Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Niagara Movement - Harpers Ferry, WV

On August 18th, Barry, Ellen and I drove down to West Virginia. We went to participate in the Centennial Celebration of the Niagara Movement. The National Park Service had invited all of the descendants of the original participants to gather at Harpers Ferry for a weekend of activities. Barry's great grandfather, reverend Garnet Russell Waller and uncle, Dr. Owen M. Waller were among the people who participate in the Niagara Movement's visit to Harper's Ferry in 1906.

Most of the events occurred on the former campus of Storer College. On Friday evening we heard Donzaleigh Abernathy, Juandalynn Abernathy and Dar Dixon perform "Women of Niagara." When we returned to Harpers Ferry on Saturday we attended the descendants reception, heard Dr. David Levering Lewis give a keynote address on W.E.B. DuBois, listened to a gospel concert performed by The Dixie Hummingbirds, and a panel discussion on the topic: "The Problem of the Twentieth Century will be the Problem of the Color Line: Breaking Barriers in America." The panelists were Juanita Abernathy, Reverend Walter Fauntroy, Dr. Eddie Henderson, Monte Irvin, Cheryl White and Joseph Wilder moderated by John W Franklin. While we were quietly listening to the first panelist I heard a commotion at the back of the tent. I turned around to look and saw members of the KKK, dressed in black clothing and Nazi regalia, surrounded by riot police standing at the back of the tent. A few men seemed to be saying something to them when a policeman walked up to the group, spoke a few words and the crowd dispersed. The some of the Klansmen sat at the back of the tent while others stood near them. I was proud that their presence did not disrupt the program. Eventually the members of the KKK left followed by the riot police. The next day an article was in the papers about the Klans attendance.

The Martinsburg Journal

Sunday, Aug 20th, 2006

HARPERS FERRY -- The audience barely missed a beat when about 20 members of the Ku Klux Klan showed up at the beginning of a Niagara Movement Centennial Commemoration event in Harpers Ferry Saturday afternoon.

Children, who were among the nearly 2,000 people of various races waiting to hear a panel discussion on racial issues, gawked in confusion. Most apparently knew little about the group.

"Could they bomb us here, mama," asked one boy.

"Yes," was the answer, and the boy looked mystified.

The adults, who remembered when the KKK wore white robes and hoods and terrorized blacks and others, seemed to stiffen as the black-clad group took their seats to the rear of the tent. Klan members were wearing an alternate uniform Saturday, consisting primarily of black clothing and Nazi regalia.

Another boy sized up the black jeans, T-shirts and red emblems the men, women and teenagers wore.

"Aw, we could take them, couldn't we," he said.

The crowd laughed and turned their attention to the stage as six black barrier breakers shared stories of overcoming racism and offered words of advice.

Panelists included the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, the first District of Columbia delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives; Monte Irvin, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame who was among the earliest black players in Major League Baseball; Eddie Henderson, the first black to compete in the National Figure Skating Championships; Cheryl White, the first black female professional jockey and Joseph Wilder, a musician who helped to integrate Broadway.

The KKK members left the panel discussion after Juanita Abernathy, widow of civil rights leader the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, spoke to the audience about the importance of education and responsible voting.

Their exit, under escort by several federal police officers as was their entrance, went unnoticed by most of the audience.

Once the panel discussion ended we took a break and returned to the hotel. We stayed in a hotel near Harpers Ferry in Sheperdstown, WV. Barry's mother, aunts and uncle also joined us. We all stayed in the same hotel.

Later that evening we went back to Harper's Ferry to hear the Count Basie Orchestra. They performed a special "Niagara Suite" composed and arranged by Dr. Frank Foster who was present to conduct their performance. The suite was made up of three parts: The opening suite was "Spirit of John Brown," Part two, "Conference Time," and the final movement, "The Battle We Wage." The Preservation Hall Jazz Band also performed that night, simultaneously at a different location at Harpers Ferry.

On Sunday, August 20th, (Barry's birthday) we were up bright and early and back at Harpers Ferry 6:30 AM where we caught the bus to Murphy Farm. There we joined other descendants from the 1906 movement. A white carnation with the name of one of the 1906 participants was given to family members to place on the foundation for the original site of John Brown's Fort. Then at 7:30 AM we gathered by the river and re-enacted the pilgrimage made by our ancestors in 1906 to the foundation of John Brown's Fort. We walked around the foundation and sat down for a short program. I had the opportunity to sit next to Juanita Abernathy. After the program I had an opportunity to talk with Juanita Abernathy before we loaded the buses to return to the parking lot.

We drove back to the hotel, checked out and gathered in Sherperdstown for brunch. It was the first time that the family as a whole shared a meal together that weekend. Once our stomach were full, we drove back to Harpers Ferry for the last few hours of the celebration. We returned in time to hear Odetta perform songs of freedom and inspiration, the final panel discussion: "Reflections of W.E.B. DuBois" moderated by Dr. Lawrence Hogan. The panelists were W.E.B. DuBois' granddaughter, Dr. DuBois Irvin and Dr. David Levering Lewis. The Delfeayo Marsalis Quintet performed after the presentation prior to the closing ceremony. During the closing ceremony a Niagara Centennial plaque was presented to the National Park Service. The final event was having everyone present gather outside of one of the Mather Training Center for a centennial photograph.

The weekend was filled with wonderful jazz music, panel presentations, several speeches and ended with a presentation of a commemorative plaque and group photograph. I am very glad that I was able to be present for this momentous occasion.

Click the end of this sentence to see photographs of the event posted by the National Park Service .

Below is a photo from the weekend taken by various members of the family with our camera. View more pictures by clicking on the box on the side.


Anita Wills said...

I enjoyed reading about this event. You made it come alive and I felt like I was there. I am pleased that the KKK sat and listened, maybe they learned something.

I look forward to reading future blogs.

Liz Opp said...

Hi, Vanessa!

Thanks so much for letting me know about this blog. I know you have lots of stories to share from your travels and your writing. I am eager to read more of them!

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Shelley said...

Looks terrific, Vanessa! Thank you for taking the time to record this. Got a little shivery thinking about the KKK right there.

Watch out, blogging can be habit-forming! :-)

In peace,
Shelley (But Wait, There's More!)

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Anonymous said...

Rev. Waller was my great grandfather too. My grandfather Russell Garnett Waller was his son by his first wife Addie Creditt. For reasons never talked about he left his family, and we grandkids never heard of them. I feel the loss of not knowing the rest of my family and heritage. I wish I could have attended this - it sounds wonderful.