Voices of Shepherdstown History
The Shepherdstown Museum held an open house honoring the history of the Shepherdstown Red Sox, the primarily African American baseball team active from the 1930s to the 1950s, and The Brothers of Harmony, a local gospel choir that shared many members with the team.
Entering the museum, a throng of locals crowd around the stairway laughing and reminiscing over the distant past. Most are elderly black men and I hear one referred to as Bishop Charles. He laughs the most and louder than the others whose countenance is more reserved, quietly affable. Fully engaged in their conversation, none notice my entry aside from one woman standing nearer to the entrance. With her assistance I make my way past the crowd, they smile and politely apologize for blocking the stairway, the gregarious bishop smiling brightly as I make my way past.
A few of the faces I see in the photographs posted around the room bear some resemblance to the men downstairs-I make my way downstairs and see the bishop heading to the basement. When asked, one of the women present on the main level tells me that three of the gentlemen included in the exhibit are attending the open house downstairs. Even if there were more attendees, the Brothers of Harmony would still be easily picked out. They truly seem like brothers, the way they speak and reminisce over the past.
Upon asking to speak with them, I am kindly received. A younger woman, quite unnecessarily gives up her seat to grant me closer admission to the group. In spite of the kind reception, I feel as though I am a foreigner intruding into an area I do not belong; not because of the color of my skin, though it bears a stark contrast to the complexion of others in the room, but because I find myself a stranger among close-knit friends whose acquaintance spans a lifetime.
Unfamiliar names of people and places flit by with little exposition, a bond wrought of decades spent in each other’s company renders any further detail unnecessary-amidst intermittent bouts of laughter they apologize for not providing much material for a story and offer to answer any questions I may have.
The bishop’s name, I am told, is Charles Hunter. In 1957 Bishop Hunter became the first African American to enroll at Shepherdstown High School. He, Clarence Branson, and Keith Boyd were of the ten original members belonging to the Brothers of Harmony gospel choir. The group was created to spread the word of God through music, provide musical training for children and to promote mutual understanding and togetherness across faiths. Both Bishop Hunter and Mr. Branson also played baseball with the Shepherdstown Red Sox.
The three of them have seen, and in some instances been the driving force of, great changes in the community. They remember the bad times, being denied services at the filling station; and the good times, when they and many others marched to protest that discrimination.
Also attending the open house: Mr. Branson’s daughter, Liz Paige and former president of the Shepherdstown chapter of the NAACP George Rutherford. Mr. Rutherford joined the NAACP in the late 60s. When he started racial tensions ran high.
When discriminatory hiring practices proved insurmountable they-at the NAACP-were forced to contact the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).
Mrs. Paige, though younger than the other attendees, had many of her own stories to contribute. In 1981 she won a local pageant and, as a result, participated in a parade held in Shepherdstown. Midway through the parade, a group of closet KKK members present in the audience flipped up their hoods-she was in tears throughout the rest of the event.
“Somehow,” she said, “I don’t find myself feeling bitter.”
– John Gladstone