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Film about Storer College premieres in Charles Town

May 22, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE |
  • From left, John Newcomer, Ann H. Jones, Sylvia Crosstalley and independent filmmaker Midge Flinn Yost of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., talk during a social Sunday following the premiere of "Storer College: A Legacy of Light and Learning."
By Richard F. Belisle/Staff Writer

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — In 1951, Ann H. Jones wanted to attend Syracuse (N.Y.) University but she knew her all-black elementary and high school education didn’t prepare her to reach so high.

Instead, she followed her sister to Storer College, a historically black college that opened a few years after the Civil War.

Jones and several other Storer alumni on Sunday watched the premiere of “Storer College: A Legacy of Light and Learning,” a film by independent filmmaker Midge Flinn Yost of Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

It was shown in the auditorium at Wright Denny Intermediate School.

Sunday’s premiere was the culmination of more than seven years of hard work, frustration and a constant fight for money, Yost said. There were times when she lost faith in her ability to finish the project.

“That’s when my passion and enthusiasm were needed most. I knew that this story was so beautiful that it had to be shared,” she said Sunday.

Seeing her film shown in public for the first time was a special joy “to share a dream that I enjoyed working on, to know that a very broad audience can now share such an inspirational story,” she said.

The first thing Yost did to make the film was tape Storer alumni whenever she found them.

“They were getting older and their stories would be lost,” she said.

She used re-enactors to tell her story.

Yost received a standing ovation when the credits came up and the lights went on in the auditorium.

John Newcomer of Harpers Ferry told the audience Sunday that Storer College began was started as a mission school in 1865 by a group of Free Will Baptists from Maine led by Nathan Cook Brackett. Newcomer is Brackett’s great-great-grandson.

It became a secondary school in 1867 and a junior college in 1884. In 1921, it was upgraded to a four-year college. Its last class graduated in 1955.

It was, according to a speaker in the film, “the birth of the civil rights movement.”

The film features interviews with Storer College alumni and regional historians, as well as historical re-creations. Some residents of Harpers Ferry, Charles Town and Kearneysville, W.Va., served as actors.

Brackett, a graduate of Dartmouth College, was encouraged to open a school for freed slaves in Harpers Ferry by Gen. Oliver Owen Howard who, with Brackett, served as an Army chaplain with Union Gen. Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. Brackett came to know Harpers Ferry during his military service.

“It’s interesting that two white men from Maine founded a school for black students in the South,” Newcomer said.

Brackett’s family remained an integral part of Storer College throughout its existence, Newcomer said.

Nathan’s Brackett’s wife, Louise Wood Brackett, taught there alongside her husband. Brackett’s twin sisters taught at Storer over the years, as did his two daughters, Mary Brackett Robinson and Celeste Brackett Newcomer.

Celeste’s husband, John C. Newcomer, was the school treasurer and Mary’s husband, Thomas Robertson, served on the board of trustees.

John Newcomer said he spent his early childhood years at the college., His mother, June C. Newcomer, taught there until it closed.

The duty of closing down Storer College fell to her in 1955, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling desegregated the nation’s schools.

After that, the West Virginia Legislature decided it no longer needed to subsidize schools like Storer College, according to the film.

The school’s trustees decided not to seek other sources of money to keep the college operating, said Dawne Raines Burke, author of the newly published book “An American Phoenix: A History of Storer College from Slavery to Desegregation, 1865-1955.”

Burke is an assistant professor of education at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Richard I. McKinney, Storer’s last president, tried unsuccessfully to get the trustees to turn Storer into a first-class prep school.

Yost said she hopes her film finds a home in school history classes. It will be available at the National Park Service, in bookstores and online. It won’t be ready for release until late summer, she said.

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