Storer College

Martinsburg Journal
February 25, 1996

Storer College Room historic exhibit unveiled

By Marc Bailes
Journal Staff Writer

HARPERS FERRY - With black history month drawing to a close, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park spent Saturday afternoon remembering the early days of Storer College and preserving pieces of its past for the future.

Five years after work started, the park on Saturday unveiled the Storer College Room, lined with portraits and pictures that alumni and park officials say will help keep their memories of the defunct black college alive forever.

"(This room commemorates) one of the earliest and most courageous steps in African-American education," said Martha Aikens, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, who came up with the idea while she worked in Harpers Ferry. "Obviously, I don't think there's a more appropriate way to celebrate black history month."

Storer's beginnings were modest, from when the Rev. Nathan Cook Brackett arrived from Maine in October 1865 to form a grammar school. Two years later it was called the "Storer Normal School" after philanthropist John Storer donated $10,000 for the creation of a high school for free blacks in the South. By March 1868, it received its state charter.

Richard McKinney, Storer president from 1944-52, said John Brown deserves as much credit as anyone in the school's creation. Harpers Ferry was the site of Brown's 1859 raid of the federal arsenal, a rebellion against slavery that left many free blacks in Jefferson County after the Civil War.

But even after the war's conclusion in 1865, state law still prohibited blacks from attending college with whites. That's when Brackett laid the groundwork for one of the key steps in integrated education.

For many years, Storer was the only school that allowed blacks to get an education after elementary school.

"At one time his life was threatened because he was taking the freedmen," McKinney said. "He had to carry a gun to protect himself. What he was doing was establishing the opportunities for those who had been denied it."

Under the leadership of Henry T. McDonald, Storer became a college in 1938. Enrollment remained small, peaking at about 400 or so, and dipped even lower during World War II.

The school was never accredited, despite giving out four-year degrees.

It forced the college to turn away blacks who wanted to be doctors, for example, because it lacked the money to provide the necessary facilities.

"We couldn't get the required facilities because we didn't have the money. We couldn't get the money because we weren't accredited," McKinney said. "We were in a vicious cycle."

That cycle came to an end in 1955, a year after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. The desegregation ruling turned out to be the fatal blow to Storer, a predominantly black college.

"It meant the difference between its survival and its closure," McKinney said.

Since then, however, Storer alumni have remained close knit. Many live in the mid-Atlantic region and return to Harpers Ferry each August for a reunion.

The Storer College Room is located on the first floor of the Stephen T. Mather Training Center, which was known as Myrtle Hall until the park service purchased it in 1960.

It will continue to be used as a break-out room during education sessions for the 1,500 park service employees who are trained there each year, said center Superintendant [sic] Michael Watson.

But he said he expects it to become a popular gathering place when the alumni association comes to town, as their initial grant five years ago got the room's redecoration under way.

"What's being done today is really a salute to you," Robert Stanton, National Capital Field Area director for the park service, told about 20 alumni in a filled auditorium. "You have stuck together since the doors of this college were closed."

One end of the room has five different displays on the wall, with text and photographs capturing a different facet of the school's history: the campus, the classroom, graduation, music and sports. The opposite end has portraits of five different teachers and leaders that helped shape Storer. Above the doors leading directly outside is a stained glass decoration that reads: "Storer College, 1865-1955."

While looking at the new exhibits, Angelynn Reeler of Charles Town found a picture with her parents in it. Both of them graduated from Storer in 1947.

"It's just so exciting to be a part of it," Reeler said of attending the unveiling. "I used to play around these hills when I grew up."


West Virginia Archives and History