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Book traces Jefferson County's black history

August 03, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Three aging black men, leaders of their community, sat in the Charles Town Library, and spoke with pride and relief that their book went on sale Monday.

"We're all getting older," said George Rutherford, at 73 the youngest of the three. "If we didn't publish it now, we might never have published it."

Rutherford, James Taylor, 75, and James Tolbert, 77, researched and wrote "African Americans of Jefferson County," a photographic history of the county's black community.

Produced by Arcadia Publishing, it joins Arcadia's "Images of America." The now-familiar series, launched in 1993, has preserved the history of hundreds of communities across the country, according to the company's Web site.

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The books will be available at area bookstores and by contacting the three authors.

U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, writing in the book's foreword, called it "important and much needed. There has always been a connection between the African American experience in the United States and the history of West Virginia ... it can be argued that the very creation of the state of West Virginia was the result of a division over slavery."

The book, through its roughly 200 photographs, some taken before and during the Civil War, illustrates how blacks in Jefferson County lived, worked and socialized. It tells of their military experiences, how they were educated, their sports histories, and their daily and religious lives.

Rutherford said he and his fellow authors collected hundreds of photographs through the kindness of people in the black community, many treasured family photos that they scanned and returned.

Selecting the themes of the book and appropriate photographs was only the first step. A harder task was researching the photos for the captions, research that often depended on interviews with the people who provided them.

The three divided up the categories, selected the photos and wrote their own captions. They met every Monday morning for more than a year at Rutherford's home. There, they organized the photos, shared information and, like editors, checked each other's work.

"We had to limit the number of photographs to around 200 and the words in the captions, too," Taylor said.

The three planned to do their own photo history of the community when Dolly Nasby, author of "Images of America" publications on Harpers Ferry, Charles Town and Shepherdstown, W.Va., urged them to write it for Arcadia Publishing instead.

She provided technical help with style and layout, and dealing with the publisher.

The first part of the book deals with John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Photographs show five blacks who joined with Brown in the raid. One was wounded, two were shot to death, and two were tried, convicted and executed.

One section covers members of the community and their military service, from the Civil War through the two world wars in segregated units. It tells how more than 100 black men from the county were drafted for World War I and of the returning veterans from World War II who took advantage of the G.I. Bill to attend the then-segregated Storer College in Harpers Ferry and other schools.

Photographs in the section on education show graduations from the county's segregated elementary schools, as well as commencements from Page-Jackson High School, which operated until 1965. That was 11 years after Brown vs. Board of Education ordered school desegregation across the land. Page-Jackson, the alma mater of the book's three authors, stayed segregated so long because of the stubbornness of the then-local school board, the authors said.

The book also has a section on notables in the black community, including Martin Robinson Delany, the highest- ranking black Union field officer in the Civil War. It shows local educators and politicians, among others.

Sports were important in the black community, and many local athletes excelled in baseball, football, basketball, even horse racing.

Two local black men, William Craven and James Jett, made it to the National Football League.

Rutherford, Taylor and Tolbert collaborated in four earlier publications, including "A Collection of Black History Events in Jefferson County" in 2001; "The Life and Death of Dangerfield Newby" in 2005; and "The Capture, Trial and Execution of John A. Copeland Jr. and Shields Green," two of John Brown's raiders.

Rutherford said a new book on another of Brown's raiders is in the works.

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