African American History at Harpers Ferry

African American labor (likely both enslaved and free) helped construct portions of the C&O Canal in the vicinity of the Harpers Ferry. Historian Merritt Roe Smith has concluded that slave labor “played a very marginal role in building and maintaining the armory” and “virtually no role at all in” the day-to-day manufacture of weapons. Construction on the buildings that would comprise the federal armory began in May 1799.

In October 1859 five black men, Dangerfield Newby, Shields Green, Lewis Leary, John Copeland, and Osborne Anderson, accompany John Brown on a raid intended to seize the

federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and launch a slave insurrection. Newby and Leary were both killed during the raid. Copeland and Green were
captured, tried then executed (death by hanging) on December 16, 1859 in Charlestown, Virginia. Osborne Anderson escaped to Pennsylvania and later joined the Union Army serving as a non-commissioned officer. He died in Washington, DC in 1872.

In 1860 Virginia had 490,308 slaves (30 percent of the total population). In Western Virginia, including the eastern panhandle and Jefferson County, there were 18,451 enslaved people (4 percent of the population) as well as a sizeable free black community.
After the Civil War, Harpers Ferry became a headquarters of the Freedmen’s Bureau. A tent city overlooking the ruins of the federal arsenal grew to house 20,000 formerly enslaved African Americans. Descendants of that population live in Jefferson County to this day.

Reverend Nathan G. Brackett arrived from Maine and established a school for freedmen and -women at the Lockwood House. The work performed by Brackett and his students came to the attention of Maine philanthropist John Storer, who donated $10,000 to establish a school for Freedmen and -women that “would not discriminate against race, sex, or religion.” Storer Normal School (later Storer College) opened on October 2, 1867 on Camp Hill.

In August 1906 the second meeting of the Niagara Movement – described as the “first collective civil rights movement of the 20th century” – came to Harpers Ferry. There W.E.B. Dubois issued a radical call for full and immediate manhood suffrage for Negroes and an end to racial violence and segregation -- a stark contrast to the popular accommodationist policies advocated by Booker T. Washington. Dubois and other Niagara leaders such as Reverdy C. Ransom and Max Barber chose Harpers Ferry because of the presence of Storer College (it could support logistical needs and provide accommodations for black people) and because of the town’s connection to abolitionist John Brown.

The year 1906 fell in the middle of a period historian Rayford Logan referred to as the “nadir of American race relations.” The Niagara Movement members revered John Brown, a white man who had dedicated his life to the eradication of slavery in the United States. During the gathering Dubois led a pilgrimage to “John Brown’s Fort” (the armory firehouse where he and his men ultimately were captured by federal troops under Robert E. Lee’s command). At that time, the Fort was located on the Murphy Farm property near the bluffs above the Shenandoah River. Participants doffed their shoes, socks, and stockings and made a barefoot march around the structure in honor of Brown and his raiders.

Today, Storer College, the Lockwood House, John Brown’s Fort, and the Murphy Farm, among other sites rich in African American history, are part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, part of the National Park System.
For more information, read Images of America; African Americans of Jefferson County, Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing Company, 2009. The Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society, whose leaders include NAACP officials George Rutherford and James Tolbert, worked on this project.

For more information, contact Alan Spears, Cultural Resources Director, aspears@npca.org, 202.454.3384.            

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