The Political Work of Leisure: Class, Recreation, and African American Commemoration at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, 1881-1931

By Kahrl, Andrew W. | Journal of Social History, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The Political Work of Leisure: Class, Recreation, and African American Commemoration at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, 1881-1931


Kahrl, Andrew W., Journal of Social History


In 1896, J. R. Clifford launched a public campaign against Storer College in response to its recent decision to exclude African Americans from its summer boarding accommodations. To this African American lawyer and Storer graduate, the administration's action exhibited their indifference toward the role leisure and recreation played in black political and racial consciousness and its ties to commemorative culture. Founded in 1867 by Freewill Baptists for the education of freedmen and women, Storer College was located on Camp Hill in Harpers Ferry, a town steeped in both scenic splendor and historical significance. Since John Brown's ill-fated assault on slavery there in 1859, Harpers Ferry had become hallowed ground in African Americans' collective memory. In the decades following emancipation, groups large and small boarded the Baltimore & Ohio railroad and ventured to the war-ravaged town to pay respects to the man who, as Langston Hughes would later pen, "went to shoot [their] way to freedom," while hiking mountainous trails and strolling along the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers' shores. (1)

For many urban blacks, such weekend excursions became an ideal way to seek relief from unbearable summertime heat and humidity, affording them the opportunity to travel to sites of historical significance in a country that had only recently recognized their citizenship. Of the many spots prominently featured on the B&O's westward itinerary, the student dormitories on Storer's campus were one of the few places where African Americans of means could enjoy an extended stay, where mothers, with children by their side, could retreat during the "heated term," to be greeted by their husbands at the train depot on weekends. A fledgling educational institution nine months each year, the campus became, during the summer, a makeshift resort for the elite and the aspiring, a place where vacationers and excursionists could bask in the area's resplendent scenery, relax in the company of their family and friends, and revel in the end of another workweek. And though their leisurely activities might at first glance seem unremarkable, their choice of location, the meanings they invested in such pursuits, and their critique of each others, reveal a heretofore unexplored dimension of the broader contest over the memory of John Brown and the reality of Jim Crow.

Clifford's fight to preserve summer boarding for blacks at Storer College opens a window on the politics of leisure and its role in shaping class consciousness among African Americans during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The intersection of race, leisure, and memory, as witnessed at Harpers Ferry, was fundamental to the development and fragmentation of black political culture from Reconstruction through Jim Crow. As the resort, long a haven for the black elite and the middle class, increasingly became an excursion destination for the working poor, tensions over African Americans' public conduct and use of "spare time" escalated, shaping groups' and individuals' pursuit of leisure there and its perceived political implications. Leisure and recreation, as this essay argues, became fully enmeshed in blacks' debates over public self-representation, and at Harpers Ferry, the utilization of the past to shape the present. (2)

This essay examines the role of leisure in shaping debates over the role of public conduct, history and memory, and racial uplift among African Americans. The leisurely pursuits of African Americans at Harpers Ferry and the efforts of Clifford and others to protect them from the insidious effects of Jim Crow reveal the importance blacks placed in securing and defending leisure space. The ambivalence of other blacks to both Brown the historical figure and Harpers Ferry the vacation destination underscore the fractious divides commemorative activities produced among African Americans. The diverse emotions blacks invested in Harpers Ferry, and the varying ways in which they utilized this space, highlight the subtle ways through which African Americans challenged white historical narratives. …

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