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Black history video premieres in Charles Town

December 13, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va.-- Three black men -- James Tolbert, James Taylor and George Rutherford, published a book this summer titled "African Americans in Jefferson County."

This fall, the three men, founders of the Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society, followed up with a video, "Road Trip to History: African Americans in Jefferson County, WV."

The video had its premiere showing Sunday afternoon in the Wright Denny Intermediate School auditorium before an audience of nearly 200.

Taylor, the last of the video's presenters, ended the production saying: "We believe there is more African- American history in Jefferson County, W.Va., than anywhere else in the nation."

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That kind of local history gave the makers of the film access to hundreds of old photographs. It also gave them the ability to hear in person the memories of local residents. The most notable among them was Augustava "Gussie" Taylor Baylor, 94, who recounted life as a black girl growing up in Jefferson County. 

In the video, she recalls that about all the black community had when she was young was the church.

"It played a big part. We didn't have anything else but that," she says.

Other presenters told of the early history of blacks in the county, including the days of slavery. Taylor, in his presentation, said Jefferson County had some of the earliest free-black communities -- Johnsontown and Franklintown among them.

He said thousands of slaves followed the Union Army into Jefferson County during the Civil War.

"The Union troops faced a flood of freed slaves," he said.

Many left, but the descendants of those who stayed are still here today, he said.

Presenters spoke of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1959; of John Storer of Maine, who donated $10,000 to start Storer College in Harpers Ferry, a co-educational school for freed slaves in 1867; and of Page-Jackson High School, named after Littleton Page and Philip Jackson, principals at the black-only Eagle Avenue Elementary School.

Page-Jackson high school closed in the mid-1960s when integration came to Jefferson County. Today, the building houses the administrative offices of the Jefferson County Board of Education.

The presenters wrote their own scripts, said Wayne Bronson, executive producer of Oak Tree Productions, LLC of Kearneysville, W.Va.

Bronson, 63, a former producer at Northern Virginia Public Television, and his wife, Brenda Thorne, run the company.

In the four years it has been in existence, Bronson said his little company has produced 23 videos in the "Road Trip to History" series featuring the history and culture of towns in Virginia and West Virginia.

Previous ones were done in the Shenandoah Valley along U.S. 11 in Virginia. He has produced videos in the West Virginia communities of Martinsburg, Shepherdstown and Charles Town, plus Romney and Moorefield in Hampshire and Mineral counties, respectively.

Bronson said he chooses the communities by throwing a dart on a map.

"There's tons of history everywhere in this area," he said.

He usually starts by contacting the towns' mayors, local historical society members and local historians, he said.

Bronson said it costs about $10,000 to produce a town video, most of which goes to a professional editing company that puts the piece together and chooses the music.

The strains of "Shenandoah" served as background music for much of Sunday's video.

The main sponsor of the video was American Public University.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, invited to Sunday's premiere, sent a letter instead.

"These people and events profoundly impacted the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights movement, changing the face of America forever," Manchin said in his letter.

The video is dedicated to the memory of Nathaniel Downing, a founder along with Taylor, Tolbert and Rutherford of the Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society.

The video sells for $20. It can be purchased by calling 304-725-7242, 304-725-7852 or 304-725-9610.

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