HARPERS FERRY — If Guinevere Roper hadn’t started working as a park ranger at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in the early 1970s, the stories of African-American life in this history-rich town before, during and after the Civil War might have been lost forever.
On Saturday the Charles Town native who spent 44 years at the park before retiring in 2017, presented a talk at the Mather Training Center to kick off both Black History Month and this year’s 75th anniversary celebration.
Park officials describe Roper’s research on Harpers Ferry and African-American history as “groundbreaking,” calling her findings crucial to the establishment of the park’s interpretive programs on Storer College.
Storer, of course, was West Virginia’s first desegregated school and among the first in the South following the Civil War. “Newly freed slaves would have considered the campus of Storer College hallowed ground,” explained Roper, 71.
Park Ranger Creighton Waters, who worked with Roper at the visitors center, introduced her and credited her for elevating African-American history – putting it on equal footing with other historical content at the park.
“We wouldn’t be talking about it today if it were not for Gwen,” he said.
At the time, “African-American history was not in the forefront,” Roper explained in an earlier interview. As a child, she studied at a segregated school in Charles Town.
Her first Park Service project involved setting up a small display on African-American history. She found artifacts and documents to tell the story of Storer and African-Americans in Harpers Ferry by poring through records tucked away in dusty closets, storage rooms, closets and cubbyholes, she said.
Now the Storer College story is “one of Harpers Ferry’s most important chapters,” Roper said. “This school provided an unprecedented opportunity to former slaves held in bondage to gain a scholarly education they had long been denied.”
In her weekend address to a crowd of about 80, Roper recounted Storer’s start in 1867 by Nathan C. Brackett, a Freewill Baptist minister from Maine who served as Storer’s president and principal until 1899, as well as the promise by John Storer, a philanthropist from Maine who agreed to match Brackett’s $10,000 if the school were open to students regardless of race or gender.
Frederick Douglass would go on to serve as one of Storer’s trustees and in 1906 Storer College hosted a meeting of the Niagara Movement, the influential group that was the forerunner of the NAACP.
The Niagara’s leaders included W.E.B. Dubois, the Harvard University graduate and civil rights activist who taught history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University, and J.R. Clifford, a West Virginia native and Civil War veteran who graduated from Storer and then became a teacher in Martinsburg and the state’s first African-American attorney.
“The [Niagara] meeting was the cornerstone of the modern civil rights movement,” Roper said. “It paved the way for the NAACP and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Members of Roper’s family, including her father and an aunt, attended Storer in the decades before the school’s closure in 1955.
The school shut down a year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education struck down segregation in the nation’s public schools.
“After that Storer students had greater opportunities to go to much larger colleges and universities,” Roper said.
The state of West Virginia also cut off funding to Storer because Jefferson County already had Shepherd College (now Shepherd University), a publicly funded institution of higher education that began accepting African-Americans after Brown.
Roper called Storer’s founding “a beacon of light” for the former enslaved.” Throughout its 88 years of existence, the school forged a “mission of dignity and freedom through knowledge,” she said.