If you walked down the 300th block of South Lawrence Street in downtown Charles Town during a recent late August weekend, you might have seen a little bit of the past, present, and future of the Jefferson County African-American community.
And perhaps the greater Jefferson County community as a whole.
In conjunction with the Jefferson County NAACP and Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the greater Charles Town and Ranson communities celebrated the 27th-annual Jefferson County African-American Cultural and Heritage Festival (AACHF) on August 16-18, comprising a weekend filled with hope, reflection, and community.
The event also coincided with the 400th anniversary of slavery in America (1619-2019). The first Africans landed in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 from the port city of Luanda, now the present-day capital of Angola—located on the west coast of south central Africa.
“This whole event is amazing, just amazing,” said festival attendee and Charles Town resident Sharon Buchanan, formerly of Gainesville (VA). “To see all the people here—white, black, and whatever—to see parents and children, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, students and teachers … it feels right. It feels like a community. It makes my heart soar. Beautiful.”
Setting a Course
According to the group’s mission statement, the AACHF is meant to “provide a series of activities highlighting and promoting the positive achievements of the African-American community of the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.”
Initially, the concept for the AACHF was started by Ollie Lightfoot Tolbert, a longtime social worker, church member (St. Philip’s Episcopal), and an Eastern Star matron (Deborah Chapter 38). Tolbert was also a member of the American Legion Auxiliary Post 631, the United Way, and a longtime volunteer for Jefferson Memorial Hospital. She presented an idea to the Jefferson County NAACP, and six months later, in 1993, it had begun. Her stated hope: “… that the community set a course for future generations.”
“I thought the weekend went pretty great,” said George Rutherford, a member of the Jefferson County NAACP and the Festival’s organizer for the last 20 years. “There was something for everyone.”
Members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company B, traveled to West Virginia to march in the parade. According to the group’s website, they represent an “… organization of volunteers, comprised of both professional and amateur historians, dedicated to preserving the history of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and Black Soldiers in the Civil War.” Initially formed in 1988, they are among the best-drilled and most authentic Civil War reenactment groups in the country. The 54th Company B marched in the inauguration parade for former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2013, also paying tribute to the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863) and the activation of the regiment.
“It was a wonderful experience—we do it every year,” emphasized Howard Lambert, one of Company B’s reenactment soldiers. “The people here are so gracious, so we feel like it’s a must for us to participate in. We’re happy to support the people of West Virginia, and it’s great to be here. They treat us with such open arms.”
The original 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment started in May 1863, leaving Boston on the steamer DeMolay for Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, on May 28, and arriving in the Lowcountry in early June. The regiment lost five officers and 104 enlisted men by killing or mortal wounds, and one officer and 160 enlisted personnel by disease. The popular 1989 movie “Glory,” starring Denzel Washington as one of the enlisted men, told the story of the 54th Massachusetts.
“We’re proudly paying homage to those men and the sacrifices they made,” added Lambert, who works for the Department of Defense and lives in Northern Virginia. “[Abraham] Lincoln himself credited the African-American soldier with tipping the balance [in favor] of the Union Army. Our legacy is very long, and very proud. It is an honor to wear this uniform.”
Right on Target
Spread out over three days, the event began on August 16 with a gospel event at the Betty Roper Auditorium and a well-attended youth block party on South Lawrence Street. Saturday’s parade, perhaps the centerpiece of the event, kicked off the day’s festivities. Newly-appointed Charles Town Mayor Bob Trainor and members of the Charles Town City Council, bands, step teams, athletic teams from Jefferson and Washington High Schools, Miss Black West Virginia USA Mercedez Speight, and a variety of local luminaries and organizations, highlighted the hour-long parade. Additionally, AACHF selected two retired Jefferson County educators, husband and wife James and Dorothy Taylor, to be grand marshals for the event.
“It’s really, really an honor,” said Taylor (James), 84. “My wife and I, we really had no idea that one day we’d march in the parade as [grand marshal].”
Known as “Coach” (“I’ve coached just about everybody in Jefferson County,” he mused), Taylor and his wife are the only people to have attended, graduated, and taught at the segregated Page Jackson High School in Jefferson County. Both later taught in the Jefferson County School system before retiring.
Rutherford noted, “To me, he was always right on target, respected by blacks and whites, kids and adults, teachers and students.”
Taylor added, motioning to the crowd from his post-parade spot near the intersection of Charles and West Washington Street, “This has been a good day. I love it. We had no idea there’d be a turnout like this. You live all your life … you never even think that this would happen. You never even dream that this would happen.
Following Saturday’s parade, attendees continued to the vendor and event space on South Lawrence Street, adjacent to the Martin Robison Delany Opportunity Learning Center. There, a smattering of local vendors, public figures, and organizations dotted the grass in front of the school. The smell of fresh fried catfish and cod wafted through the hot summer air. A variety of musical guests, from gospel to R&B and Soul, kept hips shaking and heads bobbing until dusk.
At one of the vendor tables sat World’s Miss Tourism 2020 Antanya Hardy—a Martinsburg native and Shepherd University grad, who won the West Virginia satellite competition last October—and in early August, won her age bracket at the national competition in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Today is a great opportunity to get out, to see the community, and get to talk to people and share our experience,” she indicated. “This is such a time of celebration.”
Later, during a quiet moment in the early portion of the events following the parade, a speaker named Mary got up and told a poignant story of losing her family to drugs and violence.
“I have lived in this community for a long, long time. I lost it all, but the faith of God kept me strong. And being together—keeping what we have as a community. And I want to thank you all for coming out here, regardless of your race, your color, or anything. Because we support each other, and who we are.”
The weekend’s festivities ended on Sunday with a morning memorial walk to the John Brown Fort site at Murphy Farm in Harpers Ferry—followed by an ecumenical memorial service at the Curtis Freewill Baptist Church, perhaps a fitting place to end the festival. The structure began as a religious facility for Storer College, a historically black college and teachers’ training institution that operated from 1865 to 1955. It also acted as a church for African-American residents of Harpers Ferry and nearby Bolivar. It is presently owned by the National Park Service.By David Gignilliat