Park hopes to shed light on historical movement

August 16, 2004|by DON AINES

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - It was a precursor to the modern civil rights movement, but a meeting of the Niagara Movement 98 years ago is little remembered today, according to John Powell, a park ranger at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Powell hopes a new program at the park will shed light on the role played in the civil rights movement by Harpers Ferry, most famous for abolitionist John Brown's 1859 raid. The first Niagara Movement tours were given Saturday and Sunday.

Though the four scheduled tours attracted just 10 visitors, Powell plans to further develop the program by 2006, the centennial of the movement's meeting at the former Storer College.


"This whole area evokes the struggle for freedom" from Brown's raid through the Civil War, into Reconstruction and beyond, according to Powell.

One moment in that struggle came in August 1906 when black editor and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois and the other members of the Niagara Movement held the group's second conference at the college on a bluff above Harpers Ferry.

"His demands seem mild today ... but in 1906, these were dangerous thoughts," Powell said of the actions and changes Du Bois demanded nearly a century ago.

"We want full manhood suffrage, and we want it now," Du Bois said in his Aug. 16, 1906, address. He also demanded an end to discrimination in public accommodations, freedom of association and equal enforcement of the law.

"Either the United States will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States," Du Bois said of the need for the government to wipe out illiteracy.

The Jim Crow laws that perpetuated such discrimination took decades to reverse, Powell said. Ironically, Storer closed its doors in 1955, a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional and West Virginia withdrew state funding.

Named after Maine philanthropist John Storer, the school opened in 1867 to teach freed blacks, but was open to students of all races and ages, Powell said.

"The first class had students as old as 49 learning their ABCs," said Powell, who noted it was illegal to educate blacks in many slave states prior to the Civil War.

Residents of the community, many of whom supported the Confederacy, harassed the students and teachers during the college's first years, Powell said.

Although most of the roughly 8,000 students educated there were black, it was not until 1944 that it had its first black president, Richard I. McKinney, according to Powell. McKinney lives in Baltimore and Powell hopes he can attend the centennial in two years.

Never well-funded, the Niagara Movement folded in 1909, with DuBois throwing his support behind the new National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Powell said.

Du Bois continued to fight for racial equality in the United States and abroad. He died in Ghana in 1963 at the age of 95, the day before Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington.

Additional Niagara Movement tours are expected in upcoming weekends, but Powell said visitors should call ahead. He expects the new program's real value will be in weekday tours for school groups.

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