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Scarborough Library art exhibit focuses on Storer College, presentation planned March 7

ISSUED: 14 February 2023

SHEPHERDSTOWN, WV — Stories of Storer College students are the inspiration for an art exhibit, “Portraits of Persistence,” hosted by the Shepherd University Scarborough Library from February 28-April 1. A presentation about the exhibit and the college, which opened in Harpers Ferry after the Civil War and educated students from 1867-1955, will take place Tuesday, March 7, at 7 p.m. in the Library’s Reading Room. During the presentation, artist Rhonda Smith, retired professor of art, and Dr. Dawne Raines Burke, professor of education, will discuss Storer’s history and its contribution to the American experience.

Following the Civil War, those freed from slavery were allowed to seek out an education. Recognizing a need, the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency tasked with assisting newly freed slaves, and the Freewill Baptists of New England established Storer in 1865 as a one-room elementary school. Maine philanthropist John Storer contributed a $10,000 grant to the school, which offered an education “to both sexes without regard to race or color.” In 1906, the predecessor to the NAACP, the Niagara Movement, met at Storer.

The artwork by Rhonda Smith featured in “Portraits of Persistence” includes 12 linoleum print portraits of six students who attended Storer in the early 1900s. The portraits represent two unidentified students, one male and one female, and students Julia E. Allston, 1923; Louise V. Hicks, 1906; Rose Thompson, 1900; and William D. Johnson 1904.

The portraits were selected from the West Virginia University Storer College Digital Collection. Smith displays the students’ portraits on two backgrounds—one hand cut and printed representing a style of wallpaper that might have been found on the walls of the homes and buildings first occupied by wealthy white people that became part of Storer College. The second portraits are collaged over actual wallpaper, creating bold color patterns in contrast to the linoleum-printed portraits.

“I hope the portraits invite people to ask questions about who these people were and what Storer College was and encourages them to look into the history that is all around them,” Smith said. “I was surprised to learn how few people in this area are even aware that Storer College existed and about the role it played in history. I think it is a story worth knowing and I hope my portraits help people want to find out more.”

Smith said she conceived of the exhibit during the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I began to wonder what I might do as a white artist to reflect on the positive history and aspirations of Black Americans,” she said. “I had worked for the National Park Service in Harpers Ferry for several years roaming through and around the very buildings that were once home to Storer College. I began to consider that perhaps I had a legitimate link to the stories that were part of Storer College through this rather tenuous association.

Smith researched Storer’s history and was partly inspired to create the portraits after reading a book Burke wrote titled “An American Phoenix: A History of Storer College from Slavery to Desegregation 1865-1955.” The 2015 book provides a comprehensive history of Storer and brings to life many of the individuals who taught or were educated there.

Photo of Rhonda Smith and Dawne Burke standing in front of art exhibit.“After reading this book and another I found in the National Park Service bookstore at Harpers Ferry, I knew I wanted to depict these persistent and determined students,” Smith said.

Burke said she is pleased and honored to serve as an inspiration for the exhibit and to take part in the March 7 presentation.

“As a student of history, I have not only tried to learn from history but also—and likely most important—to be intellectually stretched because of lessons from history, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote,” Burke said. “While we perhaps may consider the pinnacle of America’s national divisiveness, chaos, and incivility to be found among the hundreds of thousands of history pages published on the American Civil War, I beg to differ: It is now; it is present; it is here.”

Burke calls Smith’s exhibit the embodiment of the country’s stretch history, saying it contains the portraiture of the deceased and almost forgotten who are asserting their influence on today’s political discourse.

“These Storer College students, as portrayed by Smith, are resurrected from the past to inform the now, contemporary present, living American citizenship about the means, methods, and pathways through which national cohesiveness, civility, and humanity may be achieved through ‘Persistence,’” she said.

Smith hopes those who view the exhibit and attend the presentation will be inspired to take another look at Storer online and in books and materials available in the Shepherd Library and at Harpers Ferry National Park.

Both the exhibit and presentation are free and open to the public.

Scarborough Library hours are Sunday, Noon-8 p.m.; Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Noon-4:30 p.m. During Shepherd’s Spring Break—March 12-18—the library will be open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., with no weekend hours.

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