Brave Spirits: The Lovetts of Harpers Ferry

by Catherine Baldau with Cynthia M. Gayton

 

“Mr. Lovett has built a hill-top house in a lovely place. It is filled in the Summer time, while he has music for the boarders. That makes it pleasant during the warm weather of the Summer months, and it is one of the loveliest places that can be found on the B. & O. Railroad, and the white people go their (sic) from all parts.”

—Kate Drumgoold, 1898

 

In her autobiography, A Slave Girl’s Story, Kate Drumgoold never mentioned Storer College by name when she described her school in the Blue Ridge “where the very air of heaven seemed to fan the whole hill sides, and there never was a more lovely place on this earth for one to learn a lesson, for we could see the key to all lessons where nature had designed for a grand school of learning.”

Storer College, founded in 1867, served for nearly ninety years as a gateway for African Americans striving to enter the ranks of middle-class America. Kate Drumgoold was one such example and in her writings she introduced to the wider world, the Lovett family. Like Drumgoold, they came out of slavery, worked hard, believed in education, became successful entrepreneurs, and were emblematic of the rise of an African American middle-class.

Of the Lovett family, Ms. Drumgoold wrote:

Mr. William Lovett is one of the finest gentlemen anywhere around the whole country, and is much beloved by all who know him. . . . He has a large family of girls and boys and all are smart. He sent two of them to the Hillsdale College when they had finished at the Ferry, and one was John Lovett, who studied law, and the other one, Miss Etta Lovett, was a fine school teacher and a music teacher.

Lovett family anecdotes, newspaper accounts, and legal documents trace their accomplishments. They were achieved under challenging circumstances, which stemmed from racial divisions along the color line, and make them a particularly remarkable family. Most notable, Thomas Lovett, the second of three sons, built one of the most recognizable structures in Harpers Ferry, which happened in great part because of the family’s ties to Storer College.   

This story of the Lovetts begins in slavery and from the start, women played a crucial role in the family’s eventual success. Around 1805, Marcia Blue (also identified as Martha Blue in legal documents) was born into slavery in Virginia. The will of Sarah Opie Parker dated February 2, 1821, emancipated Marcia, while another will initialed by her purported white father, Hiram Lindsey Opie, gave her property and income. Notably, Hiram Opie did not identify Marcia Blue as a servant in his will, a description he gave to the other “undisposed servants” willed to his four children.

Marcia Blue married Fairfax Weaver and had two children, Sarah Elizabeth Weaver and James Weaver. In 1848, their daughter Sarah married William C. Lovett in Winchester, Virginia. Lovett was a fireman on the Valley Branch (also known as the Winchester Branch) of the B&O Railroad. Together they had eleven children, including three sets of twins. One twin, born during the Civil War, did not survive. The 1870 U. S. Census Record lists them as: Sarah (Mary in 1860 Census), James, Elizabeth (Martha, 1860), Rebecca (Sarah, 1860), Thomas S., John P., Julia V., Henrietta “Etta,” Marguretta “Maggie,” and Florence. (Note that some names differ from the 1860 census; all of the children are recorded as mulatto, or of mixed race.) 

 

At the beginning of the Civil War, the Lovett family, including Marcia Weaver (her husband, Fairfax now deceased), followed “General Banks’ retreat of the Union Army” to Pennsylvania. The Union army took possession of their wagon, stranding the whole family, which at the time comprised parents, a grandmother, and eight children. The Lovetts eventually made it to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and spent four years there while the Union army confiscated their Winchester property and used the family home as a hospital. The Lovetts returned to the South after war, and between 1870 and 1880 settled in Harpers Ferry, where they began a lengthy and personal relationship with Storer College.

During this period in the school’s history, Rev. Nathan Cook Brackett, president of Storer, helped several African Americans acquire property in Harpers Ferry. Marcia Weaver, already an experienced land owner (and perhaps with assistance from Brackett) purchased a lot on Fillmore Street, across from Rev. Morrell’s House. While several Lovett children enrolled in the school, Sarah and William were employed by Brackett to run the boarding operation in the Lockwood House, a building owned by the college. The building had been used for summer boarding since the mid-1870s. A third floor with a Mansard roof was added ca. 1883, providing ten more rooms and making the Lockwood House a busy hotel.

 

As their parents’ business thrived, the Lovett children and grandchildren attended and/or worked at Storer, became homeowners, and met and married spouses. On March 3, 1897, Rev. Brackett married Florence Lovett to James Monroe Canty, an instructor at the West Virginia Institute and alumnus of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. The Washington Post reported their marriage in the March 29, 1897, column, Colored American Notes: “Mr. J. M. Canty, in charge of the industrial department of the West Virginia Institute, recently married Miss Florence Lovett, of Harper’s Ferry. Miss Lovett is the youngest daughter of a family which almost monopolizes the hotel facilities of Harper’s Ferry.”

Regardless of other successes, the Lovetts were best known as hoteliers. Mary Brackett Robinson remarked on the success of the Lockwood Hotel, “Every evening throughout the season the family used to gather around the piano and entertain their guests and themselves with singing. The piano stood in the big hall and the porches were filled with appreciative listeners.” In her history of the college, Kate Anthony wrote:

Camp Hill, which had previously been like a graveyard in the summer, has become the center of life in the town, having all available rooms filled to overflowing with an excellent class of summer boarders. Several hundred guests come annually, and the number increases every year. This gives business to the town, and employment to a considerable number of students, while guests are sure of having intelligent, honest and faithful attendants.

When William Lovett died in 1888, Sarah continued to run the business with assistance from her children—James as chef, and Thomas as hotel clerk. In this era Harpers Ferry became a prime summer and weekend destination, especially for urban African Americans who sought respite from the heat of the city in a location of historical significance. In his study of this period, historian Andrew W. Kahrl wrote,

Though their leisure activities might at first glance seem unremarkable, their choice of location, the meanings they invested in such pursuits, and their critique of each others, reveal a heretofore unexplained dimension of the broader contest over the memory of John Brown and the reality of Jim Crow.

Thomas Lovett recognized the appeal of Harpers Ferry as a destination for blacks and whites. With the Lockwood House consistently booked to capacity, Thomas and his wife Lavinia Holloway Lovett opened the Brackett House, another college building, to accommodate the overflow of guests. Lavinia Holloway was born in New Bern, North Carolina, in 1855 and graduated as a nurse from the New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1881. The couple had two daughters, Florence and Charlotte. According to Kate Drumgoold, “Mr. Thomas Lovett is a school teacher and very much beloved. He married a doctress, who is one of the finest ladies that lives.”

 

With Thomas now overseeing operations at the Brackett House, his sister Maggie and her husband Allen P. Daniel assisted Sarah Lovett with the daily operation of the Lockwood. Around this time Thomas Lovett conceived a bolder plan. Standing atop Magazine Hill, where the former U.S. Armory stored the gun powder of its arms-making factory, with a commanding view of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, Lovett purportedly proclaimed, “Here, where the martyrdom of John Brown took place, is where I will build my hotel.”

 

Local newspapers tracked the hotel’s progress. The May 7, 1889, Spirit of Jefferson announced, “Tom Lovett is fencing the Magazine Hill lot and is about to build. He had been a pioneer in entertaining summer guests and deserves success.” The Harpers Ferry Sentinel described the hotel on January 22, 1890, as a “frame building with 25 rooms to cost between $3,000 & $4,000. Expected to open next summer.” And the May, 14, 1890, Virginia Free Press reported, “Hilltop House of T. S. Lovett on Magazine Hill HF almost completed. He has enviable reputation as host. View from hotel is beyond description.”

 

The hotel almost immediately became the success that Thomas Lovett envisioned. He hired Storer students to help manage the business. The Stored Record boasted, “T. S. Lovett, class of ’76, has built a fine summer house on “Magazine Hill” and is one of the leading hotel men at Harper’s Ferry.” Continual upgrades and additions made the Hilltop—just seventy miles from Washington, D. C.—a remarkably modern and luxurious hotel. Amenities soon included electric lights, bath tubs with hot and cold running water, a dance pavilion, and four-thousand square foot dining room. On a return visit to the Ferry in 1895, Storer alumnus Kate Drumgoold wrote:

I had the pleasure of stopping there on my way home . . . and it did my soul good to find such a fine house built by one of the colored gentlemen and one that I had known; for I was at his mother’s boarding house for the whole time that I was at the Ferry. He was teaching school then in the Winter time and looking after his mother’s business in the Summer time. So I am glad that some of my people are trying to make an honest living. He is one among the many at the Ferry that are keeping boarding houses; and I am thankful for all that comes to us as a race.

By 1904 the Hilltop House operated year-round. Lovett installed a steam-heating plant to keep his guests comfortable in the winter months. A fire in December 1912 destroyed the western portion of the hotel, but Lovett rebuilt in time to receive guests the following summer. Congressmen and other Washington dignitaries often made the short excursion to Harpers Ferry. In 1915, the Hilltop Hotel even hosted the President of the United States. The Washington Post reported on October 17, 1915:

It was raining and the roads were muddy, but the holiday makers were not to be discouraged, and noon found the White House car at Harpers Ferry, 72 miles away. At an inn overlooking the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers the President registered, writing “Woodrow Wilson and party.”

 

Hill Top House is run by Thomas Lovett, who took the greatest pleasure in escorting the party over the hotel, taking them on to the great balcony, where can be seen the beautiful country for miles around, including numerous points of historical interest. It happened that it will be 56 years today since the famous John Brown started his raiding at Harpers Ferry.

A New York Times’ article of the same date did not cite Thomas Lovett by name, but stated, “The inn is kept by a negro family.”

 

Another fire in June 1919 devastated the hotel. Despite this tremendous loss, Lovett, who by now had proven himself to

be undeterred by setbacks, immediately began plans to rebuild. Page three of July 28, 1919, Washington Post read, “Thomas S. Lovett has made arrangements to rebuild the Hilltop House at Harpers Ferry which was destroyed by fire several weeks ago. The hotel will be rebuilt upon the old plans, as a considerable part of the foundation can be utilized again. The work is to be begun at once.”

An undated brochure for the third incarnation of the Hilltop House—identifying T. S. Lovett, Proprietor on the cover—described the view as well as the luxurious accommodations available to those who journeyed to the historic town:

Amid the rugged mountains of West Virginia, made historic by the thrilling adventures of John Brown and his band of fanatical followers, Harpers Ferry offers to the wayfarer seeking health and recreation more of interest than any spot in America. Here the Potomac and the Shenandoah mingle their waters, offering to the sportsmen the ever new joy that attends the rod and reel.

 

The old Hill Top House, destroyed by fire December 11th, 1919, has been replaced by a new stone building provided with every modern convenience, including long distance phones. . . .

 

All who have sought rest in this mountain Inn have discovered that somewhere there is a guiding mind always alert to cater to their well being. The sleeping chambers with their characteristic freshness induce slumber. Time that might hang heavily upon idle hands is beguiled by music and games. Three thousand feet of verandas, two hundred and fifty feet above the rushing waters of the majestic streams, affords promenades and lounging places. There one may watch the speeding trains as they pass along what appear, from the lofty heights, to be miniature railways.

In this brochure, Lovett captures that combination of significant American history and profound natural beauty that makes Harpers Ferry a unique and inspiring town. The success of the Hilltop House Hotel, built by the grandson of a slave and Storer graduate in a period highly charged with discrimination and segregation, is not diminished by its crumbling façade. What African American author G. F. Richings wrote about Harpers Ferry in 1902 is still true: “No one can visit Harper’s Ferry without coming away overflowing with wonder and enthusiasm. One stands abashed before the brave spirit, the devotion and never-mentioned sacrifices of our toilers there.”