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Harpers Ferry has big plans for Brown's 150th

June 21, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

"John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave."

-- Steven Vincent Benét

HARPERS FERRY -- If John Brown had lived, he probably wouldn't be famous today. Instead, the fiery abolitionist was tried for treason and hanged in Charles Town in December, 1859.

Now, the Town of Harpers Ferry is planning its own celebration of the sesquicentennial anniversary of Brown's raid on the federal arsenal on Oct. 16, 1859. It joins the national observance by Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Harpers Ferry officials claim they have serious standing in the national celebration because the Civil War actually began when Brown and his men raided the arsenal that saw the first shot fired in the "War Between the States."

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They maintain Brown's raid is the real jumping-off point for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and not the shot that was fired by the infant Confederacy on Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., in April 1861.

The local celebration is being organized by the Town of Harpers Ferry, the Harpers Ferry Historic Town Foundation and the Jefferson County NAACP, said Betsy Bainbridge, town recorder and foundation executive director.

Bainbridge told of a recent visitor to Harpers Ferry from Charleston, S.C., who said it was great that Harpers Ferry was taking credit for that first shot so Charleston will no longer be blamed for starting the Civil War.

Harpers Ferry Mayor James A. Addy, in a letter dated April 1, invited President Obama to join in the town's celebration sometime during the week of Oct. 12, "depending on your schedule and of course your availability."

Addy wrote, "We believe that your presidential presence would be the capstone of the struggle from slavery to freedom in the great redoubt of human freedom -- Harpers Ferry. Here the Brown Raid ignited the spark that eventually consumed the evil of slavery.

"We know that many demands are made on your time, but the significance of your life was the dream of so many who gave their lives and fortunes so that this nation could fulfill its creed of liberty and justice for all," Addy wrote.

The president has not responded, but Addy and other town leaders think they have a shot at getting him here.

Some of the town's celebration will dovetail with that of the National Park Service's, including speaking programs, an academic symposium on Brown and his raid and a five-mile "walk in the footsteps" of Brown and his raiders from the Kennedy Farm in Washington County -- where Brown lived and recruited and trained his raiders -- to Harpers Ferry and the arsenal. The raiders walked from the farm to the arsenal that fateful night.

The park service's instructions to walkers warn that "sturdy shoes are required."

A highlight of the town's celebration will be a stage production of "John Brown's Body," Benét's Pulitzer Prize-winning poem. It will be held in the Camp Hill United Methodist Church.

Play dates will be announced.

Addy has crafted a historic lecture series that he will take to area schools as part of the town's celebration. A display of period photographs and a historic quilt will be on display during the celebration at the Harpers Ferry train station. The town also is sponsoring a community picnic.

Addy and Bainbridge, along with Robert DuBose, a Harpers Ferry resident who is growing a long beard and buying a wig to portray John Brown during the anniversary, and Rick Garland, a J.E.B. Stuart re-enactor, went before the Jefferson County Commission on Thursday and asked for a donation to help the town come up with the $23,000 it needs to sponsor its celebration.

The commissioners said they would consider the request after they see how much money is left in the budget at the end of the fiscal year June 30.

 

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