The Journey Through Hallowed Ground

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Harpers Ferry - Storer College and the Niagara Movement

Camp Hill, upon which several armory residences had been erected during the first half of the 19th century, served host to both Union and Confederate forces during much of the Civil War. Here could be found officer's quarters, encampments, drill and parade grounds.

During the Civil War, Harpers Ferry also became one of many Union garrison towns where runaway slaves, or "contraband," sought refuge. Following the Civil War, the Reverend Dr. Nathan Cook Brackett established a Freewill Baptist primary school in the Lockwood House on Camp Hill. Brackett's tireless efforts to establish freedmen's schools in the area inspired a generous contribution from philanthropist John Storer of Sanford, Maine, who offered $10,000 for the establishment of a school in the South. The donation was offered on the condition that the school be open to all regardless of sex, race or religion.

On October 2, 1867, "Storer Normal School" was opened, and two years later, in December 1869, the federal government formally conveyed the Lockwood House and three other former Armory residences on Camp Hill to the school's trustees. Frederick Douglass served as a trustee of Storer College, and delivered a memorable oration on the subject of John Brown here in 1881. [Read passages from Frederick Douglass' memorable oration].

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 of 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. The decision, however, brought an end to federal and state funding for Storer College, and a year later it 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.

Resources

The Niagara Movement At Harpers Ferry was the Cornerstone of the Modern Civil Rights Era

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the outlook for full civil rights for African Americans was at a precarious crossroads. Failed Reconstruction, the Supreme Court’s separate but equal doctrine (Plessy v. Ferguson), coupled with Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist policies threatened to compromise any hope for full and equal rights under the law.

Harvard educated William Edward Burghardt Du Bois committed himself to a bolder course, moving well beyond the calculated appeal for limited civil rights. He acted in 1905 by drafting a “Call” to a few select people. The Call had two purposes; “organized determination and aggressive action on the part of men who believed in Negro freedom and growth,” and opposition to “present methods of strangling honest criticism.”

Du Bois gathered a group of men representing every region of the country except the West. They hoped to meet in Buffalo, New York. When refused accommodation, the members migrated across the border to Canada. Twenty-nine men met at the Erie Beach Hotel in Ontario. The Niagarites adopted a constitution and by-laws, established committees and wrote the “Declaration of Principles” outlining the future for African Americans. After three days, they returned across the border with a renewed sense of resolve in the struggle for freedom and equality.

Thirteen months later, from August 15 – 19, 1906, the Niagara Movement held its first public meeting in the United States on the campus of Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Harpers Ferry was symbolic for a number of reasons. First and foremost was the connection to John Brown. It was at Harpers Ferry in 1859 that Brown’s raid against slavery struck a blow for freedom. Many felt it was John Brown who fired the first shot of the Civil War. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, John Brown’s Fort had become a shrine and a symbol of freedom to African Americans, Union soldiers and the nation’s Abolitionists. Harpers Ferry was also the home of Storer College. Freewill Baptists opened Storer in 1867 as a mission school to educate former slaves. For twenty-five years Storer was the only school in West Virginia that offered African Americans an education beyond the primary level.
The Niagarites arrived in Harpers Ferry with passion in their hearts and high hopes that their voices would be heard and action would result. They were now more than fifty strong. Women also attended this historic gathering where, on August 17, 1906, they were granted full and equal membership to the organization.

The week was filled with many inspirational speeches, meetings, special addresses and commemorative ceremonies. Max Barber, editor of The Voice of the Negro said, “A more suitable place for the meeting of the Niagara Movement than Harpers Ferry would have been hard to find. I must confess that I had never yet felt as I felt in Harpers Ferry.”

A highlight for those gathered was John Brown’s Day. It was a day devoted to honoring the memory of John Brown. At 6:00 a.m. a silent pilgrimage began to John Brown’s Fort. The members removed their shoes and socks as they tread upon the “hallowed ground” where the fort stood. The assemblage then marched single-file around the fort singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “John Brown’s Body.”

The inspirational morning was followed by an equally stirring afternoon. The Niagarites listened to Henrietta Leary Evans whose brother and nephew fought along side Brown at Harpers Ferry, then Lewis Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass, and finally Reverdy C. Ransom, pastor of the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston. Ransom’s speech on John Brown was described as a “masterpiece.” The late black scholar, Dr. Benjamin Quarles, called the address, “…the most stirring single episode in the life of the Niagara Movement.”
The conference concluded on Sunday, August 19th, with the reading of “An Address to the Country,” penned by W.E.B. Du Bois. “We will not be satisfied to take one jot or title less than our full manhood rights. We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans.”
The Niagara Movement laid the cornerstone of the modern civil rights era. A new movement found a voice. The organization continued until 1911, when almost all of its members became the backbone of the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). There, the men and women of the Niagara Movement recommitted themselves to the ongoing call for justice and the struggle for equality.

With thunderous applause, the Harpers Ferry conference drew to a close. Years later recalling this conference, Du Bois referred to it as “…one of the greatest meetings that American Negroes ever held.”

Resources

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

Frederick Douglass was born in slavery in eastern Maryland but escaped to freedom in the North in 1831. There he read William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery newspaper The Liberator and joined the abolition movement. Through his speeches and his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he became the movement’s most powerful witness against slavery and the most famous black abolitionist. Unlike many of them who denounced the Constitution as a proslavery document, however, Douglass thought that it, together with the Declaration of Independence, supported freedom, justice, and equality. During the Civil War, he helped persuade President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and allow black men to fight in the Union Army. Lincoln called Douglass “the most meritorious man of the 19th century.” After the War, Douglass continued to advocate for civil rights for all men and women and continued his role as the leading spokesman for his race. He was the clear and eloquent voice of the national conscience in his era and helped the United States grow into its early promise.

Frederick Douglass addressed audiences in parts of all four states now in the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area. In 1869, he delivered a speech on moral leadership entitled “William the Silent” in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In 1870, he spoke at the old Opera House in Westminster, Maryland. In 1879, he addressed an estimated two thousand people at wooded grove near Purcellville, Virginia. He delivered one of his most famous speeches, “A Lecture on John Brown,” at the fourteenth anniversary of Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 1881. In it he explored the question, “Did John Brown fail?” In 1894 he spoke at the dedication of the Manassas Industrial School in Prince William County, Virginia.

Resources

  • PBS. Africans in America. “Frederick Douglass.” Frederick Douglass. “A Lecture on John Brown ”, “Speech at the Dedication of the Manassas (VA.) Industrial School”, and “William the Silent.” Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.

W. E. B. Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois broke new ground on many frontiers in his remarkable and controversial life. Du Bois earned the first Harvard doctorate awarded to an African American. During a prolific career of writing and publication, including sixteen thought-provoking books on sociology, history, politics, and race relations, Du Bois became the principal architect of the civil rights movement in the United States. He perceptively said, “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”

Du Bois’ connection to Harpers Ferry began in Canada in 1905, when he became the leader of an elite group of African Americans known as the Niagara Movement. The formation of this group marked the beginning of Du Bois’ public assault on racial discrimination. The next year the Niagara Movement met on the campus of Storer College in Harpers Ferry. Du Bois referred to the 1906 gathering as “one of the greatest meetings American Negroes ever held.” Du Bois returned to Harpers Ferry 44 years later as the commencement speaker for the 1950 graduating class of Storer College.

Resources

  • Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. “W E B DuBois.”

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