W.E.B. Du Bois is celebrated for his civil rights legacy
By Edward Marshall / Journal Staff Writer
HARPERS FERRY -Harpers Ferry National Historical Park ushered in the beginning of Black History Month on Sunday by unveiling a new exhibit at the John Brown Museum, which honors the life and legacy W.E.B. Du Bois, the architect of the modern civil rights movement.
Born in 1868, Du Bois was a civil rights activist, sociologist, educator, historian, writer, editor, poet and scholar who broke new ground on many frontiers in his remarkable and controversial life, according to information from the park.
After earning the first Harvard doctorate awarded to a black American, Du Bois began a life committed to racial and social justice. He published 16 books on sociology, history, politics and race relations. He soon became the principal architect of the civil rights movement in the United States.
In 1905, Du Bois drafted a call for action for those who believed in the freedom of black Americans, resulting in the founding of the Niagara Movement, the first organized civil rights organization in the country. He was also a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“As we commemorate the life work and achievements of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, we’re in the midst of a year that’s just rich with symbolism,” said Todd Bolton, branch chief of visitor services for the park, during a museum program Sunday.
This year marks the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln, and 2009 also marks the 100th anniversary of when the founding document that created the NAACP was issued.
Harpers Ferry, 2009 also marks the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal in 1859.
“Of course many believe that it was Brown that fired the first shot of the American Civil War and struck the first blow for freedom,” Bolton said. “Du Bois wrote extensively about John Brown, and he believed that Brown was the man, perhaps more than any other American, who truly touched the souls of black folks.”
From Aug. 15 to 19, 1906, the Niagara Movement hosted its first public meeting in the United States on the campus of Storer College in Harpers Ferry.
Harpers Ferry was symbolic for a number of reasons, including the connection to Brown’s raid against slavery. By the latter part of the 19th century, John Brown’s Fort had become a shrine and a symbol of freedom to black Americans.
“Du Bois brought the Niagara Movement here primarily out of the symbolism of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry,” Bolton said. “In 1906, the men and women of Niagara gathered here in Harpers Ferry, and the spirit of John Brown is what beckoned them to action right here.”
On Aug. 27, 1963, at the age of 95, Du Bois passed away just one day before the historic March on Washington.
Nearly 46 years later, millions more, including Bolton, returned to Washington to witness the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.
“It was a moving experience, to say the least. I couldn’t help but think Dr. Du Bois was smiling down on us that day,” Bolton said. “It was in 1906 that he said the battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans, and I think … we are all beneficiaries of his work, his life, and his achievements.”
Sunday’s exhibit opening ceremony also included a ceremonial roll call of the names of the members of the Niagara Movement. Blocks with members’ names and life accomplishments were distributed throughout the crowd. As the names were called, each person placed the blocks in a glass case to create a “cornerstone of freedom.”
The roll call was led by Catherine Bragaw, the park’s education program manager, and George Rutherford, president of the Jefferson County Chapter of the NAACP. Rutherford later cut the ceremonial red ribbon leading into the museum exhibit.
Rutherford said he vividly remembers thousands of students learning about Du Bois and other members of the Niagara Movement back when Black History Month was known as Negro History Week.
“Some of those names on the blocks you have are some of the same people that the teachers taught us about. I can remember very well talking about W.E.B. Du Bois,” Rutherford said.
As a student, Rutherford said he will never forget being told that one day there would be a black president.
“I’d like to really thank the Park Service for what they have done as far as black history,” Rutherford said. “They have really been tremendous in really keeping black history alive.”
While many are familiar with Du Bois and his life, for the several young children who attended the exhibit unveiling, it was the first time they heard his story and learned about the Niagara Movement.
Some of those children included a group of Brownies who traveled from Loudoun County, Va., to attend the unveiling.
The children’s interest in the exhibit was not lost on those like Rutherford and others who attended the unveiling, such as Norman Marriott, of Spring Mills.
“The exhibit … is really good, especially when we’ve got young kids who’ve come out because so many young kids don’t know the history,” he said. “They think things have always been good.”
For others like 18-year-old Rebecca Furby, president of Jefferson County’s Youth Chapter of the NAACP, it was their first visit to the John Brown Museum.
“I loved the program. I didn’t know what to expect of it, and I really liked it,” she said. “I’ve never been here before, so it’s very nice. It’s very eye-opening.”
The exhibit itself was developed by park rangers Kim Biggs and Guenevere Roper and funded by the Harpers Ferry Historical Association.
Biggs was also pleased with the ceremony and the interest in the exhibit honoring Du Bois.
“He was an incredible man, who truly helped develop the cornerstone of the modern civil rights movement,” she said.
The Du Bois exhibit will remain open daily from 8 a.m. 5 p.m. throughout the month of February.
More information is available online at www.nps.gov/hafe.
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Martinsburg Journal, Used by Permission