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Plaque honoring Brown is dedicated

July 15, 2006|by DON AINES

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - Seventy-four years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois and members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were rebuffed when they traveled from their convention in Washington, D.C., to place a plaque honoring abolitionist John Brown on the grounds of Storer College, a historically black school in Harpers Ferry where Brown's 1859 raid set the stage for the Civil War.

On Friday, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond led a new pilgrimage to what now is the National Park Service's Mather Training Center to place a replica of the bronze tablet on its grounds.

"Today, we revisit history and, simultaneously, we make history," the Rev. Theresa A. Dear, a member of the NAACP's national board of directors, told an audience of about 200 people. Dear also noted that, on this pilgrimage, "we are welcomed unequivocally."

"No other white person, including President Lincoln, has been so widely admired by black Americans as John Brown," Bond said at the dedication. "Slavery to Brown was the sum of all evil ... It denied millions their rights and their dignity."

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Harpers Ferry has a rich history for the civil rights movement in America, going beyond the Oct. 16, 1859, raid on the federal armory and arsenal by Brown and 21 followers aimed at sparking a revolt among slaves in the Old South. The Niagara Movement, a precursor to the NAACP, held its first meeting on American soil here in 1906.

Storer College, established after the Civil War primarily for the education of freed slaves, was where Du Bois led the 1932 pilgrimage to place "The Great Tablet" at the site of the John Brown Fort, said Dennis E. Frye, the park's chief historian.

Benjamin L. Hooks, NAACP executive director emeritus, said Storer College closed its doors after 88 years in 1955, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional.

The fort, which has been moved four times and now is in another part of the national park, was at the Storer College site from 1910 to 1968, Frye said.

Bond said the white president and trustees of Storer found the tablet's inscription too militant and declined to accept the tribute to Brown.

The inscription reads in part:

"Here John Brown aimed a blow that woke a guilty nation. With him fought seven slaves and sons of slaves. Over his crucified corpse marched 200,000 black soldiers and 4,000,000 freedmen singing 'John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on!'"

After his arrest and execution in 1859, Brown was deified by abolitionists and demonized by supporters of slavery. In death, he became a martyr to the anti-slavery movement, Bond said.

NAACP President Bruce S. Gordon, assisted by Most Worshipful Grand Masters of Prince Hall Masons, placed the tablet on a stone base.

"I still don't understand why it wasn't accepted the first time," said Mary Harris, president of the Storer College Alumni Society. "I'm very happy its here now," said Harris, who heard Du Bois speak at her 1950 graduation.

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