- Reading the Storer Record:Negotiating Race and Industrial Education at Storer College During the Age of Jim Crow
In 1904, a notice appeared in the school newspaper of Storer College, a white-run school for African Americans founded after the Civil War in Harpers Ferry, announcing a change in the printing department. It explained that the school's trustees had hired W. O. Towns, the proprietor of the local Harpers Ferry Times, to teach students a trade, "the regular newspaper and job work" of a printing office.1 Consequently, the notice stated, he was to move "his entire plant to the college and unite it with the college outfit" to set students up with the task of printing not only his own Harpers Ferry Times but also the school's newspaper, the Storer Record.2 The brief announcement about the arrival of Towns, his printing press, and the work students would be doing was, in fact, part of a larger cultural shift at Storer.
Established in 1867 with funding from the Freedman's Bureau, Storer was founded with the mission of educating former slaves and their families.3 It was, for nearly its first quarter century, the only normal school in West Virginia chartered to award teaching degrees to African Americans.4 As the notice about the printing program in the Record suggests, Storer's students worked considerably hard outside the classroom. Since Storer's founding, its administration relied heavily on student labor to maintain daily life at the school and to expand its campus—from cooking the meals to constructing and repairing many of the campus' buildings.5 Throughout the 1880s, Storer began to adopt manual labor into a formal curriculum by offering vocational and industrial courses along with its other programs.6 This formalization of manual labor at Storer corresponded with a widespread movement in the South that was predicated upon white supremacists notions of black inferiority. That, however, is not how its white supporters described it. At normal schools, such as Virginia's Hampton Institute and Storer College, proponents [End Page 121] couched manual labor within a discourse of Christian benevolence. Often claiming a progressive abolitionist legacy, they asserted that manual labor made African Americans fit for citizenship by instilling Christian values and moral character. Under the motto Labor Omnia Vincit ("Work Conquers All"), a phrase that was inscribed on the title page of Storer's yearly catalogs, the school's trustees formally designated the industrial department as a separate course of study in 1897.7 Eventually, its administration required all normal students to take industrial classes so that by the time the editor of the Harpers Ferry Times relocated his press to campus, Storer had fundamentally altered its educational emphasis. It was training more African American tradespeople than teachers.8
This essay explores Storer's transition to manual-labor education, and particularly how the different groups that comprised Storer's community negotiated the school's identity through the Storer Record. Scholars often cast the story of African American education in the early twentieth century as a national debate between the period's most prominent African Americans: W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Each promoting a strategy for uplift, Du Bois represented antisegregationists advocating liberal education while Washington represented segregationists advancing industrial education.9 Accordingly, this essay approaches Storer as a site where conflicting ideas about education and race converge, and the Record as the discourse that emerges from that conflict, revealing articulations of those discordant ideas. In doing so, the essay argues that the students at Storer participated within a cultural space I label "the educational threshold." This term describes the shared dilemma that African Americans faced as they struggled for inclusion within the classroom while also recognizing that the education practiced within its walls was underpinned by racialist ideology. Storer's students were culturally situated on the threshold of education, requiring inclusion while observing the injustice in the practice of industrial education. The Record reflects how its readership—the white administration, trustees, and northern benefactors, as well as the African American students and alumni—sought in often conflicting ways to represent their participation in manual-labor education. The Storer Record...