HARPERS FERRY – John Brown came here hoping to free the nation’s slaves, but New England Freewill Baptist missionaries arrived in 1865 with their own objective: To create a school where African-Americans would be free to achieve any goal.
Shepherd University professor Dawne Raines Burke will detail the founding of historic Storer College Friday during a special Galleries at Night event at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Va.
Burke, the author of “An American Phoenix: A History of Storer College from Slavery to Desegregation, 1865 – 1955,” will speak at 7 p.m. at the museum at 901 Amherst St.
Storer began accepting students in 1867 after missionaries acquired a number of vacant U.S. Armory buildings on Camp Hill. One of the first schools in the nation to accept African-Americans, Storer was integrated and co-ed.
Frederick Douglass served as a trustee of the college and delivered a famed address on Brown at the school on May 30, 1881. “But the question is, Did John Brown fail?” Douglass asked toward the end of his speech. “He certainly did fail to get out of Harpers Ferry before being beaten down by United States soldiers; he did fail to save his own life, and to lead a liberating army into the mountains of Virginia. But he did not go to Harpers Ferry to save his life. The true question is, Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? and to this I answer ten thousand times. No! No man fails, or can fail who so grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous cause.”
In 1906, Harvard intellectual W.E.B. DuBois chose Storer for the first Niagara Movement meeting held in the United States. A year earlier, leaders had gathered across the border in Canada after hotels in Buffalo, N.Y., refused them accommodations.
DuBois and more than 100 other influential black leaders, both women and men, spent Aug. 15 to 19, 1906, on the Storer campus discussing how to pursue full equality for blacks despite major setbacks such as the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson.
That New Orleans railroad case had given the legal OK for racial segregation in public facilities. A year before, black leader Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise addressed had covered similar ground, advocating a separate social class for blacks.
DuBois and other Niagara Movement members, including J.R. Clifford, a Martinsburg resident and the first black lawyer in West Virginia, left the Harpers Ferry meeting armed with a resolution calling for full suffrage and an end to “separate but equal’’ accommodations for blacks.
“We will not be satisfied to take one jot or title less than our full manhood rights,’’ DuBois said in the gathering’s closing address. “We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American – political, civil and social. And until we get these rights, we will never cease to protest.’’
The Niagara Movement formally ended five years later when most of its membership became part of the new National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the group that would help win the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Sadly, Storer College would become a victim of that civil rights success.
Following Brown, state funding to Storer dried up and in June of 1955, the school closed its doors.
Today, the Storer campus is home to the National Park Service’s Stephen T. Mather Training Center, where park employees come for skill-developing programs.
Burke’s lecture will include mention of some of Storer’s illustrious grads, including
Clifford (another founding member of the Niagara Movement); Don “The Little Giant of Jazz” Redman, the internationally known musician and composer; Ella Phillips Stewart, one of the first African-American female pharmacists in the United States; Houston G. Brooks Jr., who won a million-dollar research project as a grad student at Tuskegee University and went on to secure five patents; and Nnamdi “Zik” Azikiwe, who went on to become the first elected president of the Republic of Nigeria.
Julie Armel, the museum’s marketing and public relations manager, says a ticket to Friday’s lecture also will allow visitors to tour the museum’s galleries, which include art and other items with ties to Jefferson County. She encourages anyone interested in attending to arrive early. “Seating is limited and will be on a first-come, first-served basis,” she said.
Tickets will be available at the museum’s Visitor Information Desk beginning at 4 p.m.
Admission to Galleries at Night costs $5; museum members and children 12 and younger are admitted free.
Visitors also may eat a meal, snack or dessert in the Museum Café or purchase wine or beer in the museum lobby for $5 a glass.
The museum complex includes galleries, the Glen Burnie House (now undergoing renovation) and six acres of gardens that may be toured April through October.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free to anyone from 10 a.m. until noon every Wednesday.
More information is available online at theMSV.org or by calling 540-662-1473, ext. 235.