On this day, October 2, 1867, Storer College opened in Harpers Ferry. It was the first college in West Virginia for black students.
The Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery, but there were no educational opportunities for the thousands of black Americans and their children beyond primary school.
The school was named for its primary benefactor John Storer of Sanford, Maine. Storer promised $10,000 for a school in the south for blacks if others could raise an equal amount. The Free Baptists of the Shenandoah Valley took the challenge and raised the matching funds.
The college was granted four large brick mansions formerly occupied by federal government officials in charge of the Union armory and arsenal in Harpers Ferry. The buildings were on Camp Hill with a view of the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers below.
The choice of Harpers Ferry was no accident. Black leaders and abolitionists regarded John Brown’s failed raid of the armory there in 1859 as the first shots fired in the battle to end slavery.
The school’s beginnings were modest—19 students and two instructors—occupying The Lockwood Building. Enrollment grew and more buildings were added, including separate dormitories for the men and women.
Some of the classes were basic instruction in reading, math, penmanship, religion and music, but there was also more advanced instruction in algebra, physiology and philosophy. There was also industrial training for vocations including dressmaking and cooking. Graduates went on to become teachers, doctors, lawyers, mechanics, nurses and farmers.
The school was not only a place where a black man or woman could get an education and a chance to improve their quality of life, it was also a source of pride. The famed abolitionist, author and statesman Frederick Douglass was a member of the original board of trustees.
But the country was still segregated, and many whites were hostile toward blacks getting an education. Kate Anthony, in a History of Storer from 1867 to 1891, wrote, “For the first years, teachers and pupils were armed. There were threatenings (sic) from the Ku Klux (Klan) and some disturbances.”
“Even after personal danger had passed, they were yet looked upon and treated as outcasts and pariahs,” she wrote.
Storer played a pivotal role in early civil rights, serving as a meeting place in 1906 of the Niagara Movement, which was a predecessor to the NAACP. Among the attendees was W.E.B. Du Bois who delivered his “An Address to the Country.”
“We will not be satisfied to take one jot or tittle less than our full manhood rights,” he said. “We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political and social; and until we get these rights, we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone, but for all true Americans.”
By the middle of the century, Storer’s enrollment was dwindling. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision desegregating schools, combined with the West Virginia Legislature’s decision to discontinue funding, led to the school’s closure in 1955.
However, the college still stands, and the campus is now part of the Harpers Ferry National Park.