Remembering when Niagara came to W. Va. Anniversary : In 1906, W.E.B. DuBois brought his Movement for Civil Rights to Harpers Ferry. A weeklong series of programs this summer will mark the 90th anniversary of that event.

June 16, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

HARPERS FERRY, W. Va. -- History runs deep here at the

confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.

John Brown's raid and the trials of the Civil War are well-known; less known is the 1906 meeting of the Niagara Movement for Civil Rights. W. E. B. DuBois, who led the group, called the event "one of the greatest meetings that American Negroes ever held."

This summer, Harpers Ferry National Historic Park will commemorate the meeting's 90th anniversary with a week of events culminating in a two-day seminar on DuBois and the Niagara Movement's place in the history of civil rights in America. The event is scheduled for Aug. 24-25. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the brilliant scholar and chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard University, will be one of the speakers.

"It has taken us 50 years to move past just being a John Brown park or a Civil War park," says Marsha B. Starkey, one of the park officials behind the event.

In those 50 years, Harpers Ferry has thrived while surviving several disastrous floods. Snowmelt from January's blizzard left some of the town underwater and closed several regular exhibits. The floodwater crested at 29 feet. You can still see the waterline outside the park's bookstore on Shenandoah Street. Nearby, a temporary exhibit provides a vivid account of the flood.

The park has recovered from the disaster. Unfortunately, the regular exhibits on John Brown and Storer College, the former freedmen's school that survived into the 1950s, remain closed. But the Civil War exhibit and others are in place, or have been moved to temporary sites.

To understand the variety of everyday life in Harpers Ferry, visit the park's Black Voices exhibit, a repository of fascinating photos, maps and stories. Here you can learn about John Douglass, a free black, who in 1855 paid $1,000 to buy his wife and son from a local bankrupt slave owner. At the time of the sale Douglass only had $400. He raised the balance by offering his wife and son as collateral for a $600 loan. Within two years the loan was paid off, and the Douglass family was free.

A stop at the Niagara Movement exhibit will give you plenty of background on the historic meeting. The movement, dedicated to ending discrimination based on color, was a precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. One of its main achievements was to establish an alternative to the softer policies of Booker T. Washington, who proposed ways for blacks to live within the strict boundaries of Jim Crow segregation.

The group first met in July 1905 at the Erie Beach Hotel in Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. The 29 men had hoped to convene in Buffalo, N.Y., but were denied accommodations. They took their meeting to the other side of the falls.

The next year, 45 members of the Niagara Movement came to Harpers Ferry and found lodging at Storer College, which Freewill Baptists had started 40 years earlier as a school for former slaves. DuBois and his comrades met Aug. 15-19.

"We talked some of the plainest English that had been given voice to by black men in America," DuBois would later say.

The meeting even had a Baltimore connection with the attendance of the Rev. James Robert Lincoln Diggs and the Rev. Garnett Russell Waller of Trinity Baptist Church. In the closing address to the meeting, DuBois wrote, "The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans."

Niagara did not last, though DuBois' great, timeless sentiments live on. Within five years, the group was no more. In 1911, DuBois advised his colleagues to join a new organization, the NAACP.

This summer's seminar to commemorate Niagara has been in the works for about a year and is being presented with help from the Jefferson County Chapter of the NAACP, the Harpers Ferry Historical Association, Shepherd College and Shepherd Community College.

In addition to Gates, the seminar will feature David Levering Lewis. His monumental biography, "W. E. B. DuBois -- Biography of a Race," won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994.

DuBois Williams, granddaughter of the great civil rights leader, also will be present. Williams is an assistant professor at Xavier University in New Orleans. David G. DuBois, stepson of W. E. B. DuBois and professor at the University of Massachusetts, will speak earlier in the week.

The seminar also will include the acoustic blues and folk songs of Kim and Reggie Harris as well as a trip to the Murphy Farm, one-time home of John Brown's fort, where he and his comrades fought until their surrender.

During the 1906 meeting, DuBois and others marched to the farm, walked barefoot around the fort and sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "John Brown's Body." This summer's visitor will travel to the farm by bus -- and there will be no requirement to go barefoot.

"It's not a re-creation," Ms. Starkey says of the planned visit. "It's a symbolic event."

Once at the farm, those attending the seminar will lay carnations to remember the people who attended the 1906 meeting. DuBois Williams will give remembrances of her grandfather.

"There's so much in our past that is not given its due, and [the Niagara Movement] is one of those pieces of the pie," says Starkey.

If you go

Harpers Ferry is about 70 miles west of Baltimore. The drive takes about 90 minutes. Take Interstate 70 west to Frederick, then take U.S. 340. Signs will lead you to the park. For more information on the seminar and other park events, dial (304) 535-6029. The seminar is free; park admission is $5 per vehicle. In connection with the seminar, the Hilltop House Hotel in Harpers Ferry and the nearby Cliffside Inn are offering package deals that include meals and lodging. For more information, call the Hilltop at (800) 338-8319, or the Cliffside at (800) 782-9437.

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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