McKinney as well as Charlotte May Nason and Carlotta Stevens Slater, both graduates of the New England Conservatory of Music. As a student, Don wrote and performed many original compositions including, “Lilly of the Valley” and “Victory.” In 1919, Don was one of two juniors to be awarded the Metcalf Scholarship for academic excellence. That year he also received an honorable mention in the Storer College newspaper for his oratorical offering entitled “The Power of Music.” His most lasting musical contribution was the composition of the “Storer College Alma Mater” that endured throughout the history of the college.
Redman graduated from Storer College in 1920, but he didn’t forget his Alma Mater. His love and affection for his college was evident through his actions. In the spring of 1921 Storer was engaged in a fundraising effort, the “Three Thousand Dollar Drive.” Don returned to Storer with former student Clarence Martin and presented a successful fundraising concert with all proceeds going to the college. During this concert, Don demonstrated his musical versatility by performing on the piano, clarinet, saxophone, and xylophone.
After Storer, Redman joined “Billy Paige’s Broadway Syncopators.” The talented young musician soon caught the ear of well-known band leader Fletcher Henderson. Redman soon joined Henderson’s orchestra, not only writing the band’s arrangements, but also playing the clarinet and saxophone. Because of Redman’s innovative arrangements the group quickly became the most prominent black jazz orchestra in the country.
In 1927 Don Redman became the music director for “McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.” Redman’s arrangements became more elaborate during this time, especially in harmony and rhythm. He formed his own band, the “Don Redman Orchestra,” in 1931. The group stayed together for ten years and became a fixture in Harlem at Connie’s Inn. In 1946 Redman formed an all-star band and they became the first American jazz orchestra to tour Europe after World War II. Following a brief run on television in 1949, Redman became music director for Pearl Bailey and acted with her in the play House of Flowers. In his later years this master jazz arranger and innovator rarely performed in public, preferring to work on several extended compositions that have never been publicly performed. Until his death in November of 1964, Don Redman never stopped making music.
- Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. “Don Redman: The Little Giant of Jazz.”
National League of Colored Women
During the Progressive Era, from the 1890s through the 1920s, many Americans formed and joined organizations. African American women did so with enthusiasm, but since it was also the era of Jim Crow segregation, they created what is known as the black women’s club movement. Many of these women had been active in their churches, but in the 1890s they banded together to discuss issues and to work for the betterment of people of color, especially women of color, and society. In 1892 in Washington, D.C., a group of female educators and community activists organized the Colored Women’s League.
Founders included Helen Appo Cook (the first president), Josephine Wilson Bruce, Anna J. Cooper, Anna Evans Murray, Mary Church Terrell, and Fannie Barrier Williams. The members affirmed the value of education and of their responsibility, as educated women, to help others and lead reform efforts. They started chapters across the country and became the National League of Colored Women, but they operated in competition with similar institutions. In 1895, after considerable public slander against black women in the media, black women organized the National Federation of Afro-American Women to promote a more accurate and positive image. Helen Appo Clark served as vice-president. In 1896 the National Federation of Afro-American Women and the National League of Colored Women merged to form the National Association of Colored Women.
Also in 1896, before the consolidation, the National League of Colored Women convened at Storer College in Harpers Ferry. It seemed fitting, as these women carried the torch passed on by earlier abolitionist leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary. While the earlier generation of leaders had come from modest means, sometimes no means at all, the new generation was more likely to possess enough material wealth and formal education to place them in the black elite. In their lives and their work together, they embodied the motto adopted by the National Association of Colored Women, “Lifting as We Climb.”
- Jacqueline M. Moore. Leading the Race: The Transformation of the Black Elite in the Nation’s Capital, 1880-1920 . Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999.
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