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'From John Brown to James Brown': Author shares local African American history

February 7, 2020
Tabitha Johnston - Chronicle Staff , Shepherdstown Chronicle

SHEPHERDSTOWN -- "If you went to John Brown's Farm, you were dressed up in a suit, shined shoes, the whole nine yards. It's something that's so different from today's youth," said Alfred Baylor, of Harpers Ferry, in the Robert C. Byrd Center on Friday night.

Baylor was one of a few local guests who had given oral histories of how John Brown's Farm was used to promote African American culture in the 20th century. His and the memories of many others helped to contribute to the book, "John Brown to James Brown: The Little Farm where Liberty Budded, Blossomed, and Boogied," which was written by Broadfording Christian Academy history teacher Ed Maliskas.

Baylor and his fellow oral historians helped Maliskas throughout Friday's book signing event, as they explained how John Brown's Farm was first used to help free African American slaves, and was then adopted by the Black Elks, or the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, as a meeting place for African Americans of all ages. While for some African Americans at the time, the meeting area was their place to plan how to end segregation, for others, it was a place to celebrate music and socialize through dancing.

Article Photos

Shepherd University graduate students Renee Ritenour, of Inwood, left, and Rebecca Calloway, of Keedysville, Md., learn about local African American history from Alfred Baylor, of Harpers Ferry, in the Byrd Center on Friday night. Tabitha Johnston

"We were black and it was segregated, and that was our place to dance. We were there to have fun," Baylor said, mentioning that he is now 81, and was 16 when he started attending the dances, which typically ended at 11 p.m.

According to James "Coach" Taylor, of Charles Town, fighting never happened at the dances, because all of the African Americans in the area were family or knew one another.

"When we would got to a dance, we knew these people, so we didn't have gang fighting," Taylor said, mentioning that spirit of camaraderie had been developed through participating in segregated school and church events.

While the photograph Maliskas showed of the meeting room/dance hall agreed with his statement that it was "simple, functional," the inhabitants of that room were far from that. According to Maliskas, Martin Luther King, Sr., and other African American thought leaders of the day met there. Many of the musicians performing at the dances became household names soon after, including greats such as Ray Charles, B.B. King, Tina Turner, Ike Turner, James Brown, Chuck Berry and Marvin Gaye.

Due to all of the historical moments and behind-the-scenes work that was done at John's Brown Farm over the years, Maliskas said the now privately-owned property should be used to preserve its legacy as a major American landmark.

"I believe this place is the central place for African American history in America, John Brown's Farm. I'm going to contend that, not only did the Civil War spring from this property, but also the Civil Rights Movement," Maliskas said. "These things came from John Brown's vision of equality. His vision was 'we're all God's children, we can all live by the Golden Rule.' He operated based on his convictions."

The book can be found at Four Seasons Books or online.



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