BALTIMORE (AP) – About 74 years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois led civil rights group the NAACP from its convention in Washington to a historically black college in Harpers Ferry to lay a tablet to honor militant abolitionist John Brown. But Storer College officials objected, saying it was too militant.
On July 14, as the NAACP meets for its 97th convention in Washington, the group’s officials plan to take a 1932 eight-car train ride to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to lay a tablet in a town where Brown captured a government arsenal in 1859.
Julian Bond, the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the raid sent shockwaves through the country – 16 months before the Civil War – spreading fear in the white South and causing abolitionists in the North to celebrate his actions as heroic.
“Most condemned the violence but celebrated the impulse, and I think that that’s generally true today,” Bond said.
“They’re not celebrating the violence that he perpetuated. They’re celebrating his commitment to racial justice, and we think it’s fitting to continue that celebration.”
The tablet to be laid Friday will include the original language, which expresses the NAACP’s gratitude for Brown’s actions. It also will be the same design and layout of the original.
“With him fought seven slaves and sons of slaves,” the tablet says. “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!’”
The reenactment is part of a series of NAACP events, leading up to the organization’s centennial celebration in 2009.
In the late 1850s, Brown and 21 others occupied the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia to start a “war of emancipation.” The next day a company of Marines under Col. Robert E. Lee took Brown’s last stronghold by assault. Ten people were killed or mortally wounded, including two of Brown’s 20 children.
Brown was convicted of treason to the Virginia Commonwealth and conspiracy to murder. When the Civil War began in 1861, Lee put his loyalty to Virginia first and took command of Confederate forces.
Harpers Ferry has a special place in the history of the NAACP.
It was where the Niagara Movement, which Du Bois founded as the cornerstone of the modern civil rights movement, held its first meeting on U.S. soil in 1906. The first meeting was held in Canada.
The site was chosen because of the significance of Brown’s raid and because Storer College offered facilities for the meeting.
Storer College, which was one of the first integrated schools in the United States, closed in 1955.