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Civil rights celebration planned in Harpers Ferry

February 04, 2006|By ROBERT SNYDER

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

HARPERS FERRY, W.VA. -

Holy ground is how some leaders of the modern American civil rights movement describe Harpers Ferry.

It was here in 1867 that Storer College was founded to educate former slaves, serving as the state's only public institution of higher learning until 1891. And it was here, eight years before the school opened, that abolitionist John Brown lit the spark in a raid on the town that helped ignite the Civil War.

And it was to the Mather Training Center in Harpers Ferry that members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gathered for a press conference Friday to announce the upcoming centennial commemoration of the Niagra Movement, which first convened here in 1906 and served as the forerunner to that organization and to the modern civil rights movement.

The town served as the first meeting of the movement in the United States. The group's first gathering was relocated to Ontario, Canada, when the group was denied accommodations in Buffalo, New York.

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"This is where it all happened," said Marsha Wassel, public affairs officer for the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which will help sponsor the organization's 100-year celebration, August 18 to 20.

The three-day summer commemoration will include a keynote address by Dr. David Levering Lewis, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author. Guest speaker NAACP Chief Program Director John Johnson said an academic symposium, panel discussion, historical reenactments and educational programs are necessary to help educate people about an important moment in civil rights history.

"There's so much history that needs to be told and our young people need to understand the history," Johnson said.

The original Niagra Movement, which was organized under the leadership of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, was formed to address deteriorating conditions for blacks after the Civil War and to counteract the influence of Booker T. Washington, whom Niagra members regarded as undermining civil rights efforts, said NAACP Jefferson County chapter President George Rutherford.

In remarks after the press announcement, West Virginia NAACP President James Tolbert hailed Du Bois as a leader who set an example for later civil rights leaders.

"He faced a lot of dangers," Tolbert said. "He was able, through his writings, to let the country know how far it had sunk in its protections for African-American citizens. He did have this vision that something had to be done."

Johnson, who said he hoped to be able to recommend Harpers Ferry as the site of the organization's Board of Directors meeting in October, said Friday he would also like to place a marker here this year in commemoration of John Brown that Du Bois was thwarted from doing in 1932.

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