Harpers Ferry Walk to Freedom

John Brown’s Fort, by Autumn Cook, National Park Service

In one week I plan to hit the road again for a short 80 plus-mile, four county, journey from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania looking back into American history and the fuse that set the Civil War in motion – John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

When thinking about John Brown’s raid on the Harpers Ferry Armory, I wondered what was the size of the enslaved and free African American community in Harpers Ferry and the surrounding area that made Brown believe they would revolt with him against the local slaveocracy?

From Storer College Archives

Before I set out on my journey, I plan to meet with representatives of the Harpers Ferry National Park Service to learn about Brown’s raid and Storer College, a Black college founded there after the Civil War that graduated over 7,000 students before it closed in the mid-1950s.

The Northern Shenandoah Valley where Harpers Ferry lies is one of many border communities just 35 miles south of the Mason-Dixon line where small pockets of free and enslaved Blacks resided side by side. Across the Potomac River and a short distant northeast into Maryland is Frederick, the second community I’ll walk into on my journey.  Here I plan to explore the Frederick African American Walking Tour, that provides glimpses of more than two centuries of African American history.  In Frederick, I look forward to visiting the Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, named after the late Bishop William Paul Quinn, known as the “militant soldier of the cross,” a dynamic circuit-riding itinerant preacher who brought little out of the way churches into the greater AME fold and the Black church Underground Railroad network.

From Frederick, I plan to turn north to the Catoctin Furnace for the Maryland Iron Festival, May 20-21. Eighteenth and nineteenth century iron furnaces played an important part in the development of the U.S. economy and providing freedom to escaping self-liberators following the vein of ore coursing through the mountain ranges of Maryland north into Pennsylvania.  It is believed enslavers specifically chose groups of enslaved Africans from certain area of West Africa for their iron smelting and forging experience.

“In Nigeria, iron was fundamental to the rise of several important kingdoms—Dahomey, Benin, and the Yoruba kingdoms, including primarily Ife and Oyo. All of these Nigerian kingdoms had a great deal of contact with one another and therefore share similar spiritual

Staff – Female Figure

beliefs concerning the attributes of iron and ironworking methods. Ogun, the god of iron, is an important deity recognized by all of them. Ogun is credited with introducing iron as well as being the first hunter and warrior, the opener of roads, clearer of fields, and founder of dynasties. The iron sword of Ogun, a central symbolic motif, is associated with both civilizing and aggressive actions,” The Age of Iron in West Africa, Emma George Ross, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Often Black communities near the furnaces provided safehouses for Freedom Seekers traveling north. While this may be more the case in Ohio, Catoctin has made a concerted effort to tell the stories of the enslaved who worked tirelessly there. Some of the stories culled from historic runaway ads and a 200+ year old burial ground rediscovered during highway construction. These stories have shifted and centered the narrative of work and slavery at Catoctin. I look forward to learning more about how iron was crafted at the Iron Festival.

After leaving Catoctin, I’ll zig-zag through a pass across the Blue Ridge Mountain leading to Hagerstown, to seek out another historic African American community, part of the Great Appalachian Valley.  Hagerstown sits just east of the Potomac River and Conococheague Creek, a full day’s walk north of Harper’s Ferry, and seven miles south of State Line, Pennsylvania. (Fun fact: There are 13 places in the U.S. named State Line.)

Hagerstown is about a 21-mile walk from Catoctin Furnace and I am not sure if I will do it in two 10-mile legs or a 12 and 9-mile stretch. Either way I will be climbing hills in the 1,000 to 1,600 foot range to get across the Catoctin Mountains, the easternmost front of the Blue Ridge. In Hagerstown, I look forward to visiting the Doleman Black Heritage Museum, founded in 1974  to preserve and enhance the history and culture of Blacks in Washington County, Maryland.  I also plan to visit some of the 11 sites documented as part of the Hagerstown Underground Railroad Trail

From Hagerstown I’ll follow a diagonal route in a northeasterly direction toward the Mason-Dixon line heading towards Gettysburg, about 32 miles, or two days of walking.