Some people think of systemic racism as a thing of the distant past, especially if they happen to live in a part of the country which in the 19th century fought for freeing the slaves. But institutional racism was alive even in the later half of the 20th century, and in some senses is alive even today. I would bet that there are some practices today that future generations will look at and say – how could we have accepted that? The current state of the national education system comes to mind in this regard. The video below presents life experiences of people who lived, and are living, some of these experiences, told through the story of the bridge. Not all stories make it to the limelight.
Talbot Avenue Bridge will eventually be demolished and replaced by a new bridge that is a part of the Purple Line project for light commuter rail. I understand that parts of the original bridge will be saved and moved to locations where they can be used as memorials to remind us of our history.
P.S. I biked across the Talbot Avenue bridge last year as part of training for my long ride. The bridge is a part of the Georgetown Branch trail, which is an extension of the Capital Crescent Trail.
Some of you who may have read my previous blogs could be wondering about the motivation behind this trilogy of blogs on Harpers Ferry. My first inclination had been to write only this particular blog that I am about to pen, and this was based on a trip that we had made to the town very recently. But then I realized that I have been experiencing Harpers Ferry and writing about it for some time. Some history in this regard was needed before proceeding. The earlier blogs on the topic of Harpers Ferry, and the background material needed for them, flowed quite naturally from this realization.
If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know by now that Harpers Ferry has been a part of my weekend runs for several years on the C&O Canal, although more frequently in the past than in current times. But one does also occasionally wander into the town itself from across the river, either when one decides to cross over the river to the tip of Harpers Ferry, to the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah, or when one goes into town for tourism purposes when we have visitors from other parts of the world.
Thus is was that we found ourselves recently visiting the place twice this year, in quick succession, accompanying visitors. You would think that such visits into town would tend to become monotonous, but the amazing thing is that I am finding new things about this place called Harpers Ferry. I am actually beginning to get a better sense for what life must have been for people living here in times past, starting from when Robert Harper moved to the area in the 1760s. I am now also more fascinated by the history of the town in the simplest sense of the word, i.e., in terms of how people lived there rather than in the sense of its place in history, about how the town grew and even prospered before the inevitable impact of the passage of time, and even about simple things like how the layout of the town changed over the years (there were actually even a few canals that flowed through town at one time or the other). Perhaps a day can come when I can even get a sense for how people generally felt about their lives in Harpers Ferry.
So what is it that has roused my enthusiasm about the place you ask! As background for getting a better insight into my frame of mind and my thinking about this subject, I will note that one of the first things worth knowing about current Harpers Ferry is that the National Park Service (NPS) has done a bang-up job bringing the town back to life, both physically and virtually, after its having been destroyed over and over again by floods, something that almost led to abandonment. Today, people only live in the upper parts of town above the flood lines. The lower part of the town is dedicated to the tourists. Besides the mom-and-pop shops and restaurants, there are still many previously abandoned buildings of the old town that remain in this lower part of town. In spite of having been to Harpers Ferry many times, this was the first time I discovered that many of these abandoned buildings have been converted to museums. Each building addresses a different aspect of the town’s history and background. This is a work in progress, but the NPS have already done an excellent job. There is an attempt to cover all aspects of life in a little town over the entire period of its existence in a systematic way. Of course, significant turning points in history, like John Brown’s insurrection, and the important battle that took place in and around the town during the civil war, are prominent subjects for presentation, but one also learns about the life of ordinary people, including the experience of blacks at that time in history, or the commercial story of the town (as noted, it was once a prosperous town), the functioning of the armory that the town came to be identified with, and the impact of the railroad and the floods on the town over the years. You can feel like you are living the experience.
With more and more trips to the town, I might actually begin to remember what I see and read in the museums and be able to relive those times in my mind rather than just remember the experience of being in the town! This year was the first time we walked through the ruins of Virginius, a little island on the west side of town that at one time was Harpers Ferry’s center of commerce. They made good use of the power of the waters of the Shenandoah to fuel the commerce and help the place flourish, by diverting some of the water into tunnels under town in order to use its power. But ultimately the river was not controllable!
For the first time, we found the original site of John Brown’s fort, originally a guard and fire house. The site is on top of an embankment that once used to carry a railroad line into town. (The remains of the railroad track can still be seen under the sand in places.) The embankment runs parallel to Potomac street.
John Brown’s fort has itself been moved around quite a bit over time, even to places outside of Harpers Ferry. It has come to rest in its current location near the confluence of the rivers most recently.
And then we discovered the site of the original buildings of The Armory behind the embankment I mentioned earlier. None of the armory buildings still remain, having been razed to the ground to support a railroad yard more recently in time. But you can walk in the area and get a sense for the place. There are markers that tell you a little more about the place itself.
It turns out that after all these years I am still learning new things about Harpers Ferry. I even have a better appreciation for how the place must have looked in different times. I will be back, and hopefully I will continue to have my curiosity piqued, and I will actually remember some of things I read, and I will also continue to learn. Maybe Harpers Ferry will remain with me forever!
By sheer coincidence, we happened to visit a few historical locations last week that are associated in one way or the other with the American Civil War. The practice of observing a Memorial Day in the United States came into being as a formal way to remember the people who had lost their lives in this war.
The first place we visited during our travels last week was Gettysburg, the location of the civil war battle where about 51,000 lives were lost in a single encounter over three days of fighting. The battle marked the turning of the Civil War, when The Union finally began to push back The Confederacy. It was also the place where Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address. The first picture below is from a section of the famous Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama. The cyclorama can be seen at the visitor center in Gettysburg.The next place we visited was Harper’s Ferry, the location where John Brown, the abolitionist, raided the local armory and helped to ignite a process that eventually led to the civil war. Being at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, the town played an important role during the civil war itself.The last place we visited were the fields of Antietam where the bloodiest single day battle of the civil war was fought. About 23,000 people lost their lives in about 12 hours.These days Memorial Day serves as the day to remember all the men and women who have given up their lives to serve the country in various wars and battles, but mostly it seems to be a day for people to consider the beginning of the summer season. Barbecues are fired up for the first time, swimming pools are open, and yes, there are good sales in the stores.
Sadly, we have still not learnt our lessons about wars in general.
I was reminded of this old email that I had sent to family and friends because of some recent news that I blogged about. I will explain at the end.
Ok, I am being overly dramatic! It is not a legend. It is merely a curious story. The particular name in the title has the remote possibility of attracting the attention of suspicious people who like to keep track of activities on the Internet – even though the story is quite old at this point. Anyway, back to the story.
If you were running along the C&O canal near Washington, DC, (just north of mile 1 on the towpath), you might come across a small white cross leaning against a tree trunk beside the trail. On the cross is a card. The card indicates that this is a memorial to Mary Pinchot Meyer.The cross appeared on the trail some time last year and is at the location where she was killed while walking along the towpath in 1964. She was 43 years old when she died, and the cross appeared on the towpath 43 years after her death. Nobody has yet admitted to putting the cross there. Who was Mary Pinchot Meyer? She was John F. Kennedy’s mistress at the time of his death. If you look it up the Internet, you will find a few conspiracy theories surrounding her death. She apparently used to keep a diary that included an account of her affair with JFK. Various people were interested in this diary after her death and went looking for it. Her ex-husband, Cord Meyer, was a higher-up in the CIA and was involved in the search for the murderer. The person who was brought to trial for killing her was acquitted. Just another story on the towpath…
By the way, if you are interested in a really good (but completely humorless) movie about the kind of people who came together to form the CIA during that time, I would recommend The Good Shepherd directed by Robert De Niro.
I finally worked up the courage to do the Potomac tour on foot in the area of Washington DC this morning. Basically I ran on both sides of the river at Washington, DC. Working my way south on the towpath from Fletcher’s Cove,
and then followed the Mount Vernon trail south, past Roosevelt Island and the various bridges that span the Potomac.I followed the trail as it paralleled the George Washington Parkway all the way to Gravelly Point Park at the end of the longest runway for Washington National Airport. I spent some time at Gravelly taking pictures and watching the planes landing and taking off.On the way back, I crossed over the river at the 14th Street Bridge into Washington DC.I got off the bridge close to the Jefferson Memorial, and then worked my way back up north along the river, past the Lincoln Memorial, the Kennedy Center and the Watergate buildings, to the beginning of the towpath. I then followed the canal back to Fletcher’s Cove.Next time I come to this area I will try to explore the trails on Roosevelt Island, and also try to find the trail along the edge of the river north of Key bridge on the Virginia side.
Today’s Postscript: Coming back to Mary Pinchot Meyer, mentioned in the first section of the above email, the cops tried to pin her murder on a black person, Ray Crump, who happened to be in the general area. Dovey Johnson Roundtree, the subject of my previous blog, was the one who was able to get Ray Crump acquitted of the crime. It was quite an achievement for a black woman lawyer in those days!
Since I wrote the original email, I have been to this area, and traveled this path, several times on a bicycle. I have taken the 18 mile long Mt. Vernon trail all the way to Mt. Vernon. I have however not been to Roosevelt island yet! I have also walked the trail on the Virginia side of the Potomac up to the Chain bridge under very trying conditions. That was the subject of another email blast, an email that I might rediscover some other day.
By the way, I have not seen a memorial to Mary Pinchot Meyer in subsequent years at that location, but this could possibly be because I have not been on that section of the towpath at the right time of the year.
“As a lawyer, she helped win a landmark ban on racial segregation in interstate bus travel, and her representation of poor black defendants — including her successful defense of a man accused of the notorious murder of a Georgetown socialite in 1964 — blazed new trails for black lawyers.”
“A passionate advocate for the education of women and the poor, Agnesi believed that the natural sciences and math should play an important role in an educational curriculum. As a person of deep religious faith, however, she also believed that scientific and mathematical studies must be viewed in the larger context of God’s plan for creation.”
The democratization of “science” and “information” by the Internet has enabled many strange things today, including acceptance of lines of thinking that one would have expected reasonable people to scoff at in the past, and events that some people would consider quite surprising during our times, such as the results of the US presidential elections in 2016.
Despite early claims, from as far back as HG Well’s “world brain” essays in 1936, that a worldwide shared resource of knowledge such as the internet would create peace, harmony and a common interpretation of reality, it appears that quite the opposite has happened. With the increased voice afforded by social media, knowledge has been increasingly decentralised, and competing narratives have emerged.