In 1932, a delegation of NAACP members led by W. E. B. DuBois journeyed to Storer College’s campus and attempted to place a plaque honoring abolitionist John Brown. John Brown’s Fort, the armory engine house where Brown and his followers made a last stand during their 1859 raid, was located on the campus at that time. The structure was held in high esteem by many who considered John Brown a heroic figure for his attempt to end slavery by force. Storer College refused to allow the plaque, known as “The Great Tablet” on their campus due to its wording. In 2006, the National Park Service allowed the NAACP to bring the tablet to Storer, and was ceremoniously placed at the site where John Brown’s Fort formerly stood on campus.
The town of Harpers Ferry has many ties to African American
history and the civil rights movement. In 1859, Harpers Ferry was the site of John
Brown’s raid on the United States Armory and Arsenal. John
Brown was an avid abolitionist, nicknamed “Osawatomie Brown” for
his actions in “Bleeding Kansas,” where he became a wanted man for killing five
pro-slavery individuals. In Harpers Ferry, Brown devised a plan to raid the federal armory and arsenal, arm slaves across the South, and lead an insurrection. On October 16th, 1859, Brown and his raiders entered Harpers Ferry, took
several local citizens as prisoners, and exchanged fire with local militia. The U.S. Marines from Washington D.C., under the
command of Colonel Robert E. Lee offered Brown terms of surrender, but Brown
refused and was captured and arrested. Brown was tried and found guilty of three crimes: murder,
treason, and conspiring and inciting a slave rebellion, and was sent to
the gallows on December 2, 1859. Brown was envisioning a Civil War to occur - and it did. John Brown was hailed as a hero by some and denounced
as a terrorist by others. The event heightened tensions that would eventually
culminate in the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.
Following the Civil War, many Freewill Baptists from New England
came to Harpers Ferry to help educate freed slaves. In 1867, Storer Normal
School, later Storer College, was the first
African American college in West Virginia as well as one of the first
integrated colleges. In August 1906, Storer was the site of the first public
meeting of the Niagara Movement, a coalition of prominent African
Americans advocating for civil rights. The movement was founded the previous year at a
private gathering in Ontario, Canada, near Niagara Falls, to counter the disenfranchisement and segregation of African Americans under Jim Crow law. The group chose Harpers Ferry as the site of their second meeting specifically because of its connection to John Brown’s raid
and his crusade against slavery. During this meeting, members made a pilgrimage to John Brown’s Fort, the fire engine house where Brown and his raiders hid in 1859, which had been moved to the Murphy Farm. There, the group sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “John Brown’s Body.” The Niagara
Movement would last until 1911 when it became part of the new National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The NAACP challenged inequality in the courts, in society, and also in the memorializing of the past. As suppression of and violence against African Americans continued, so did a trend of Southern heritage groups memorializing myths about slavery. In 1931, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans erected the Heyward Shepherd memorial in honor of a black civilian who died during John Brown's raid. Because this memorial perpetuated the faithful slave myth, the NAACP sought to erect their own memorial praising John Brown's abolitionist cause. On May 21, 1932, following the NAACP's 23rd Annual Convention in
Washington D.C, W. E. B. DuBois led a group to Harpers Ferry to place a bronze tablet at John Brown’s Fort on the Storer College campus (it had been moved
there from the Murphy Farm in 1910). The Storer College administration refused
to allow the tablet to be placed, citing the language as being too militant.
Part of the tablet reads “over his crucified corpse marched 200,000 black
soldiers and 4,000,000 freedmen signing ‘John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in
his grave, but his soul goes marching on!’” The tablet would instead be put on
display at the NAACP’s offices in New York.
After Storer College closed in 1955, the National Park Service
would acquire ownership of the college’s campus. In 1968, it also moved John
Brown’s Fort back to near its original location in Lower Town. In 2006, the
National Park Service invited the NAACP to return and finally place the tablet
on Storer’s campus. On July 14, a delegation of 125 people arrived in Harpers
Ferry on vintage 1932 train cars to reenact the ceremony. It consisted of NAACP
leaders, West Virginia NAACP members, and Storer College alumni. NAACP
president emeritus Benjamin Lawson Hooks presided over the event. A replica
plaque, containing the original wording, was attached to a stone and placed on
the original site W. E. B. DuBois had selected, near where John Brown’s Fort
once stood on the campus.
The tablet inscription reads:
HEREJOHN BROWNAIMED AT HUMAN SLAVERYA BLOWTHAT WOKE A GUILTY NATION.WITH HIM FOUGHTSEVEN SLAVES AND SONS OF SLAVES.OVER HIS CRUCIFIED CORPSEMARCHED 200,000 BLACK SOLDIERSAND 4,000,000 FREEDMENSINGING JOHN BROWN'S BODY LIES A-MOULDERING IN THE GRAVEBUT HIS SOUL GOES MARCHING ON!IN GRATITUDE THIS TABLET IS ERECTEDTHE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLEMAY 21, 1932