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Black history tribute honors lesser-known figures

February 06, 2011|By DAVE McMILLION | davem@herald-mail.com
  • Historian Brian Robinson talks about the local ties of James W.C. Pennington during a black history tribute Sunday at the Review and Herald Publishing Association in Hagerstown.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

HAGERSTOWN — The stories behind black historical figures like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass are the ones that stick out for most people.

But black history goes much further, as speakers emphasized during a black history tribute Sunday afternoon at the Review and Herald Publishing Association off Oak Ridge Drive.

There was Lucy Terry, the earliest known black poet.

Terry’s poem “Bars Fight,” transmitted orally for more than 100 years, commemorates white settlers who were killed in an encounter with Indians in Deerfield, Mass., in 1746, according to www.biography.com.

“Wow, our history books didn’t have that when I was in school,” Art Page told about 80 people at the publishing association.

Terry’s “Bars Fight” was not published until 1855 because black writers did not enjoy the same recognition as other writers, Page said.

Page said it was those types of stories that caused him to ask his parents if blacks had history before American slavery.

His parents said “yes.”

Washington County has its own black history treasures, like James W.C. Pennington.

People know black historical figures like John Brown, who led a failed slavery uprising at a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., but there is less said about Pennington, Brian Robinson, director of the African-American Historical Association, said during the tribute.

Pennington was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but later came to Rockland Farm, a farm that still exists today along Sharpsburg Pike near Roxbury Road, Robinson said.

Pennington escaped from the farm as a slave but was later captured, Robinson said.

In 1849, Pennington published an autobiography revealing his past as a slave on Rockland Farm, according to a flier at Sunday’s tribute.

Against all odds, Pennington went from being a blacksmith to becoming an abolitionist, orator, writer and one of the most distinguished black leaders of his generation, the flier said.

A lecture about Pennington is scheduled for Feb. 16 at Sharpsburg Town Hall at 7 p. m., the flier said.

In past years, the annual black history tribute was held at the Contemporary School of the Arts & Gallery Inc. on West Franklin Street. It was moved to the larger Review and Herald Publishing Association for the first time Sunday.

In addition to the close examination of black history, the event blended music and poetry readings from adults and young people.

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Local families participated in the tribute to show the musical and academic talents of their children.

One of the young performers, Autumn Banks, sat down at a piano and the audience was instructed to listen to how the song illustrated the antics between a cat and a mouse. Banks played meticulously, tapping slow, delicate notes, followed by ones in rapid fire.

Page stood at the podium after Banks’ performance, clearly impressed.
“I believe the master Duke Ellington stopped in here for a moment,” Page told the crowd.

“The talent is just oozing out of these young folks,” said Kerensa Gray, another singer at the tribute whose performance was anxiously awaited by those in attendance. Gray is a 2009 Billie Holiday Vocal Competition winner, and was a 2008 and 2009 Momentum Award Jazz Artist of the Year finalist.

The Review and Herald Publishing Association, which publishes Seventh-Day Adventist literature, also has a hand in black history.

It has ties to a magazine that was known as the Gospel Herald, which was used during the slave era to evangelize blacks and help them to read, said Ron Pride, who works on the graphic design team at the Review and Herald.

Blacks at that time could get into trouble for learning to read, but they could sneak in some education by reading the Gospel Herald on a riverboat on the Mississippi River, Pride said.

The Gospel Herald led to the creation of Message magazine, which is printed today by the local publishing company.

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