This year marks 150 years since Storer College was established in Harpers Ferry. The school came out of the Civil War first as a place to teach former slaves how to read and write, and then by the 1930s, it had evolved into a four-year, higher education institution for African-Americans. But in 1955, it closed due to lack of funding. Still, the legacy of Storer College continues to be celebrated each year in the Eastern Panhandle.
In the fall of 1946, Charles Town resident Russell Roper attended his first year at Storer College. He was 21. Before that, he’d dropped out of high school to join the United States Navy and fight in World War II. When he came home, he took an entrance exam to attend Storer College on the GI bill.
Today, Roper is 92.
“My wife went to Storer College, and I had a lot of relatives in the area that we were related to [who] went to Storer College; I can’t name ‘em all now, but it was something they were proud of," Roper said, "and it was a part of a person’s life growing up.”
Roper played football for Storer – sporting the school’s gold and ivory colors on the field. He frequented the campus church, and it was at Storer he met his future wife.
In 1950, Roper graduated with a degree in business administration, and still uses it today running a construction company with his son.
“I’m proud to be an alumni from Storer College," he explained, "I mean, I wouldn’t have it any other way, you know, and I graduated out of one of the largest classes that came from Storer College, and it’s sad that it just didn’t continue, that’s all I can say.”
Storer College closed five years after Roper graduated. The school lost federal funding after Brown v. Board of Education ended legal segregation in schools. Storer couldn’t afford to stay open.
But the legacy of the school continues to live on. In the 1960s, the National Park Service purchased the property and turned it into a training center for park rangers.
“This was Anthony Hall," Park Ranger and historian John Rudy explained, "so the auditorium was upstairs, the choir room was down the hall, the president’s room was down the other hall, so this is the epicenter.”
Inside former Anthony Hall, which was once the main building on the campus, is a room honoring Storer College. It’s painted gold and red. The letters SC are displayed at the top of each wall. Photographs and paintings of teachers, principals, and notable alumni are hung. Memorabilia from the heyday of the school is on display in glass cases, and some books from the school’s library are in bookshelves.
Rudy said it’s important to remember Storer College, because of its significance in American history.
“For me, this is when America starts, almost, making up for the problems of its past," he noted, "So in 1867, you have a country that’s full of folks who can’t read and write, former slaves, who have now been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, but now, they are completely unarmed for dealing with freedom, and Storer College is one of those places where they start to get the tools of freedom; learning to read and write, learning to count, learning to make sure that contract that you’re being handed is fair. All of that starts right here on the hill, right here in the panhandle.”
When the Civil War ended in 1865, there were over 30,000 newly freed slaves in the Shenandoah Valley. Storer College came about from a combined effort of people – the New England Freewill Baptists and a philanthropist from Maine named John Storer; all of whom wanted to help those newly freed men and women.
The site of Storer College went through several changes over time – first it was a home, then a hospital during the Civil War, then it became a primary school, then a teacher’s college, and then by the 1930s, a full-fledged, four-year institution.
“This place touches thousands of students. This place really affects the lives of the entire black community in the mid-Atlantic.” - John Rudy
Rudy said Storer was among the first wave of historically black colleges and universities in the United States, and he points to a couple prominent moments in the school’s history.
In 1881, former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a keynote speech at Storer to dedicate the school. The speech was about John Brown, a white man and abolitionist who led a raid Harpers Ferry in 1859 to end slavery.
“So Douglass, a former slave, is now standing here in the 1880s, probably one of the best speakers in America, standing on a rostrum dedicating a school for former slaves; for men and women just like him who want to read and write and become famous orators; who look up to him as their idol, and the speech he gives here, he says the Civil War didn’t start in Charleston, South Carolina, it didn’t start with Fort Sumter, it started in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and it started when John Brown struck the blow against slavery in 1859. This wasn’t a war that started far away, it was a war that started right here at home," Rudy explained.
Storer College also played a role in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1906, the school was the site of the first American meeting of the Niagara Movement, which would later become the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP.
Rudy says part of the legacy of Storer College is about drawing strength from the heroes of the past, and 1950 alum Russell Roper agrees.
"[Storer College] set an example," Roper said, "Well if you say, where do you go to school? Oh, I go down to Storer College. You know, it helped a lot of people. If [students] did not last but a couple years, it still helped them, it put them on the right track; it put them on the right path.”
And that’s not to say Storer College didn’t see it’s fair share of difficulties and prejudice, but both Rudy and Roper say students and faculty never gave up on the school. Even after it closed, and now 150 years later, the legacy of Storer is annually celebrated and remembered.