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Tour hits town's historic hot spots

June 28, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Virginia in the 1800s was the largest slave-holding state in the Union with more than 490,000 people in bondage. Slaves made up 30 percent of the Commonwealth's population. 

It was against the law for freed slaves to remain in the state. Those who chose to stay, many because of family connections, were sold back into slavery. 

Virginia had a reputation as a breeder of prime-quality slaves, so much so that more than 220,000 human beings were sold out of the state between 1830 and 1860. 

Such obscure facts were detailed, along with more famous incidents of the period -- namely the trial and subsequent execution of the fiery abolitionist John Brown -- in a lecture Sunday afternoon. The facts were shared during a tour of Charles Town, the Jefferson County Courthouse and the site of Brown's hanging in what today is the front yard of an elegant private home at the corner of Hunter and Samuel streets.

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The tour was sponsored by the local Black History Preservation Society as part of that organization's participation in the 150th anniversary of Brown's raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

James Tolbert and James Taylor, secretary and president of the society, respectively, led the tour of about 20 patrons. The lecture was given by 23rd Circuit Judge David Sanders in Jefferson County. Sanders has been giving courthouse tours for 15 years. He said the courthouse, Jefferson County's most historic structure, was closed on weekends until he started the tours.

According to Tolbert, Sunday's tour, and similar events for the next six months, are designed to illuminate Brown's brief time in Charles Town following his abortive raid in Harpers Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859.

He was incarcerated in the old jail that once sat catty-corner across the street from the courthouse in land now occupied by the Charles Town post office. He was led back and forth across the street from the jail to the courthouse during his trial, Tolbert said. 

Following Sanders' lecture, the tour visited the gallows ground, then made a stop at the Jefferson County Museum to see the wagon that carried him to his execution and other artifacts.

The first courthouse was built in 1803 on land donated to the county by Charles Washington, the first president's younger brother. It was replaced with a larger structure in 1836, the building where Brown was convicted of treason. Following the Civil War, a second floor was added and the courtroom moved there.

One vestige of Brown's trial still around today is a section of the wooden rail that guarded the judge's bench. Today it separates the Jefferson County Commissioners from the audience in the commissioners' small, first-floor meeting room.

In a more modern mode, the courthouse is undergoing major renovations, including replacement of its heating and air-conditioning system. In addition, the courtroom, judges' chambers and offices are being repainted. Security in the courtroom is also being improved.

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