Panhandle (W.Va.) Grassroots for Democracy

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Black history celebrated; Klan shows up

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is best known for the raid by abolistionist John Brown on the federal armory.


But Harpers Ferry also played a prominent role in African American history outside of the Civil War.


Storer College was set up to educate the recently freed slaves after the Civil War. And 100 years ago this month, the Niagara Movement held its meeting there, an event commerated with events this weekend at by Harpers Ferry.

Here's information about the [history ]:


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.


Here's the main story on this weekend's events from our local newspaper, The Martinsburg Journal:


HARPERS FERRY -- Picking up a colored ink marker, the 5-year-old girl from Philadelphia, Pa., wanted to make a statement rather than simply write a word.


But she needed a little help.


She turned to her mother.


"I think you should love each other," Ebony Jade asked her mother to help her write on the small, smooth wooden block. A block which would be glued on to The Freedom House located at the J.R. Clifford Youth Discovery Tent.


Here's a sidebar on one of the panels:


HARPERS FERRY -- The Rev. Walter Fauntroy steadily fanned Juanita Abernathy as she spoke of little-known efforts by women that pre-dated the well-known history of the civil rights movement.


Abernathy said the scene during a panel discussion that was part of the Niagara Movement Centennial Commemoration in Harpers Ferry Saturday played out differently than it would have in the heyday of the civil rights movement.


Back then, black men spoke out for freedom, and the women served up the refreshments, Abernathy said.


The audience twittered with surprise when Abernathy told them local black women were negotiating with bus drivers well before Rosa Park's defiance sparked the Montgomery bus boycott.


She continued later, "We opened doors, and we marched 381 days. There were women who had been pressing for civil rights before Martin Luther King came along. That was a time when a meeting started and the women were told to get the cookies or pour the coffee. It was a man's world."


Turning to more modern day concerns, Abernathy blasted religious leaders for leading voters astray during the last national election to the applause of the audience gathered on the campus of Storer College.


And here's a story on who else showed up:


HARPERS FERRY -- The audience barely missed a beat when about 20 members of the Ku Klux Klan showed up at the beginning of a Niagara Movement Centennial Commemoration event in Harpers Ferry Saturday afternoon.


Children, who were among the nearly 2,000 people of various races waiting to hear a panel discussion on racial issues, gawked in confusion. Most apparently knew little about the group.


"Could they bomb us here, mama," asked one boy.


"Yes," was the answer, and the boy looked mystified.


The adults, who remembered when the KKK wore white robes and hoods and terrorized blacks and others, seemed to stiffen as the black-clad group took their seats to the rear of the tent. Klan members were wearing an alternate uniform Saturday, consisting primarily of black clothing and Nazi regalia.


Another boy sized up the black jeans, T-shirts and red emblems the men, women and teenagers wore.


"Aw, we could take them, couldn't we," he said.


The crowd laughed and turned their attention to the stage as six black barrier breakers shared stories of overcoming racism and offered words of advice.


snip


Panelists included the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, the first District of Columbia delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives; Monte Irvin, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame who was among the earliest black players in Major League Baseball; Eddie Henderson, the first black to compete in the National Figure Skating Championships; Cheryl White, the first black female professional jockey and Joseph Wilder, a musician who helped to integrate Broadway.


The KKK members left the panel discussion after Juanita Abernathy, widow of civil rights leader the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, spoke to the audience about the importance of education and responsible voting.


Their exit, under escort by several federal police officers as was their entrance, went unnoticed by most of the audience.


In all seriousness, the 20 probably represented their entire numbers. And my guess is nearly all of them came from Maryland, where they occasionally hold marches and cross burnings in Washington and Frederick counties.


The Rev. Otis James, who I've met and walked with during an MLK Jr. Day event, summed it up well:


"This is America, and this is an open event for this town, this state and the nation at large," said the Rev. Otis C. James of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Charles Town following the panel discussion." They have a right to come here as long as they are peaceful and non-destructive. I hope -- I pray -- that they leave having learned something from this discussion."


But truthfully," he added. "I don't think they learned anything from what took place today, or enlarged their insight on humanity."

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