In proclaiming Black History Month 2013, President Barack Obama reminded us that “in America, we share a dream that lies at the heart of our founding: that no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter how modest your beginnings or the circumstances of your birth, you can make it if you try. Yet, for many and for much of our Nation's history, that dream has gone unfilled. For African Americans, it was a dream denied until 150 years ago, when a great emancipator called for the end of slavery. It was a dream deferred less than 50 years ago, when a preacher spoke of justice and brotherhood from Lincoln's memorial. This dream of equality and fairness has never come easily -- but it has always been sustained by the belief that in America, change is possible.”
Black History Month absolutely could not be celebrated across this nation without the contributions made by Jefferson County, West Virginia. Those contributions, presented each and every month by the dedicated organization The Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society, include as follows:
1) African Americans in Jefferson County have always answered the call to serve their country. The first known Jefferson County military veteran was John Butler, who served in the War of 1812 and then lived in Harpers Ferry. This free local African American was as a gunner on the US frigate United States in the naval victory against HMS Macedonian on Oct. 30, 1812.
2) The first free black community in Virginia (Johnsontown) was founded in Jefferson County by George and Betsy Johnson in 1848. Remnants of that community and the town graveyard are still there today, though not much else is known about that community and its history.
3) Martin R. Delany, the country’s first black line officer in the Union army was born in Charles Town on May 6, 1812. Major Delany was also a medical doctor, author, newspaper editor and the first proponent of black nationalism.
4) The largest landowner in Virginia was free black James Roper who lived in Jefferson County.
5) John Brown’s famous raid on Harpers Ferry to free the slaves included five blacks and took place in October 1859. Two of those men, Shields Green and John Copeland, were tried and hanged in Charles Town. The raid focused attention on the slavery issue and as Frederick Douglass would say later, “If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. 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 Sumter, but Harper's Ferry and the arsenal - not Col. Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic.”
6) One of the first schools designed to teach free slaves was founded in 1867 as Storer College in Harpers Ferry. The institution operated successfully until shut down by the Supreme Court’s Brown vs Board of Education decision in 1954.
7) The first civil rights meeting on U.S. soil took place in Harpers Ferry in 1906. That meeting (The Niagara Movement) attended by over 100 black leaders, is often called “one of the greatest meetings American Negroes ever held.” Men and women at that conference called for the government to enforce equality. That meeting led to the founding several years later of the NAACP.
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