Desegregation led to demise of Storer College

May 16, 2004|By TAMELA BAKER

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - The desegregation decision handed down in Brown v. Board of Education resulted in sweeping changes in education and in American society as a whole. But in an intriguing twist of history, it also contributed to the demise of one of the nation's first integrated schools.

"It's just something ironically that happened," said Guinevere Roper, a park ranger at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Roper regularly tells park visitors about the college that once occupied several buildings on Camp Hill in Harpers Ferry. Established in 1867, Storer College "was one of the very first schools in the United States to teach freed slaves," Roper said.

At the close of the Civil War, the Rev. Nathan Brackett started a primary school for the children of former slaves in Lockwood House, the former quarters of the paymaster for the U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry. Brackett, a representative of New England's Freewill Baptist Home Mission Society, also started schools in Charles Town, Shepherdstown and Martinsburg, Roper said.


By 1867, the need for teachers had become overwhelming - Brackett needed a college to train teachers for the thousands of students the schools were attracting.

Brackett's efforts drew the attention of John Storer, a philanthropist from Maine, who offered the Freewill Baptists a grant of $10,000 for a teacher's college. The money came with conditions, however.

"It had to be open to both male and female, and it had to be open to all races," Roper said.

Frederick Douglass, the former slave turned abolitionist, served as one of Storer's first trustees.

While Storer was established as an integrated school, few white students enrolled. Their numbers mainly were limited to the children of the school's white teachers, Roper said.

Providing education for black students in a county steeped in southern culture - Jefferson County had been part of Virginia until 1863 - proved difficult for Storer's early staff.

"When students first came, the community really didn't want them to be here," Roper said. "Teachers would be stoned and attacked."

According to the park's archives, one teacher complained that "it is unusual for me to go to the Post Office without being hooted at, and twice I have been stoned on the streets at noonday."

Nevertheless, Storer College survived and expanded. During its 88-year history, Storer College attracted students from "all over," Roper said.

"Many students came from Africa," Roper said.

Among them was Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe, who enrolled in 1925. He followed his education at Storer with a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania and returned to his home in 1934. After his country won its independence from Great Britain in 1960, Azikiwe became the first president of the Republic of Nigeria.

Nearly halfway through its history, Storer College hosted an event that helped set in motion the campaign that would lead to its end.

The Niagara Movement, a precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, held its first American conference on the Storer campus. Led by W.E.B. DuBois, the Niagara Movement drew civil rights activists from Atlanta to Chicago.

At the Storer conference, the group compiled five objectives; among them was an end to segregation.

"We want discrimination in public accommodation to cease," they wrote. "Separation ... is un-American, undemocratic and silly."

Though the Niagara Movement dissolved a few years later, most of its members joined the NAACP, whose attorneys pursued the Brown case. But once desegregation became the law, support for Storer, which had become a de facto black college after World War I, disintegrated. In 1955, a year after Brown v. Board of Education, Storer lost state funding and was forced to close.

"They started going through the state integrating schools," Roper said. "Storer was still mainly a teaching college, and Shepherd (College) was close by. A lot of students went over to Shepherd to finish."

Although the state's support for Storer died, the loyalty of its remaining alumni thrives, Roper said.

"They come every August" for a reunion, she said. "They stay at the Quality Inn and they have a picnic on the campus. Then on Sunday, they have a memorial service at the Freewill Baptist church."

And they share memories. One of the stories Roper particularly enjoys is how the students managed to work a little romance into their time at Storer despite its strict rules regarding conduct between the genders.

The trick, Roper said, was to sneak away from campus.

"They would go down to Jefferson's Rock so they could get a little smooch," she said.

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