My friend Jon, who often provides the photos I employ to illustrate the Black NJ series of postings, wrote about his recent trip with his 83 year-old father to Harpers Ferry. Fire on the Mountain blog-site founder, Jimmy Higgins suggested that we may want to publish this, so (with Jon's permission) his reflections on Si and his recent visit to Harpers Ferry follow:
by Jon Levine
John Brown's "Fort", below the railroad right-of-way at the intersection of Shenandoah and Potomac Streets.
Visiting Harpers Ferry after 47 years? No, not me. My family, my union sisters & brothers, my comrades and other friends all know that I try and make Hajj down to the Ferry as often as possible. Whether I'm driving to Florida on union business, heading to DC for a conference or a demonstration, or on my way to the Black Workers for Justice annual Martin Luther King "Salute to Labor" dinner, if I'm driving, Harpers Ferry is nearly always along the way.
But this year, when I decided to head randomly south I also decided to reprise the old tradition of taking my father along (traveling with my dad, Si, is something we did for a few years right after he retired). And the last time Si was in Harpers Ferry was probably around 1962 or so. Back then the US was commercializing the Civil War, selling little blue or grey "forage caps" for children to dress like Union or CSA troops. Family trips to Gettysburg, Antietam, Harpers Ferry and other relatively closeby Civil War battlefields were part of the new and rising US highway culture (and yes, at the time this industrial town at juncture of the Shenandoah and the Potomac Rivers was mainly *supposed* to be remembered for Stonewall Jackson's 1862 victory).
So what's different after nearly half-a-century? I'd noticed a few of these things in the twenty-or-so years I've been making pilgrimage, but seeing the differences from Si's perspective after 47 years was particularly instructive. Obviously John Brown and the Kennedy Farmhouse Raiders has taken on greater significance this year, the Sesquicentennial of Brown's raid. But the relatively new exhibit on Storer College and the Niagara Movement, on W.E.B. DuBois, as well the exhibit about freedmen and slaves in Harpers Ferry impressed my dad. Si was interested to see that the Black population of Harpers Ferry at the time of Brown's raid was approximately 50% freedmen, making the "paradox" that the first townie to die in the raid was a free African-American railroad worker relatively inevitable rather than "ironic", which is how other exhibits choose to describe the incident.
But for me, these newer exhibits had been there for awhile, I've seen them before. No, I found one small new element not only interesting, but instructive. There is an obelisk on the rise near the railroad bridge marking the original location of "John Brown's Fort." (I've always had a problem with this description of the fire-pump storage facility where Brown and the remaining raiders took refuge, maybe going back to my first visit in the early '60s, but that's another matter). My biggest problem was that the location of that firehouse always felt wrong. I knew that it had been moved more than once (to the grounds of Storer College, to the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, back to Storer, later destroyed, and eventually recreated. Yes, I knew all that, but the location below the railroad right-of-way always felt somehow WRONG, both as a pump-house and (more importantly) as the location Brown would choose for a "last stand."
Militarily, we would expect Brown to choose a less isolated spot as he attempted to cross the river into the highlands (and yes, Brown was a fairly masterful tactician, as earlier events in Kansas had shown). Now the monument on the rise, placing that as the original site of the firehouse may have been there before, but I didn't see it 'til this visit. It made sense, it answered some nagging questions and so I, too, learned something new…