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NAACP Retraces History at Harpers Ferry

NAACP Retraces History at Harpers Ferry
Civil rights organization to hold meetings at historic locations
leading up to 100th anniversary.

Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
There was an air of serenity and purpose as a vintage train unloaded more than 125 passengers in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., last month to fulfill a mission begun by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1932. That year, Du Bois attempted to pay tribute to abolitionist John Brown by placing what has been described as “The Great Tablet” near the site where Brown led an insurrection at Harpers Ferry to free slaves. However, officials at historically Black Storer College, which was near the site, refused to allow Du Bois to place the plaque, describing the wording as too militant.

But 74 years later, the NAACP sought to complete the Harpers Ferry pilgrimage on the eve of the organization’s 97th national convention held in Washington, D.C., last month.

West Virginia NAACP members, Storer alumni and others joined NAACP Chair Julian Bond, Vice Chair Roslyn M. Brock, and NAACP President and CEO Bruce S. Gordon to lay a wreath and unveil the Great Tablet on the grounds of Storer College, which closed in 1955. Former NAACP Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks presided over the event.

“Today we come back to finish what W.E.B. Du Bois started in 1932,” said Hooks.

The tablet included the same language, design and layout as the original. The tablet reads: “With him fought seven slaves and sons of slaves. Over his crucified corpse marched 200,000 Black soldiers and 4,000,000 freedmen singing ‘John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave but his soul goes marching on!’”

In 1859, Brown led 21 men, including his two sons, on a raid of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Deeply religious and vehemently opposed to slavery, Brown planned to arm his men with the seized weapons and begin liberating slaves. Col. Robert E. Lee’s men ended the insurrection and Brown was tried and publicly hanged. However, his statements during his trial reached the nation, inspiring many with his righteous indignation toward slavery. The raid ultimately hastened the start of the Civil War.

Harpers Ferry is significant in NAACP history as the location of the second conference of the Niagara Movement, which was a forerunner to the founding of the civil rights organization. In further recognition of the NAACP’s upcoming 100th anniversary, board members plan to hold upcoming meetings in Niagara Movement meeting sites such as Boston (1907) and Oberlin, Ohio (1908). The NAACP will celebrate its centennial in 2009, with plans for the national convention to return to New York City.

— By Dianne Hayes

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