'Freedom's Birth' offers living history

June 30, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass shared his views about slavery, politics and Shakespeare on the banks of the Shenandoah River in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., on Saturday.

Actor Fred Morsell of Montana convincingly portrayed the wild-haired Douglass as part of an Independence Day celebration called "Freedom's Birth: An American Experience" at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Buses shuttled hundreds of festival-goers from the Cavalier Heights Visitor Center off U.S. 340 to the historic "lower town" for interpretive history displays, musical performances and lively discussions by actors portraying Douglass, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.


A fireworks display was slated for later in the evening.

Shelby Date, 11, traveled with her family from northern Michigan to attend the historical celebration. It was a fitting end to the youngster's home-school study of the Civil War, her mother, Debra Date, said.

Morsell's portrayal of Douglass strengthened Shelby's knowledge of the outspoken abolitionist, she said.

"I never knew he was a Christian," Shelby said.

Though he criticized several churches' support of slavery, "Douglass" said he was a "firm believer in the man from Galilee."

He also talked about warning fellow abolitionist John Brown that to invade Harpers Ferry was to walk into a "steel trap."

He expressed his belief that freed slaves should have inherited their former owners' land because "they understood the soil better than the slave masters sitting in their comfortable dining halls."

And Shakespeare, Douglass said, "understood the human condition better than anybody I've ever met."

Troy Martin of Chambersburg, Pa., said Morsell's presentation was informative but Jim Getty's portrayal of Abraham Lincoln was "awesome."

"He seems so real," Troy, 10, said. "He's even skinny like Abe Lincoln."

The Wildcat Regiment Band helped transport listeners back in time as brass band members clad in Union Army uniforms performed 19th-century music under a tent on a site that once housed guns produced in Harpers Ferry.

"Arsenal Square" was also the focal point for parades and other town gatherings before Civil War battles destroyed the many factories that fueled Harpers Ferry's economy, National Park Service Ranger Catherine Bragaw said.

Bragaw donned period clothing to discuss the town prior to The Civil War. She said young people in the once-bustling industrial town probably didn't share their grandparents' and parents' sense of patriotism during Independence Day celebrations until after they watched loved ones march into battle to defend freedom.

Several people listening to Bragaw's discussion said they could relate to those sentiments.

"I feel more connected to my country since Sept. 11," said Nancy Marshall of Martinsburg, W.Va. "It's kind of sad that it took a tragedy like that to bring us all together."

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