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Harpers Ferry Looks Back At African American Memorial Day Tradition

Harpers Ferry

After the Civil War, families of fallen Union soldiers recognized Decoration Day by adorning the graves of their loved ones with flowers. That remembrance became what’s now known as Memorial Day and also became a unique holiday for African American tourists visiting West Virginia during the late 19th century.

One of the earliest known observations of Memorial Day in the state began in the 1870s when groups of people would picnic at Island Park, an amusement park outside Harpers Ferry. These annual celebrations carried into the early 20th century and attracted hundreds of African American tourists. Harpers Ferry National Park intern Cassie Chandler is researching the park’s tourist community as part of her studies.

“Island Park was a wonderful place, especially, of course, in the African American community,” Chandler said. “A lot of churches came to Island Park to score a day of fun. They’d picnic. They played games. And how they would get here was through the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.”

In 1878, the B&O Railroad Company bought the park. Railroad companies were some of the largest employers of African Americans after the Civil War, though work conditions were still unfavorable compared to those of their white peers. Harpers Ferry park ranger Melinda Day says the destination became known as a safe public place for African Americans after its development, making it an annual vacation destination for both Black and white employees of the railroad.

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Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
African American community members crossing the Island Park bridge from the train station to the amusement park.

“They tended to be very hungry for leisurely destinations that were free from hostility, humiliation and exclusion that tended to mark their experiences at other white public spaces and commemorative sites,” Day said.

Island Park was also close to the historically Black Storer College. The Harpers Ferry school was built in 1867 to help educate the 30,000 African Americans in the region recently freed from enslavement. When school was out of session, the college would rent out the dorms to tourists in the area. This contributed to the notable amount of Black visitors to the island for holidays like Memorial Day.

“When the students broke for the summer, they would go home and those dorms were empty,” Day said. “And then the college started to put together that so many people, both white and Black, were coming here and needed a place to stay.”

Today, Island Park is just a memory. The facilities were wiped out by flooding in the 1920s. But the National Park Service has preserved the park’s only surviving structure, the Harpers Ferry Bandstand. The building is still in use today by community members and musicians.