Following this week’s observation of Martin Luther King Day and in anticipation of next month’s celebration of Black History Month, it’s worth recalling the outsized role the little village of Harpers Ferry has played in this nation’s long march towards black Americans’ advancement as full and free citizens of the United States.
It was at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, after all, that abolitionist John Brown led his ill-fated raid on the federal armory in October 1859, a tectonic move, according to James W. Loewen in “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” that made the idea of emancipation of this nation’s 4 million enslaved people seem not so “radical” after all.
And it was at Harpers Ferry that early 20th century civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois led the first meeting of the Niagara Movement in the United States in 1906. That three-day conference, which Du Bois called among the “greatest meetings that American Negroes ever held,” opened at Storer Normal School (now Storer College) and ended with those in attendance walking to the Murphy Farm, where the fort in which Brown’s assault met its bitter end almost 50 years earlier had been re-located.
Storer College, a four-year, degree-granting school founded immediately after the Civil War for the education of both blacks and whites, and women, holds a special place in the hearts of many African-Americans in Jefferson County and throughout the Shenandoah Valley and was where Frederick Douglass in 1881 came to offer his own affirmation of the significance of Brown and his raid.
Chief among the social aims of Du Bois’s Niagara Movement and its successor, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was the end of Jim Crow laws passed by Democratic-led state legislatures that allowed for segregation in public places, in public schools and in public transportation — and for the political disenfranchisement of blacks, most notably at the voting booth. The results of Jim Crow were disastrous to the nascent black middle class in the South.
In pursuit of a better life, Thomas Lovett’s parents came to Harpers Ferry after the Civil War and enrolled their son in Storer College. After working in a hotel they owned, Lovett, an African-American, would build the world-renowned Hilltop House Hotel atop the majestic overlook that opens onto what Thomas Jefferson in 1783 called “one of the most stupendous scenes in nature,” the confluence of two rivers and their passage through the Blue Ridge mountains. During the century that its doors remained open the Hilltop hosted presidents and poets, inventors and authors and remains to this day one of this area’s most beloved attractions.
The Hilltop House Hotel has been closed for more than a decade, but it’s that history and a commitment to Harpers Ferry as a place where pivotal moments in American history happened that helped inspire and inform SWaN & Legend Venture Partners’ owner Fred Schaufeld when he initiated a redesign of the reconstruction of the hotel in 2017.
SWaN & Legend had bought the site a decade earlier with a plan to build a 184-room lodge, but after town residents called that plan too large, Schaufeld took the project back to the drawing board, emerging with the concept of an “ideas place” that would be a home base for cultural, artistic and academic programs, that would be a place where groups and organizations could host retreats and that could serve as a gathering place where important issues of the day might be hashed out and decided upon — in much the way that the members of the Niagara Movement met a century earlier only a stone’s throw away to carve out a brighter future for black Americans in these United States.
We like SWaN’s redesign. Apart from the obvious benefits it would bring to Harpers Ferry and Jefferson County — more jobs, increased tax revenue, improved infrastructure for a town that needs it and more funds for the good work of promoting tourism, along with a bevy of interesting programs — the notion of a rebuilt and reimagined Hill Top returned to its place of prestige and importance drawing people from all over the world to Jefferson County is exciting to consider. It’s a high-concept plan with a vision as grand as the view off the end of the promontory it would occupy, not merely a place of lodging, but a world-class venue.
But two years after SWaN’s new concept was unveiled before a standing room-only crowd at The Barn, little has happened that can be called progress and the old hotel continues to sink like a rotting hulk into the east end of Ridge Street, a sad shadow of itself. And recent statements from Harpers Ferry’s elected leaders suggest there is little chance that will change any time soon. After stringing SWaN along with requests for economic impact studies and meetings, meetings, meetings, town leaders evince no sense of urgency despite Schaufeld declaring a year ago that his commitment to the project was finite and nearly finished. Instead, town leaders spent 2019 haranguing SWaN over manufactured concerns about asbestos contamination, nibbling over its parking plan, showing little interest in the proposal of a special taxing district and sniffing over inconsequential details, a switchback walking path that would lead to the lower part of town, how many hours in the day the promontory overlook would be accessible to the public and the presence of a parking attendant’s booth.
Mayor Wayne Bishop has recently reaffirmed his opposition to a street-use proposal suggested by the investment group, while Councilwoman Barbara Humes, who signed a petition only six years ago in support of a hotel the size of what SWaN has proposed, is now angling for a bed and breakfast-style lodge of between 10 and 100 rooms to be built there. Meanwhile, the antics of a slim majority on the town council have befouled the most recent municipal election in a shameful re-enactment of the same kind of voter disenfranchisement that brought W.E.B. Du Bois and the Niagara Movement to Harpers Ferry more than a century ago.
SWaN’s Hilltop project enjoys broad support in Jefferson County and within the town limits of Harpers Ferry. It’s no stretch of the imagination to contemplate that Bishop and his allies on the council prevailed in June’s election because they chose their words carefully.
During the campaign they claimed mightily to support seeing a hotel built on East Ridge Street (and perhaps even have a plan about how to do it), but they kept silent about their opposition to SWaN’s hotel plan. And sadly, voters appear not to have been paying close enough attention.
As the battle over the outcome of Harpers Ferry’s municipal election of 2019 clatters into the new year, the fate of SWaN’s Hill Top House Hotel rests now with the state Supreme Court. That’s regrettable. The solution remains right here in Harpers Ferry. This mayor and this council should have taken better care to ensure a fair election, by not rejecting provisional ballots caused by a clerk’s error and by not allowing questionable ballots to be cast. While we think their opposition to this plan betrays a lack of vision, we think their election machinations are downright provincial, and in the worst sense of the word. This gang might have done well for the reputation of their town to have remembered that it was in Harpers Ferry that a group of brave Americans came together a century before to argue that the integrity of elections and of voters’ rights was essential for true self-government to happen.
Now there’s a big idea well worth preserving.