“ . . . we talked some of the plainest English that had been given voice to by black men in America.” These words by Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois described the 1906 Niagara Conference held in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
These strong sentiments expressed by an outspoken leader are now all but forgotten. The historic meeting of the Niagara Movement in 1906 has, through the years, been overshadowed by later, perhaps more successful movements in the area of civil rights.
In August 1906, forty-five members of the Niagara Movement, an early civil rights organization, met on the campus of Storer College, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. This meeting was symbolically important since this was their first meeting on American soil. The first meeting of the Niagara Movement, organized by W.E.B. Du Bois, had been held in July 1905, at the Erie Beach Hotel in Ft. Erie, Ontario, Canada. Racial prejudice forced Du Bois to move the meeting to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls when the group was refused accommodation in Buffalo, New York. The name of the movement thus came from the location of the first meeting and because of the “mighty current” of protest the group wished to unleash.
Harpers Ferry had been carefully selected as the location for the second meeting because of its connection to John Brown and his infamous raid to free slaves in 1859. In fact, the meeting was promoted as “the 100th anniversary of John Brown’s birth, and the 50th jubilee of the battle of Osawatomie.” (Brown was actually born in 1800, making this the 106th anniversary of his birth.) The connection to the martyred Brown was powerful indeed; but it was not the only connection to African-American history—Harpers Ferry was also home to Storer College. The college was opened in 1867 by the Freewill Baptists as a mission school educating former slaves. For twenty-five years Storer was the only school in West Virginia to offer African Americans an education beyond the primary level. In the ensuing years, Storer expanded in acreage, curriculum, and enrollment. In 1906, it provided the backdrop for this historic conference.
Convening on August 15th, these forty-five men undoubtedly carried strong hopes that their voices would be heard and that action would result. Many of the “Niagrites,” as they were called, were drawn to this organization by common goals and desires. They had tired of Booker T. Washington’s theory of “accommodation” and wanted to actively seek equality for their race.
It is interesting to note that, although women attended this conference, they were not officially recognized as members until the third annual conference in Boston, Massachusetts. One of the women in attendance, Mary White Ovington, a reporter, covered the meeting for the New York Evening Post. Ms. Ovington had long admired Dr. Du Bois before finally meeting him in 1904. They communicated often and she had suggested that Du Bois invite her to the conference. Ms. Ovington wrote of the participants, “Their power and intellectual ability is manifest on hearing or talking with them.” Her interest in the organization and its cause did not end at Harpers Ferry. In 1909, Ms. Ovington became a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Speeches, meetings, and special addresses filled the week at Storer. A highlight for the participants, men and women, was John Brown’s Day, August 17th—a day devoted to honoring the memory of John Brown. A light rain was falling as the day began with a silent pilgrimage to the site of John Brown’s fort. Led by Owen Waller, a physician from Brooklyn, New York, the Niagrites, numbering one hundred strong, removed their shoes and socks before treading this hallowed ground.
Following prayer and stirring remarks offered by Richard T. Greener, former dean of the Howard University Law School, the assemblage marched, single file, around the fort singing, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “John Brown’s Body.” This inspirational morning was followed by an equally stirring afternoon as the Niagrites listened to Henrietta Leary Evans, whose brother and nephew had fought with Brown at Harpers Ferry; Lewis Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass; W.E.B. Du Bois, and Reverdy C. Ransom, pastor of the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston. Ransom’s address was described by many as a masterpiece and, according to Benjamin Quarles in Allies for Freedom “was the most stirring single episode in the short life of the Niagara Movement.”
The second annual conference of the Niagara Movement concluded with an “Address to the Country.” Penned by Du Bois, this document was a five-point resolution demanding:
1. . . . we want full manhood suffrage, and we want it now, henceforth and forever.2. We want discrimination in public accommodation to cease. Separation . . . is un-American, undemocratic, and silly.3. We claim the right of freemen to walk, talk, and be with them who wish to be with us.4. We want the laws enforced . . . against white as well as black.5. We want our children educated . . . either the U.S. will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the U.S.
The address also stated, “We will not be satisfied to take one jot or title less than our full manhood rights. We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil, and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans.” With thunderous applause the Harpers Ferry conference drew to a close. Years later, recalling this conference, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois referred to it as “one of the greatest meetings that American Negroes ever held.”
The Niagara Movement continued until 1911. Various factors contributed to its demise. In 1911, Du Bois wrote to his colleagues advising them to join the new NAACP, which he had helped to form. Niagara, as an organization, ceased to exist, but its principles and ideals that evolved during its years continued to gain momentum into the 21st century as part of the NAACP.
The new organization declared itself against forced segregation. It stood for equal educational opportunities and complete enfranchisement of black Americans. It adopted tactics of agitation and court action to realize these goals. The organization’s major objective during its first half century of existence was to secure legislation and court decisions establishing equality for blacks in voting, civil rights, housing and education. It campaigned against all forms of private and public discrimination, especially in federal employment and military service.
Max Barber was one of the founders of the Niagara Movement. He wrote about his experience at Harpers Ferry and the John Brown Fort.
I have heard men speak of the peculiar sensation, the thrill which comes to one as he stands in the shadow of some mighty structure or on a spot where some great deed was wrought that perceptibly advanced the world. Men have journeyed to the other side of the world to drink a draught of air that played around a Calvary, Trafalgar, or a Runnymede, and they have felt well paid for their trouble. I have known what it meant to mediate at Valley Forge, Queenstown, and Gettysburg. But I must confess that I had never yet felt as I felt at Harpers Ferry.
The armory engine house, which later became known as the John Brown Fort, is the structure in which Brown and his men took refuge during their failed attempt to capture Harpers Ferry. While John Brown’s raid had failed, his efforts were revered by abolitionists and he became a martyr in the fight against slavery.
In 1909, the College Trustees of Storer College voted to buy the John Brown Fort. Members of Storer College agreed to pay $900 which cleared Murphy’s purchase price and court costs. Dismantled in 1910, the structure was rebuilt near Lincoln Hall on campus grounds.
The fort remained at Storer College after it closed in 1955. In 1968, it was moved again, this time by the National Park Service. Unable to place the fort upon its original foundations, which are now under fourteen feet of fill on railroad property, the National Park Service relocated the fort to the former Arsenal Yard that Brown had briefly captured more than one hundred years before.
The John Brown Fort is a monument that has physically changed through its one-hundred-fifty- year existence. What has not changed significantly is how the fort has been accepted by a large portion of the African-American community. The John Brown Fort serves as one of the only few Civil War monuments claimed by African Americans. After the Civil War, the nation began constructing monuments, a testimony to moral reformation and the justification of the most violent epoch in U.S. history. Vernacular monuments were placed throughout the American landscape with uncontroversial inscriptions. They do not mention slavery or African Americans, and they generally justify the war as “the cause” or “state sovereignty.” The common soldier portrayed in these monuments is always understood to be white Anglo-Saxon.
Among the thousands of Civil War monuments only three have African-American representation, even though blacks played a major role in the struggle to restore the balance of power. Two monuments show a single black surrounded by other white soldiers, and the third is the Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial in Boston, Massachusetts. Shaw was a local white hero who led the first black troops, the 54th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, into battle. This monument is more of a memorial to Shaw than it is to the troops. Shaw is elevated on horseback and African-American troops are marching beside him.
The introduction of African-American troops into the Civil War had played an influential role in changing the tide of the war. Yet the lack of African-American representation among Civil War monuments is noticeable. As Kirk Savage, historian of Civil War memorialization noted, “Public monuments do not arise as if by natural law to celebrate the deserving; they are built by people with sufficient power to marshal (or impose) public consent for their erection.”
There are few African-American memorials that relate to the moral struggles of the Civil War. The John Brown Fort is one such memorial that symbolizes the fight against inequality. It has been embraced by whites and blacks in varying degrees. The histories of John Brown have changed among whites along with the political climate of this country. However, the John Brown Fort has long been revered by the black community. The 50th anniversary celebration of the West Virginia Chapter of the NAACP was held at the fort in 1994.
Today the fort stands in a monumental landscape. It is a bit smaller than its original size. Several times the fort and it’s meaning have almost vanished completely. Like the phoenix, it has risen from obscurity through the help of many ordinary citizens who performed extraordinary feats to save and preserve this symbol of freedom.
1. Where was the first Niagara Conference held?
a. Harper ’s Ferry, Virginia
b. Niagara Falls, New York
c. Ontario, Canada
d. Buffalo, New York
2. Why was the Niagara Movement started?
a. simply to honor John Brown and the cause he fought for
b. to show African-American solidarity after the war
c. to commemorate the 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry
d. to promote African-American rights in the U.S.
3. Which of the following best describes Mary White Ovington’s connection to the NAACP?
a. strong advocate for “accommodation”
b. an old friend of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois
c. a writer for the New York Evening Post
d. a co-founder of the organization
4. With which statement would Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois most likely agree?
a. Blacks should have separate public accommodations.
b. Blacks should have full enfranchisement.
c. Whites and blacks should have equal segregation rights.
d. Education for whites and blacks should be separate but equal.
5. Why had Harpers Ferry become a symbolic place for the Niagrites?
a. John Brown led a group to the arsenal there.
b. John Brown had tried to incite a slave rebellion there.
c. John Brown had been killed at Harpers Ferry.
d. Many abolitionists had fought at Harpers Ferry.
6. Which of the following is not true about the history of the John Brown Fort?
a. The National Park Service removed the fort from the campus of Storer College in 1968.
b. The fort’s original foundations, now far underground, are no longer on property accessible to the public.
c. Even though it was moved several times, the fort has never been taken apart.
d. The armory engine house became the John Brown Fort and was purchased by Storer College in 1909.
7. Why is the John Brown Fort especially important to the African-American community?
a. Many of the original monuments were destroyed after the Civil War.
b. The memorial represents a terribly violent event that tore up the country.
c. Only three monuments represent the role of African Americans in the Civil War.
d. Many whites were against pro-African-American monuments.
8. Many U.S. memorials that commemorate the Civil War
a. were constructed in traditional European styles.
b. show only one side, the Union’s.
c. exhibit a strong desire to unite the North and the South.
d. portray a white Anglo-Saxon point of view.9. How do you think the leaders of the Niagara Movement were able to bring the group together? Explain how this movement became an important precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In your answer, include accurate facts and details as well as your own thoughts and opinions.