CHARLES TOWN – Organizers of this weekend’s 20th-annual African American Culture & Heritage Festival want everyone to know about a black history icon’s early life here and his accomplishments as a Harvard-trained physician, influential abolitionist and decorated Union soldier.
This year’s three-day festival – which kicks off Friday with a Descendants’ Reception and a party for young people in downtown Charles Town – highlights the life of native son Martin Robison Delany, born 200 years ago this year in what was then the slave-holding state of Virginia.
During the festival, Delany himself will make an appearance – in the person of Joseph Bundy, a Bluefield-based actor who regularly portrays Delany in living history and theatrical performances. Bundy will serve as the grand marshal for Saturday’s parade that starts in Ranson. He’ll also take part in other festival activities.
Despite many accomplishments – including earning the highest rank of any black soldier in the Civil War – Delany hasn’t always been celebrated in West Virginia. His family was forced to flee his hometown when he was a young boy because his mother had taught him and his siblings to read and write – at a time when Virginia law forbade literacy for African-Americans. The Delanys settled across the Mason-Dixon line in Chambersburg, Pa.
Bundy — trained at Marshall University and the National Shakespeare Company — is well-known for his portrayals of Delany and other prominent black leaders, including James Weldon Johnson (author of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the African-American national anthem) and onetime West Virginian Booker T. Washington, who served as Tuskegee Institute’s first leader starting in 1881.
Every August since 1992, the festival has served as a yearly celebration of local black history. “West Virginia has so much important African-American history, and the Eastern Panhandle has more black history than perhaps anywhere in the state,” said George Rutherford, who heads the Jefferson County chapter of the NAACP, the organization that sponsors the festival.
Not only is Jefferson County where martyred abolitionist John Brown staged his failed 1859 raid and then went on trial for treason and was publicly executed, but the county also was home to the famed Storer College, one of the first Southern schools for freed blacks following the Civil War.
The festival has grown over the years to attract not just Panhandle residents, but visitors from across West Virginia and parts of the Northeast and the South.
Each year, the event employs a different theme. In 2009, for instance, organizers spotlighted descendants of Brown and his raiders, those who came to the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry with the aim of arming themselves and then kicking off a slave rebellion throughout the South.
The festival is open to everyone, said Warren Stewart, who serves as chief organizer of the event. “We want people, both African-Americans and everyone else, to know and appreciate the African-American history that’s in our back yard and also our culture,” he said. “It’s especially important to reach the younger generation. When we can appreciate each other’s history and culture, that goes a long way toward us understanding and accepting one another.”
The late Ollie Tolbert – who in 1946 had served as one of the founders of county’s NAACP chapter – came up with the idea for the African American Culture & Heritage Festival. “She’d feel a lot of pride in seeing how the festival has expanded each year,” Stewart said. “She wanted a way for people here to connect with their heritage. She knew how important it is to know and appreciate who you are, where you come from.”
Most of the festival’s activities happen Saturday. There’s the noontime parade from Third Avenue and George Street in Ranson to Charles Town plus health screenings, a free moon bounce and other activities for kids, marching band demonstrations and then hours of musical performances including gospel and R&B.
Also on Saturday: an exhibit highlighting local black history. That display will be in the main auditorium of the restored Fisherman’s Hall, built in 1885 for the Grand United Order of the Galilean Fishermen. The hall, at 340 S. West St. in Charles Town, over the years has served as a black community center, church, tavern and as a venue for dancers, musicians and other entertainers.
Included in the exhibit will be a display highlight Delany’s life and also the winning essays written by local schoolchildren earlier this year on Delany’s life and accomplishments, Stewart said. “His name may not be a household word, but there is no way to deny that he had an incredible impact on the world,” Stewart said. “That’s an important lesson for any of us – you do what’s right as you go through your life and you will make a difference.”
Then on Sunday, festival participants will make a morning pilgrimage to the historic John Brown Fort site. The walk comes in mid-August, just as in 1906 when W.E.B. DuBois made a similar trek with more than 100 other members of the Second Niagara Movement, the group that’s considered the predecessor of the NAACP.
Niagara members were meeting on the campus of Storer on Aug. 17, 1906, when the group won permission for a solemn walk to the fort site, located on a farm owned by Alexander and Mary Murphy. The Murphys had deeded part of their farm as a new home for the fort, which needed to be rebuilt after an 1891 debacle. (Moved to Chicago with the idea it would attract visitors from the World’s Columbian Exposition nearby, the fort wasn’t a hit with the public – and for years lay in pieces on a Chicago vacant lot.)
Those who walk to the Murphy Farm – part of the National Park Service now for nearly a decade – follow the practice of DuBois and others who made the walk in 1906 and remove their shoes and socks as they walk on what’s considered holy ground.
Celebrating Brown’s legacy is a cherished part of the festival. In 1881, Frederick Douglass – born a slave in Maryland and later regarded as the nation’s most influential voice for the rights of black citizens – had come to Harpers Ferry to talk about the role Brown played in ending the nation’s practice of holding slaves.
“If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery,” Douglass said. “If we look over the dates, places and men, for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia – not Fort Sumpter, but Harpers Ferry and the arsenal – not [Fort Sumter commander] Colonel [Robert] Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic.”
A few years after the Niagara Movement walk, Brown’s fort was purchased by Storer and relocated to its campus. In the 1960s, after the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision and the closure of Storer, the building was acquired by the Harpers Ferry National Historic Park and reassembled to its current site, about 150 feet from its original location.
Following Sunday’s walk, the festival will conclude with an ecumenical service at the Curtis Freewill Baptist Church, which dates to 1867. The church is located off Storer College Place in Harpers Ferry.
For more details on the festival, contact Rutherford at 304-725-9610 or Stewart at 304-229-7248.
Festival schedule highlights
Descendants Reception and a party for young people from 6 to 8 p.m. in the parking lot of the Jefferson County Commission office at 124 E. Washington St. in Charles Town.
Mobile mammograms, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the festival headquarters at the Martin Delany Opportunity Learning Center in the 306 S. Lawrence St. in Charles Town. For additional information, call 877-287-2272.
Health fair, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. inside Star Lodge Hall, 240 S. Lawrence St. in Charles Town.
Glaucoma tests, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Martin Delany Opportunity Learning Center.
Noon, a parade starting at the corner of Third Avenue and George Street in Ranson. Units will move south to Washington Street in Charles Town and then west on Lawrence Street.
Kids activities (with free moon bounce, pony rides) from 2 to 5 p.m., Martin Delany Center and playground.
Jefferson County black history exhibit, 2 to 6 p.m., historic Fisherman’s Lodge at 340 S. West St. in Charles Town.
Marching band demonstrations, starting at 2:15 p.m. at the Martin Delany Center.
Live music starting with Karl Miller Gospel Revue from Bramwell in Mercer County at 3 p.m., followed by R&B musicians through 7 p.m. when Captain Fly & The Philly Revue take the stage.
8 a.m. Memorial walk from the Storer College campus to the Murphy Farm, where John Brown’s fort once stood.
10 a.m., ecumenical memorial service at the Curtis Freewill Baptist Church, located off Storer College Place in Harpers Ferry.
+ For details on the festival, contact Jefferson County NAACP President George Rutherford at 304-725-9610 or African-American Culture & Heritage Festival Chairman Warren Stewart at 304-229-7248.