Storer College Alumni keeping history alive
Updated: Jan 20
William and Anna Vollin met in college and married in 1953, a year after they graduated. He was the captain of the football team their senior year and she was the homecoming queen.
"He presented the game ball to me at half-time," she recalled recently on the eve of their 56th wedding anniversary. Both served long, noteworthy careers in public education and their three children all went on to earn college degrees.
Theirs could be the perfect American story. A fairy tale of finding love and success in the same place, except it's better than that. It's a part of history.
As the NAACP celebrates its 100th anniversary this month, the Vollin's alma mater, the former Storer College (1865 to 1955) in Harper's Ferry, W.Va., and their own saga, stretching from the shadows of slavery to witnessing the inauguration of President Barack Obama, tells one of the most important journeys of America itself.
Grandmother an influence
William Vollin's grandfather on his dad's side grew up in a Virginia Freeman's village, a settlement of plots for former slaves, before migrating further north to Alexandria. Vollin was raised and influenced primarily by his grandmother, a washerwoman with a third-grade education.
"She was a philosopher, very bright," he said. "Intelligence doesn't always come with a degree."
His future wife was born in Charlestown, W. Va., in similar circumstances -- poor, segregated, raised by people who were not her mother and father -- with hope, but a slim chance of ever leading a different life.
"There were two jobs available to black people in those days, you could be a maid, if you were a woman, a day laborer, if you were a man," said Anna Vollin, who lost her mother when she was very young and resides in southeast Washington with her husband. "Blacks weren't even allowed to work in the stores then."
The dream they had of better lives laid in the tiny school in Harper's Ferry. Storer College, first Storer Normal School, was established in the aftermath of Civil War by Massachusetts' abolitionists and Free Will Baptists. The special geography of the campus was never lost on anyone.
In 1881, Frederick Douglass delivered a famous address there on local abolitionist John Brown of Harper's Ferry raid renown. Later, the Niagara Movement, which evolved into the NAACP, led by W.E.B. DuBois, met there in 1906.
The National Park Service maintains Storer College landmarks and exhibitions and many of the original buildings, including the school's last chapel, built in 1897, are still in use today and open for tours.
"The Hill of Hope"
At a Black History Month presentation several years ago at the C. Burr Artz Public Library in Frederick, Todd Bolton, of Harper's Ferry National Historical Park, said the school was sometimes referred to as "the Hill of Hope."
For 25 years, Storer was the only school in West Virginia offering any education beyond the primary level for blacks. And in Frederick County there was no secondary education available for blacks until the first high school opened in 1920. Christine Hill Jones of Frederick graduated twice from the school, in 1927 with a high school diploma, and in 1949 with a bachelor of arts in elementary education.
Ironically, it was the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision that the West Virginia state legislature used as justification for de-funding Storer, for intents and purposes, forcing the school to close it doors the next year.
By then, although often only graduating 30 or so seniors each spring, Storer already had made an impact far outreaching its small size -- one that continues today. Storer was largely a teacher's college, and its graduates, like William and Anna Vollin, carried the gift and possibilities of education -- as well as their examples -- to generations of students.
It wasn't easy, even after graduation from Storer, however. Mary Harris, the longtime president of the still-active Storer College alumni association, graduated in 1950 after growing up in Charleston, W.Va., and spent two decades as a social worker in Washington. But it took 14 years to finally get a start to her chosen profession. She spent a decade and a half working as a typist for the Pentagon, the only position available at the time.
"We still send out 280 invitations to our annual weekend reunions at the college each August," Harris said. "We try hard to keep the flame the burning, try to keep the memory of the place alive before it eventually fades out."
Houston Brooks, 81, grew up in segregated Alexandria before attending Storer, where he studied chemistry. He made a contact at Storer that led to a placement in a new research program at Tuskegee University. He later earned his Ph.D. at Iowa State, taught at several universities and led research teams for a major pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. He has three children, all of whom earned college degrees, and two grandchildren, one in college, and one in high school on the way to college.
A credit to the teachers
"Storer is meaningful to me, because like only a handful of others schools, such as Howard, it was one of the first places of higher education open to blacks," Brooks said. "It was founded primarily to educate the children of ex-slaves and slaves, and it's a credit to the teachers that worked there that it succeeded."
Brooks added that it's important to note Storer wasn't intended to be a segregated college, "it just worked out that way."
"That's not in the charter -- it was a school that was intended to be open to everyone regardless of race or gender," he said.
William and Anna each went on to teach for three decades-plus and worked in the first desegregated schools in Arlington. It had taken William Vollin, who eventually became the second black principal in Arlington County, nine years to land a job in the school system. He eventually earned his master's in education from George Washington University.
"My church, Mt. Olivet Baptist in Arlington, gave me a little scholarship or else I never would've been able to go to Storer -- we didn't have the money," William Vollin said. "My minister, pastor Aaron Mackley graduated from Storer and between the scholarship, cleaning rooms on campus, and caddying at the white country clubs, I got through.
"I couldn't go back for the first semester of my sophomore year (because of finances), but I kept my head up. I had to stay with it."
Dawne Raines Burke, a professor at Shepherd University, wrote her dissertation at Virginia Tech about Storer's unique role in history, and she recently published the definitive book, "An American Phoenix: A History of Storer College from Slavery to Desegregation, 1865-1955."
A deeply researched collection of history, photographs, quotes and personal stories, Burke writes, "Despite limited funding, social resentment and entrenched racial prejudice, Storer functioned as a social change agent ..."
She describes the school's mission of furthering literacy, social and academic skills, independence and individual development, as coming at a crucial time, in a watershed small town.
Storer's collective actions, Burke writes, "were among the first efforts toward community building between the African-American community and consequently the community's relationship with the greater American society."
Anna Vollin had been the valedictorian of her high school class at the former Page Jackson High School in Charles Town, and said she went to school with "lots of bright students who didn't have the opportunity I did."
Like her husband in Arlington, Anna Vollin grew up sitting the back of buses, reading from used textbooks discarded from white schools, being refused service at restaurants, stuck in the balcony at theaters -- all of which continued while in college at Harper's Ferry. Storer was different, though. It offered encouragement.
"Storer College was very important to all of us. I was the first to go to college and so was my husband in his family," said Anna Vollin. "I was so determined to do better.
"I was told that I would never go to college, that I could only get married and have children and work as a domestic."
"It was a small campus, but the people who taught there really were great educators," she said. "And the students who went to school there really were committed to making a difference in their community."
Storer College resources: online, on the shelf and in-person
For an institution that ceased operations in 1955, there are multiple resources readily available that keep the memory of Storer's College unique role in American education alive and well.
The West Virginia University library system, for example, put together a tremendous series of scanned photos from the school's archives several years ago -- just keystrokes away for anyone with Internet access.
Preserved in the West Virginia University Libraries' West Virginia and Regional History Collection, the reverse sides of the photos, often including personal signatures and notes
Almost 400 photographs, the earliest dating back to 1873, can be found at www.libraries.wvu.edu/exhibits/storer. They include indelible images of the athletic teams, senior classes, faculty, the school's picturesque grounds, individual portraits, staff, students and World War I vets returning to campus.
"We received more than 80 feet (in stacks) of photos, administrative records, letters, financial records, building blue prints, and staff, faculty and returning alumni records," said Michael Ridderbusch of the West Virginia University library system in Morgantown. "It's pretty neat, you can search by date, subject, name. It's very accessible, there are lots of great images and material."
Ridderbusch said about half the visitors are students and faculty doing academic research. The other half are people studying their own family history.
Also, a local professor, Dawne Raines Burke at Shepherd University, built her doctoral thesis around Storer's unique contribution to education in this country. That effort eventually led to the first comprehensive book about Storer, Burke's 2006 work, "An American Phoenix: A History of Storer from Slavery to Desegregation, 1865-1955."
Information on that book, a collection of research, photos and narratives of the Storer story, can be found at www.shepherd.edu/university/features/burke.
And year-round in Harper's Ferry, the National Park Service maintains exhibitions related to Storer College's landmark work, free and open to the public. Also included are photos and information regarding W.E.B. Du Bois and other leading African-Americans who created the Niagara Movement, a forerunner of the NAACP, which held its second conference on the campus of Storer College in 1906. The Niagara Movement was a forerunner of the NAACP.
Today, the National Park Service's continues the college's educational mission by using part of the old campus as a training facility. Information on their Storer College material can be found at www.nps.gov/hafe/historyculture/storer-college.htm.