William Vollin remembers first climbing the hill to Storer College in 1947.
He was 16, a black kid on scholarship who arrived at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., with a change of clothing in a paper sack.
“I was just a nice little boy, not sophisticated,” says Vollin, 84, who sports a silver mustache, stylish spectacles and a wry smile.
“No way in the world would I stay there,” he thought back then of the bare-bones place that left him cold and homesick. He wanted to hop a train home to Arlington, Va., where he lived in public housing with his family.
But he stayed, and gradually campus life took hold. Vollin played football at Storer, met Anna Mildred Roy — they have been married 62 years — and fortified his belief that he was equal to any person, black or white.
Which is why on an August afternoon, Vollin, a retired educator who lives in Southeast Washington, is back in Harpers Ferry for the annual Storer reunion. And why his son, David Vollin, 53, is by his side. Growing up, David’s sisters, Sharon and Angela Vollin, were also regulars.
“I’ve been coming since I was a kid,” the son says.
With alumni “leaving this earth very rapidly,” the father says, he and others have taught their children to remember.
His daughter Sharon, a librarian, says of alumni, “They all have stories to tell that are deep and beautiful and rich.”
Storer started as a primary school in 1865, weathering racist attacks because it dared educate African Americans.
It graduated its last class in 1955, six decades ago, but Storer’s dwindling alumni return, year after year. Their descendants who never attended the school keep returning, too, even as the National Park Service, which now owns the campus, is making efforts to highlight Storer’s history.
The alumni and their descendants believe it’s their responsibility to honor those who persevered before them.
“Blacks and whites sacrificed blood, sweat and tears to make things happen,” says David Vollin, a zoning engineer with the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Born during Reconstruction, Storer survived violence and was the site of other historic moments, including contributing to the birth of the modern civil rights era. And mostly, it created a refuge for young men and women. It’s a source of pride.
Still, at times, William Vollin feels something slipping away. Mildred lost interest in the reunions a while back. And “most of my friends have passed on.” When contemplating Storer, he wavers between joyful memories and a wistfulness, verging on despair that his own devotion could be fading.
The weekends can stir all that in him.
There is the picnic, the dinner dance and a Sunday morning chapel service.
The picnic is always a boisterous affair, the cries of recognition and warm hugs.
On this Saturday afternoon, Vollin takes it all in as Alvin Catlett, president of the Storer College National Alumni Association, shushes the crowd of about 75 gathered on the Camp Hill campus above downtown Harpers Ferry.
“Hello! Hello!” Catlett shouts. The picnic has officially started, he says, “because I’m hungry!”
The Rev. Donald F. Taylor Sr., who spent two years at Storer, blesses the meal, and people dig into the hamburgers, baked beans and pasta salad.
Ramona Gross, Class of 1950, has brought children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The 87-year-old remembers W.E.B. Du Bois speaking at her commencement.
“I would like for everyone to know what we learned at this small college,” says the native of Iaeger, W.Va.
Gross, now of Takoma Park, Md., finds classmate Gwendolyn Houston, 86, of Upper Marlboro, Md. They each wear black-and-white Storer College T-shirts.
For a while non-Storerites such as David Vollin and Catlett have outnumbered alumni at these reunions. Catlett’s late mother, Gloria Catlett, attended Storer for two years before leaving for financial reasons. She earned two master’s degrees elsewhere but remained devoted to Storer.
“Every year she would send a letter to a lot of the family and friends saying, ‘Don’t forget August. ... Hopefully we can count on you being there,’ ” Catlett recalls.
When his predecessor, an aging alumnus, resigned, Catlett, 63, volunteered.
“I knew my mother would want this, so I stepped up,” says Catlett, of Hyattsville, Md. Nine family members are with him.
William Vollin leaves the festivities to walk the campus.
Here is Anthony Memorial Hall. In 1952, he strolled to commencement there, hand-in-hand with Mildred.
Over there was Mosher Hall, the men’s dormitory. It had no hot water and rooms were crammed with bunk beds.
On Fillmore Street stands Curtis Freewill Baptist Church, where students attended services and Sunday Vespers.
“We practiced football in this area,” says Vollin, who was captain of the Golden Tornado. He points to a sloping field that repeatedly changed possession between Union and Confederate troops.
High above the junction of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers and housed at first in hand-me-down government buildings, Storer College became a sanctuary.
Students studied Shakespeare, chemistry and French grammar as they prepared to become teachers, civil servants, musicians, clergy, military leaders, entrepreneurs and scientists.
Vollin went on to earn a master’s degree and had a distinguished 30-year career as a teacher, counselor and principal in the Arlington school system. He retired in 1991. His experience at Storer guided every step.
“I just didn’t feel subservient,” he says.
Storer was cradled by the past. Less than a mile away from the school, abolitionist John Brown led the 1859 raid that hastened the Civil War.
The school began the year the war ended. By law, slaves had been denied an education. The Freedmen’s Bureau, black churches, along with some whites ones, and philanthropists set about establishing schools.
The Storer primary school was founded by Free Will Baptists. Two years later, a $10,000 matching grant from Maine’s John Storer, a white abolitionist who made his money in shipping, launched Storer College with the provision that it be open to all regardless of race or sex.
Nineteen students entered the first college class. Enrollment quickly grew at the school, whose early presidents and many faculty were white. Some of their children were the only white students.
Storer’s historical significance also grew. Frederick Douglass, a trustee, gave his famous speech about the “brave and good old man” John Brown there in 1881. The Niagara Movement, the precursor to the NAACP, met at Storer in 1906. And in 1910, Storer reconstructed Brown’s fort as a campus museum.
From the start, Harpers Ferry locals were unwelcoming. Teachers reported being stoned by townspeople, the campus was vandalized and the local press railed against Storer’s existence.
A cross was burned on the lawn of the college’s first black president in 1944, and a hospital refused to treat a gravely injured student.
It graduated West Virginia’s first black attorney, J.R. Clifford; Ella Nora Phillips Stewart, one of the nation’s first female African American pharmacists; and jazzman Don “The Little Giant” Redman. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first elected president, spent two years there.
On campus, the hostility was countered by pregame bonfires, dances, lectures, concerts and plays. Between classes, students gathered at the canteen for hot dogs and ice cream as Johnny Ace’s “Never Let Me Go” played on the jukebox.
Storer’s choral groups and instrumental ensembles were its pride and glory — and a major fundraising source. Performing at black and white churches in the North and South, they collected donations and recruited students. Later, they appeared on local radio and television.
Their efforts were especially critical during the school’s waning days. Elbert Norton, 81 and Class of ’55, recalls the college president persuading him to skip a basketball road trip for a choir broadcast.
“They were trying to do everything they could to save Storer,” he says.
By 1952, Storer was subsisting on loans and income from selling school property.
By 1953 there were 71 students.
The final blow came after the Supreme Court’s 1954Brown v. Board of Education decision. The state defunded Storer, claiming black schools were superfluous.
The board of trustees closed the doors. Storer had 7,000 to 8,000 graduates.
This is where Vollin’s regrets arise.
“I feel that our African American leaders could have been more aggressive in informing us or appealing to the historically black colleges and universities for funding,” he says. “But we were told very little.”
A 1960 federal law gave the Storer campus to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The campus became an office complex. In 1968, the Park Service moved Brown’s fort close to its original location.
The Park Service eventually began to focus on the school’s historical value. In 1980, park rangers, including Guinevere Roper, mounted a small exhibition.
Her father and aunt had gone to Storer.
“I guess that’s why I’m still here, because of the school,” says Roper, a 40-year Park Service employee.
She and colleagues continued to resurrect the college’s legacy with an oral history project, Storer-centered guided tours and permanent exhibitions. In 2006 the park celebrated the centennial of the Niagara Movement conference. And a Storer sesquicentennial celebration in 2017 will showcase alumni.
During the reunion’s closing service in Curtis Freewill Baptist Church, Storerite and pianist Margaret Smelley, 79, leads the alumni choir through “Blessed Assurance” and other songs. Adrian Norton, Elbert Norton’s son, is on the bass guitar.
Storer may be closed, the Rev. Taylor tells the 40 people in the pews, but its spirit “permeates everything that we do.”
Sitting near the lectern, Vollin is not comforted. The Park Service work is important, and he has taught his children well. But so much has been lost. Even at the service there is no more tolling of the bell or lighting of candles for dead classmates.
“When I’m in the church service I really get sad,” he says. “We used to go to Vespers there. I wish my own children had had the opportunity to do the same.”
He wishes. He makes pledges: He’ll restore those traditions next year. Still, he knows, ultimately, time will have the last word.
Stephanie Shapiro is a freelance writer in Baltimore and part-time journalism instructor in Chennai, India. She was a Baltimore Sun reporter for 23 years.