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Marker to honor Conway

August 11, 2004 1:09 am

LENETTA SCHOOLS lives under the same roof that sheltered young Moncure Daniel Conway when he grew to adulthood in Falmouth before the Civil War. Conway went on to become an internationally known abolitionist, author, minister and intellectual until his death in Paris in 1907.

Yet even though Lenetta Schools and her husband, Norman, own the Conway House at 305 King St., she had to travel to Yellow Springs, Ohio, last summer to read about Conway's accomplishments on a historical marker.

Not so anymore.

As soon as it can be installed, a new roadside marker honoring Conway will be only a few steps away, just across River Road from the stately brick home where Lenetta and Norman Schools reside.

There will be a dedication ceremony for the marker at this month's meeting of the Stafford County Historical Society at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 19 in the Board Chambers of the Stafford Administration Center.

The featured speakers will be John d'Entremont, a history professor at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg and author of an award-winning biography of Conway, and Walter Beach, a trustee of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where Conway graduated in 1849.

Also on the program are Scott Arnold, of the Virginia Department of Historical Resources, and James Bryant, a professor at Shenandoah University in Winchester and an authority on black history.

The text for the roadside marker reads as follows:

"Nearby to the northwest is the childhood home of renowned abolitionist, writer, and lecturer Moncure Daniel Conway (1832-1907). In 1838 his family moved into this Federal-style house. Conway graduated from Dickinson College in 1849 and Harvard Divinity School in 1854 and became outspoken in the abolitionist movement. During the Civil War, Conway lived in Cincinnati, Ohio and traveled east in 1862 to lead his family's slaves to freedom in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Conway moved to London in 1863 and spent a number of years abroad, writing for English and American periodicals. He also wrote biographies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Thomas Paine. Conway died in Paris on 15 Nov. 1907."

Were Conway alive today, he would appreciate the irony of being honored with a marker on the streets of Falmouth.

That's because he was threatened and all but run out of town during a visit home in the winter of 1855-56. Conway, who was 23 at the time, already had acquired a reputation for his anti-slavery views.

In his autobiography written years later, Conway said he was surprised to be confronted on the main street of Falmouth by a group of young men and told that his presence in town could not be tolerated. There was even talk of tar and feathers. But cooler heads prevailed.

To avoid any trouble for his family, Conway decided to leave the next day. Alone on a steamboat traveling from Aquia Creek to Washington, Conway reflected on the bitterness directed at him by some who had been his former playmates and schoolmates.

"I sat on the deck humiliated and weeping," Conway wrote in his autobiography. "There now was brought home to me the terrible fact that the tyranny of slavery crushed not only the Negroes, but the most loving hearts of all."

During the war, Union soldiers were sacking the house when one of them recognized Conway from a painting in an upstairs bedroom. A servant then explained Conway's connection to the house, and the building was saved from destruction.

The most dramatic episode in Conway's career as an abolitionist occurred in July 1862, when he shepherded about 30 family slaves on a dangerous journey to freedom in Ohio.

Lenetta Schools and county resident Frank White attended a dedication ceremony in Yellow Springs last summer for a marker honoring Conway, and met descendants of the Stafford slaves who established "Conway Colony" near Antioch University.

The $1,225 cost of the Virginia highway marker that will be unveiled this month was paid by the Stafford Historical Society and a few individual contributors.

"We're very happy about this," said Lenetta Schools. "It has been helpful working with the Stafford Historical Society. They played a big role in this and we're very appreciative."

The Moncure Conway House has been one of the most prominent homes in Falmouth since it was built about 1807. It is on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

In addition, the house recently has been designated by the National Park Service as a site on the Network to Freedom/Underground Railroad.

Lenetta and Norman Schools have owned the home for six years.

"The architecture of the house is what originally attracted us," said Lenetta Schools. "We wanted something made of brick with a slate roof that would be low-maintenance. It was the design and style of the house that was important.

"Then, when we began to get into the history and found out more about Moncure Conway, the place took on a life of its own. Now, we just want to be good stewards for the property."

Schools said she hoped that a newly formed nonprofit Moncure Conway Foundation will be successful in raising awareness of Conway's life and his significance in American history.

D'Entremont, the history professor from Randolph-Macon Woman's College, offered his opinion about Conway's stature in an interview two years ago.

"Conway," he said, "is the most significant person to come out of the Fredericksburg area--unless you include George Washington. Then, Conway is No. 2."

To reach LEE WOOLF: 540/720-5470

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