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Monday, October 10, 2005

Thompson Book Explores Local Civil Rights Efforts

Oct 07, 2005 -- In the Watchfires, just published by the Black History Committee of the Friends of Thomas Balch Library, is a vivid account of a Loudoun tradition of celebrating Emancipation. In 1890, black families in western Loudoun formed an association tasked with organizing yearly celebrations on Sept. 22 to mark the beginning of the end of slavery. On that day in 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation warning the rebellious states that all slaves should be set free by New Year’s Day. That was the Emancipation Proclamation. In marking the anniversary last month, the Thomas Balch library hosted a meeting and reception for Watchfires author Elaine E. Thompson. The event was attended by 112 people, of whom more than a third were direct descendants of founders, officers and directors of the Loudoun County Emancipation Association. They came from all around the country to share in the occasion and to hear Thompson discuss her book. In large part, the element of Loudoun history, which has until now been preserved in the oral tradition of black families, was not known to the broader community. The Emancipation Association was active for 81 years, until it was dissolved in 1971. The word “Watchfires” in the title is taken from a line in The Battle Hymn of the Republic, “I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps…” These were fires lit for soldiers who guarded Union encampments during the Civil War. For Thompson, the title of her book symbolizes the role of the Emancipation Association as a protector of the black community. She described the courage of the original families that established communities in Loudoun, building homes, schools and churches only to see their hard-won rights erode as Jim Crow swept the country after the end of the Reconstruction Period. “How they used racial pride to counter segregation in that period, how they coped with the challenges of Jim Crow, expressed our national ideals of freedom and liberty, is a real and important part of the history of Loudoun County,” she said. School children are taught that President Woodrow Wilson claimed that World War I would “make the world safe for democracy,” even though he was responsible for segregating government facilities in Washington, DC. Nevertheless the Emancipation Association contributed to the war effort. This shows their patriotism despite the wrongs they suffered, she said. She described Emancipation Day as a combination of the Fourth of July and Christmas, an all-day event featuring parades, cavalry soldiers on their horses, speeches by notables from all over the country, food, fun and games. Typically, the Emancipation Day festivities would begin with a march through town streets, an action which was a quiet assertion of the rights of the black community. The parade was led by four men who were dressed to represent Uncle Sam, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas and abolitionist John Brown. In the book, Thompson said that two of the founders are known to have served in the Union army. In 1910, the Emancipation Association incorporated and purchased 10.5 acres in Purcellville, on which it built a tabernacle with a 1,200-person seating capacity. This became the place where Emancipation Day celebrations were held but it was also a place for social activities and sporting events for the black community all year long. As the civil rights movement gained force following World War II, the Emancipation Association became less of a focal point for the Loudoun black community. Ironically, it was the achievement of its goal of desegregation and the improvement of opportunities for black Americans that led to its dissolution in 1971, Thompson said. Although the grounds are now used for other purposes and the tabernacle is long gone, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources installed a historic highway marker at the site in 2000. During the discussion period, many of those gathered at the library thanked Thompson for writing the book. Several people remarked on how the Purcellville property still seems like hallowed ground. Lemoine Pierce described the meeting as a “holy occasion.” She had found out about the meeting by researching the family geology on the Internet, she said. At the gathering, Thompson recited a roll call of the families that had served on the Emancipation Association in various capacities and asked descendants to stand. Thirty-eight did so. Also present were Leesburg Mayor Kristen Umstattd and Councilwoman Kelly Burk. The age of the audience ranged from children to Thompson’s 98-year-old uncle, Charles Presley Clark, who had been a director and vice-president of the Emancipation Association and was the son of founders Howard and Eppie Clark. Traditionally, Emancipation Day celebrations were gatherings of families that either moved away or had been been sold to distant parts during the days of slavery, Thompson said. This occasion was no different. Billy Pierce, a famous choreographer and impresario, was an early shareholder in the Emancipation Association. He is reported to have invented the Charleston by Lemoine Pierce, the widow of his son, and was an associate of famous dancers such as Fred Astaire. Lemoine Pierce came to the meeting from Atlanta and was accompanied by her son William and her grandson William who are now living in New York City. It was their first time in Loudoun, she said. Charles Clark was born in Hamilton, but for the past 71 years he has been living in a Purcellville home which he had rented and then purchased from Billy Pierce. It was a great thrill for the Pierce family to meet Charles Clark at their former home when they visited the area. Thompson grew up in Hamilton where she now lives. She is a direct descendant of Howard Clark, who at the age of 14 was the first secretary of the Emancipation Association. In 2001, when Balch reopened following renovation, the great hall where his portrait now hangs was named the Howard Clark room to honor him. “When I was a child, I could not go to Balch Library. They have made tremendous strides by preserving and collecting Afro American history. Now the rest of the country needs to catch up,” she said. The 18 members of the Black History Committee, of which Thompson is a leading member, have diverse backgrounds. Phyllis Cook-Taylor, is chairman. She was born in Middleburg in 1955, and she remembers the impacts of segregation in Loudoun. She was only able to attend an integrated school in fifth grade. Too young to participate directly in the civil rights struggle, she did experience it through the activity of her parents who were especially involved in the struggle in Loudoun County for integrated education and for voting rights. She believes that black history should be taught in the schools, and she hopes that In the Watchfires will become an important source book for school children. “All our youth, not just blacks, need to understand this history. The struggle for justice by black people is a model for all of us young and old, whatever the injustice,” she said. Lou Etta Watkins grew up in Fauquier County, but she moved to Purcellville as a young woman after her marriage. She was active in NAACP legal activities to desegregate the Purcellville schools during the 1960s. She said that one of the things she most liked about Thompson’s book was its positive emphasis on the strength and accomplishments of the black families that established themselves in the county despite discrimination and the other problems which they faced. She remarked that the Thomas Balch library was built in 1922 as a private library devoted to historic preservation. It was only opened to a broader, white population—in fact all Loudoun libraries were closed to blacks until the 1960s. Sherry Sanabria, another member of the committee, is a well known local artist. She said that being a member of the panel was an inspiration for a series of her paintings now on exhibit at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, MD, on “Slave Quarters and Other African American Sites.” In the Watchfires can be purchased for $20 at Thomas Balch library, and at 17 local stores. For more information call Janet Manthos at 703-777-2682. Publication of the book was supported by a grant from the Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy and the National Foundation for the Humanities, the Clarence I. Robey Charitable Trust, and the Loudoun Library Foundation. Further costs were paid by the Black History Committee, which meets on the fourth Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. at Thomas Balch library.

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