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Diversity Day opens eyes

August 24, 2003|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

Local residents and visitors from Washington, D.C., learned about Franklin County's role in history in the days leading up to the Civil War at the county's first Diversity Day on Saturday.

At several sites around Franklin County, local residents in 1850s-style clothing acted out scenarios dealing with slavery and the Underground Railroad.

Diversity Day, which was intended to advance social justice through education and entertainment related to the Underground Railroad, was co-sponsored by the Franklin County Improvement Association, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, the Mercersburg Area Historical Society and The Waters Institute.

Outside the John Brown House on King Street in Chambersburg, English teacher Bev Morton and several of her students from J. Frank Faust Junior High School dressed in period clothing and performed a skit about Brown, who boarded at the Widow Mary Ritner's house in the summer of 1859.

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Summer Marlar, 14, of Chambersburg portrayed a "free woman of color" who had been to the market with Morton's character. When visitors inquired as to the whereabouts of John Brown, they said they did not know him, but told about recent strange goings-on in Chambersburg.

A man named Isaac Smith had been receiving "mining supplies" from New York and Ohio and hiring the husband of Morton's character to haul them across the Mason-Dixon line.

Smith turned out to be John Brown, who was shipping munitions to Virginia to prepare for his ill-fated raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

Faust students Isaiah Harris and Justin Rideout, both 15, portrayed John Copeland and Lewis Leary, who knew Brown's identity and supported him.

Drama students Dan Emig and Alex Dalious, both 14, portrayed men who said Brown had led bloody attacks on slaveholders in the Midwest.

"Slavery is always making war on the slave," they said.

Outside their boarding house, Mary Ritner and her daughter, Emma Jane, sat on a quilt and talked about their boarder. Emma Jane, played by Chambersburg resident Eden Kropf, 9, and a playmate had peeked through the keyhole of Brown's room and seen him and some other men looking at papers and thought they were counterfeiters. They actually were looking at maps and planning the raid.

The John Brown House was purchased from the state last year by the Kittochtinny Historical Society and is being readied for tours, said Historical Society member Paul Ambrose, who showed visitors around the house.

During his stay in Chambersburg, Brown preached at Emmanuel Chapel in Mont Alto, now on the campus of Pennsylvania State University Mont Alto campus.

Re-enactors outside the chapel acted out a scenario based on a true incident between fugitive slaves and a slave catcher.

Five fleeing slaves traveling in daylight came upon two white men. One was well-dressed and well-spoken and told them he could protect them from slave catchers. The other, a rustically dressed mountain man, told them not to trust the well-dressed man, as he was a rich businessman "in the business of selling human beings."

The slaves chose to go with the well-dressed man, who turned out to be slave-catcher Daniel Logan. He arrested them and took them by wagon to Hagerstown.

This incident had been related by Underground Railroad conductor Hiram Wertz in a paper he presented to the Kittochtinny Historical Society in 1912. While Wertz never said who the mountain man was, many people believe it was Wertz himself. Slave-catcher Logan and abolitionist Wertz were neighbors.

Tour participants were not the only people who learned something new about the county's role in history. Barry Purvis, principal of Chambersburg Area Senior High School, said, "A lot of this I'm just finding out myself."

Purvis served as one of the tour guides.

Scripts for the skits and tour guides were written by Denise Williamson of Shippensburg, Pa., and Heather Charles of Newburg, Pa.

Roy Showalter, a historian from Maugansville, took the tour and said it gave him "a perspective of the slaves, what they experienced.

"I've heard of these places; now I know where they are," he said.

Showalter, who is Mennonite, said if he had been living in those days he would have helped the slaves.

"Our ancestors in Europe were considered second-class citizens, so they came to America," he said. "Slaves were buried outside the fence in Maryland, where I grew up."

Bernard Ruffin, who teaches history to 10th- and 11th-graders in Reston, Va., said he found the tour fascinating.

"It brings history alive," he said. "I wish there were some way my high school kids could experience this."

Another stop on the tour was the site of an old quarry in Chambersburg, just off U.S. 30, where three men re-enacted the August 1859 meeting between Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Henry Kagi, Brown's secretary of war. Samuel King of Chambersburg and Gary Williamson and Eddie Sprecher of Shippensburg movingly portrayed the discussion in which Brown asks Douglass to become involved in his plans to raid the federal arsenal.

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