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Niagara Movement is appreciated - even by a nonhistorian

September 03, 2006|by KATE COLEMAN

"What's the punch line?" I asked a man who walked past my friends and me as we picnicked at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park a couple of Saturday evenings ago.

I could read the large letters on his T-shirt - "Lies My Teacher Told Me" - but I couldn't quite make out the finer print underneath.

That first part is the title of a book he wrote. Published in 1995, subtitled "Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong," it is the result of author/sociologist James W. Loewen's two years of research surveying 12 high school American history textbooks, according to information on his home page at the University of Vermont Web site at www.uvm.edu/~jloewen.

It's been a long time, but I surely don't remember having heard of the Niagara Movement until more than 30 years after I graduated from my New Jersey high school.

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I first became aware of it when I wrote a story for this newspaper in 2000 - a preview of a concert in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Proceeds from that blues concert supported Niagara Centennial events.

Those events - a commemoration of a historic meeting in Harpers Ferry 100 years ago - happened Aug. 18 to 20 this year predominantly on the grounds of Storer College, one of the first schools founded to educate freed slaves after the Civil War. The college is preserved as part of the national park in Harpers Ferry.

It was in August 1906 that the W.E.B. DuBois-founded Niagara Movement held its first public meeting in the U.S. - on the grounds of Storer College - setting the course for the nation's civil rights efforts.

I didn't attend the sold-out academic symposium that preceded the recent celebration. In the same buildings that hosted the conference 100 years earlier, scholars presented a variety of papers on the Niagara Movement and its legacy.

Nor did I make it to the Saturday afternoon discussion that featured a panel of civil rights pioneers, including Joseph Wilder, a classically trained musician who broke racial barriers in the Broadway pit orchestra in the 1950s and played trumpet in the orchestras of Lionel Hampton, Jimmie Lunceford, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. I had interviewed the charming octogenarian in 2002.

I'm no historian. Compared to those who participated fully in the commemoration, I am a lightweight.

My connection to this part of American history comes through my interviews for newspaper stories about musicians who have lived the struggle for civil rights in this country. It is a connection I cherish and one that deepens the pleasure of listening to their recordings of music I love.

I talked to Frank Foster in 2004 for a preview of a Black History Month Jazz Heritage Concert in Shepherdstown, W.Va. The saxophonist played with and composed and arranged music for the Count Basie Orchestra for more than a decade beginning in 1953. After Basie's death in 1984, he returned to serve as the band's musical director from 1986 to 1995.

Foster, 77, was commissioned to compose music to celebrate the Niagara Centennial, music premiered by the Count Basie Orchestra at the commemoration Aug. 19.

Foster conducted the "Niagara Centennial Suite" from a wheelchair. He and the Basie band captured the struggle and the hope of Niagara in amazing music.

In the final movement, Melba Joyce provided her strong voice and sang the words of DuBois: "The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans."

It is music that led me to learn - however late - about this essential part of American history.

Today's schoolchildren won't have to wait as long as I did. A Niagara Educator's Guide - designed for use in kindergarten through 12th grade - soon will be available to schools and ultimately will be available on the Web, said Marsha Wassel, public affairs officer for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Kate Coleman writes a monthly Lifestyle column and covers the Maryland Symphony Orchestra for The Herald-Mail.

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