February 05, 2008


John Brown's "fort" in Harper's Ferry. Image courtesy of the New York Historical Society by way of the Library of Congress.

"These mountains are the basis of my plan... God has given the strength of the hills to freedom; they were placed here for emancipation of the negro race; they are full of natural forts, where one man for defense will be equal to one hundred for attack; they are full also of good hiding-places, where large numbers of brave men could be concealed, baffle and elude pursuit for a long time."--John Brown, 1847

The theme of this week's Goat Rope is the February celebration of Black History, with a West Virginia thread running through it. You will also find links and comments about current events.

One reason why West Virginia shows up so often and in so many ways in the history of African Americans in this country has to be location, location, location. Until 1863 it was an often uneasy part of Virginia.

Western terrain, with some exceptions, was little suited for slavery and many residents of that part of the state resented the predominance of wealthy planters in state politics. The "peculiar institution" was concentrated in what would later be West Virginia's eastern panhandle and the Kanawha River Valley.

In 1831-32, in the wake of Nat Turner's rebellion, there was serious talk in the Virginia legislature about abolishing slavery, a move which had serious support among westerners, although it was eventually defeated.

Radical abolitionist John Brown famously chose Harper's Ferry as the site of his abortive efforts to launch a slave insurrection. It is one of history's ironies that, while Brown failed at nearly everything he attempted, he was ultimately successful in forcing the issue to a crisis.

As he was about to be hanged after his trial in nearby Charles Town, he commented "This is a beautiful country. I never had the pleasure of seeing it before..."

(Charles Town, by the way, was the birth place of Martin Delany, a free-born African American physician and abolitionist who was commissioned a major in the union army in Feb. 1865. )

As the Civil War approached, most westerners opposed Virginia's secession from the Union and the move to form a new state enjoyed significant if not universal support. Voters here overwhelmingly approved the Willey Amendment in 1863 which provided for the abolition of slavery in West Virginia and cleared the way for its admission into the union.

It is fitting that the site of Brown's raid was the place of the first public meeting of the Niagara Movement in 1906. The Niagra movement was founded by W.E.B. DuBois, William Monroe Trotter and others and called for full civil rights for African-Americans. It is widely viewed as a forerunner of the NAACP.

According to historian John Alexander Williams, author of the classic West Virginia: A History, in August 1906, DuBois led Niagra members on a barefoot pilgrimage to the engine house where Brown was captured (pictured above):

"and here on the scene of John Brown's martyrdom," as DuBois told the story, "We reconsecrated ourselves, our honor, our property, to the final emancipation of the race which John Brown died to make free."

CORRECTION. A reader pointed out that I got Lincoln's birthday wrong yesterday. My bad--I meant to say it was the 12th. Also, the spellchecker on blogger isn't working so there are probably some typos here.

CLIMATE TIPPING POINTS. Here are some I hope don't happen from the nice folks at Wired Science.

IS WAL-MART RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT? It kinda sounds like it.

UNDEREMPLOYING UNEMPLOYMENT. The latest snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute makes the case that longterm unemployment warrants action now--and is likely to get worse in the future.

PAY AS YOU GO. As the economy slows and debt mounts, some consumers are moving back to operating on a cash basis.

BAD TO WORSE. President Bush's proposed federal budget is as bad as we've come to expect it to be. Senator Byrd wasn't happy about scholarship cuts and slashes to mine safety programs.

UNSTIMULATING. The WV Center on Budget and Policy just issued a report showing that the new stimulus proposed by the Bush administration and Congress could cost WV millions.

AN UNKNOWN GOD. Archaeologists in Greece have found an altar dedicated to an unknown god who pre-dates Zeus. Whoever it was, he or she was probably way less entertaining.


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