Storer College and Music Education

NOTES DA CAPO – By John L. Puffenbarger, WVMEA Historian

Spring 2007

In 1867 John Storer, a Maine philanthropist, became interested in Reverend Brackett's one-room school for freedmen at Harpers Ferry. He offered a $10,000 grant to the Freewill Baptists if the school would become a degree-granting college. 

For over 88 years, the place of education ultimately known as "Storer College" stood high above Harpers Ferry on Camp Hill. Storer grew into a full-fledged degree-granting college open to all races, creeds, and colors. Former slaves who were thrown into the world with no training, no skills, and no education found at Storer a place to learn to read and write, to teach others in their community, and to develop marketable skills. For many years it was the only institution in West Virginia offering instrumental music to African-Americans.

In 1938 Storer became a college. Although the school granted four-year degrees, it was never accredited, and the college was forced to turn away some students. A year after the U.S. Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, Storer College closed its doors forever.

In 1869 ninety-five students were enrolled. The school catalog stated that “Instruction is given in Vocal and Instrumental music to those who desire it.” Tuition and room rent were $3.00 per term. (Terms lasted three months.)  In each room was a stove, double bedstead, chairs, and a table and washstand. An extra charge was made for Drawing, Painting and Instrumental Music classes. Washing, fuel and lights were also extra. Board provided in family homes was $3.00 per week.

Storer was a very important part of music education in Jefferson County.  Miss Martha J. Stowers was the first music teacher at the school. One of the early band directors, Colonel McKinney, organized three bands. Band students played on instruments that were furnished by the school.

The music faculty wanted to give each student an understanding and appreciation of outstanding music compositions, both comtempory and classical.  Miss Pearl Elise Tatten taught several courses in the early 1900’s.  She taught sight singing, voice, piano and pipe organ.  The training students at the school received enabled them to teach music as well as other academic subjects.  Miss Tatten was the conductor of the outstanding glee club and choir.

A graduate of the school, Dr. Randolph E. Spencer, recalled the enthusiasm of the students who participated in Miss Tatten’s groups. “Our glee club was to appear at a distant community in West Virginia and, at the time of our departure, we discovered that a baritone singer was absent.  Some of us went to his room in the dormitory, to find him unconsicous as a result of an injury that he had sustained the day before.  Our biology instructor administered first aid, and he immediately regained consciouness. Notwithstanding his condition, none of us could dissuade him from going. He prepared himself for the trip and there was no recurrence of the condition.”

The school offered a five-year course to voice students.  The course encluded Solfeggio, Harmony, History and Music Appreciation.  The course in piano was designed to enable the students to play simple accompainments without difficulity.  Each student was awared a certificate after twenty books were completed.

 Sight reading was an important part of the curriculum.  All students were required to take the course.  The songs books used contained unison, two part, three part and four part selections. Exercises from several classical, sacred and secular songs from operas and oratories from the Italian school were sung.

The campus was once the home to Donald Matthew Redman, one of the school’s most successful graduates. Of all the students of Storer College during it’s illustrious eighty-eight year history, no one had the impact on the world of music like Don Redman.

According to a Don Redman Web-site, he was born in Piedmont, West Virginia on July 29, 1900. He began playing trumpet at age three and by the age of sixteen he came to Harpers Ferry to study music at Storer College. Graduating in 1920 Don Redman’s talent for jazz music was instantly recognized. He became known as “The Little Giant of Jazz”, and the first great arranger in jazz history. Until his death in 1964, Don Redman continued to have a profound influence on the evolution, direction and development of this uniquely American art form.

Many Storer College graduates distinguished themselves in the field of music despite the barriers they faced. The students enjoyed many exacting and caring educators who were dedicated role models and taught children to do the best they could with what they had. Today the Harpers Ferry National Park Service continues the college's educational mission by using part of the old campus as a training facility.