June 8th, 2015
Blog post by Stewart Plein, Rare Book Librarian.
From its humble beginnings as a mission school founded in 1865 by the Reverend Nathan Cook Brackett to educate former slaves, to its development as a fully fledged college granting degrees to African American men and women, Storer College became the first institution of higher learning for African Americans in the state of West Virginia. Located in Harpers Ferry near the site of John Brown’s 1859 attack on the Federal Armory, Storer College represented the freedom Civil War African Americans hoped to achieve.
As Brackett’s school continued to grow, the large number of students led to the strong need to increase the number of teachers to handle the demand for education. Learning of Rev. Brackett’s school only two years after its inception, John Storer (pictured below), a Freewill Baptist from Maine and the founder of Bates College, offered a grant of $10,000 to develop a school in the South for African Americans.
Storer’s grant wasn’t a blank check. It came with requirements. First, Freewill Baptists had to raise an additional $10,000 within a year’s time, a difficult feat to be sure. A man with far reaching ideals, Storer also required that the school must develop into a degree-granting college and admission must be open to all races and both sexes.
From these beginnings, Brackett’s mission school, supported by funds from John Storer and the Freewill Baptists, became Storer Normal School, a teachers’ college focused on teaching teachers to continue the work of educating African Americans. Later, as Storer Normal School continued to grow, additional courses were added to the curriculum, including college level courses in higher education and industrial training. Storer College had now fulfilled the goals of the long ago grant.
From the first, Storer College was a center for civil rights activities. From its earliest days following the Civil War, teaching the children of former slaves, Storer College became a meeting place for the expression and development of important ideas. Frederick Douglass, prominent statesman and speaker, delivered his famous address on abolitionist John Brown at Storer Normal School in 1881, less than twenty-five years after it occurred when the events would still be in living memory.
Portrait of John Brown by Ole Peter Hansen Balling, 1872
Less than fifty years after John Brown’s raid in Harper’s Ferry, another hallmark of the Civil Rights era occurred at Storer College. In 1906, Storer became the site of the second, and most important, meeting of the Niagara Movement, a precursor of the NAACP. The Niagara Movement was co-founded by a group including W.E.B. Du Bois (seated in the photo below), and J.R. Clifford (standing first on the left in the photo below), a graduate of Storer College and the first African American attorney in the state. The Niagara Movement was named after the site of the first meeting, held at Niagara Falls in 1905.
Storer’s long history came to a close in 1955 following the 1954 decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case which ended the legal segregation of public schools. Although Storer College has been closed since 1955, alumni still gather on campus to celebrate their reunions. Today, the campus is part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
Join us on West Virginia Day, June 19, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 1865 founding of the mission school that became Storer College. See the link below for event details.
Banner image: Storer College postcard, West Virginia and Regional History Center
Image of Frederick Douglass: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Douglass
Image of John Brown: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Brown_(abolitionist)
Niagara Movement Leaders: West Virginia and Regional History Center
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harpers_Ferry_National_Historical_Park