This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.
If my experience in Harpers Ferry this summer had a thesis statement, it would be this: there is so much more than John Brown.
Going into my first day of work in the education department I had a tightly-wrapped set of expectations regarding not only the nature of the place in which I was now living but my own skills as an interpreter as well as a teacher; I was just as convinced that Harpers Ferry was a town trapped in the history of the Civil War as I was that I was no good with kids. I had read about Jackson’s position in the town and Sheridan’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, but I could not admit to knowing much more than that.
The last ten weeks, however, have taken me notably beyond my Civil War comfort zone into a glossary of names, movements, and historical upheavals that I would not have thought to associate with Harpers Ferry: George Washington and the Potowmack Company, Thomas Jefferson (who, as it happens, made an excellent travel writer), Meriwether Lewis and the Corps of Discovery, Sarah Jane Foster and her daily walk up to the blossoming Storer College, the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Niagara Movement turned NAACP, and the Civil Rights Movement, catalyzed by such figures as W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and Julian Bond.
Who would have thought? Certainly not me, and certainly not the students who entered the park every day.
I kicked off my internship with no teaching experience and no semblance of an idea of how to interact with kids; I am not in an education program, and before this summer I had not given much thought to the idea of teaching as a career. The first few days were predictably awkward, shadowing other rangers who worked flawlessly with the kids while trying to cram all 200+ years of Harpers Ferry history, from George Washington to Julian Bond, into my overwhelmed brain. I had not been prepared to interpret the significance of water-powered industry and the impact of John Hall’s interchangeable parts on modern manufacturing for seventh grade students, but I would do it anyway.
My first day teaching the Jr. NYLC (National Youth Leaders Conference) came as a shock and a delight; not only were the students respectful and approachable, but they had a genuine interest in what I was teaching. They engaged the material and asked questions about John Brown, the Civil War, and even contemporary social justice issues. Throughout the course of the summer these students engaged in meaningful dialogue with me and their peers about the meaning and implications of the Confederate flag, the refugee crisis, racially-motivated and hate crimes, terrorism, the presidential race, and widespread global violence. What’s more, this dialogue was prompted by the history which I was interpreting for them. I will never forget the girl who raised her hand and said that if she could change anything about the world, she would ensure equality for all women regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. I saw myself in her bright-eyed aspirations and felt I was genuinely making a difference in the lives of these students.
This summer has provided me with an untainted image of the National Park Service as its own school of thought, encouraging students like the Jr. NYLC scholars and myself to develop our own ideas of history through nature and preservation. I have played the role of teacher and pupil, eagerly attending programs illustrating the Battle of Harpers Ferry in September 1862 and the development of Storer College, the “Hope on the Hill” for newly-freed African Americans after the war’s end. I have listened to children no older than 12 years old describe the daily discrimination they face for being black or for having two mothers. I have pressed upon them the importance of listening to the other side of the debate, even if their hearts are set against it, and explained to them the importance of dialogue in prompting change.
My summer at Harpers Ferry has shaped much more than my perceptions of the Civil War; it has helped me visualize a career in teaching and public history, helped me form opinions on contemporary issues molded by events and movements that occurred within miles of where I worked every day. I have watched people remove their shoes before entering John Brown’s fort and children finally–finally–understand the implications of the Civil War on their lives 150 years later. I have learned as much as I have taught. It was so much more than John Brown.