February 07, 2015

Manchin, students recall Storer’s past | Martinsburg Journal

HARPERS FERRY - As the nation begins celebrating Black History Month in February, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin visited the former Storer College, co-located with the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park headquarters, to recognize the college's place in the early civil rights movement.

According to Guinevere Roper, a ranger at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Storer College opened near the close of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment.

Roper said the school began through efforts of the Freeman's Bureau, which provided food, clothing, shelter, healthcare and education to newly-freed slaves in the Shenandoah Valley.

Senator Joe Manchin recognizes Gay Henderson and Blue Ridge Elementary School students for a cultural program that will take place at the school next month.

Reverend Nathan Brackett, a Freewill Baptist minister from Maine, was an agent with the Freeman's Bureau who came to Harpers Ferry and was interested in starting a school for the more than 30,000 former slaves in the region.

"In the year 1867, a financial supporter from Brackett's native state of Maine, John Storer, donated $10,000 to the school on these conditions: That it be open to male and female students and black and white students," she said.

"When these conditions were met, Storer's Normal School officially opened in October of 1867."

Roper said the school continued to grow and many prominent black historical figures attended or visited the school, including civil rights leaders Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington.

Once the United States Supreme Court ruled to end segregation in the 1952 Brown v. Board of Education case, enrollment at Storer College declined, Roper said.

"Storer College had an 88-year run, and its mission of dignity and respect has been accomplished," she said.

Manchin then addressed those in attendance and said that throughout history, education has evened the socio-economic playing field for people of various races, ethnicities and religions.

"There's no better place to begin celebrating Black History Month than in Harpers Ferry at Storer College. That's where it all began. I think it stands for everything we are as a country, and that everyone should have the opportunity for an education. It's a great equalizer," Manchin said.

Manchin said that although West Virginia does not have a very diverse population, people should respect each other's differences and be welcoming.

"We are one of the least diverse states in the nation, and I don't know what you can attribute that to," he said. "All those of different races or different nationalities should know they are welcome here. (West Virginia) is a great place to live and a great place to raise your family and a great place to do business."

Manchin also read a statement that he will submit to the Congressional Record recognizing Storer College's role in civil rights.

After discussing education and cultural diversity in the past, Manchin recognized Gay Henderson, librarian at Blue Ridge Elementary School, for her work in educating children about diversity.

Henderson said she recently recieved a grant for a cultural program, "From Africa to Appalachia," sponsored in part by the Jefferson Arts Council.

Henderson invited a storyteller and musician from Mali, West Africa, to the school to play the ongoni, an African string instrument and ancestor of the banjo. He will play side-by-side with a bluegrass musician in front of the student body in March.

"My belief is that school can be so enriching if we commit to unity and respect," she said. "Through diversity, we see our similarities and respect our differences."

By:  Mary Stortstrom