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Biography Details Life Of Longest Serving Black Teacher At Harpers Ferry's Storer College

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Liz McCormick
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In 2017, Lynn Pechuekonis moved into her residence in Harpers Ferry, soon discovering it was the previous home of the longest serving Black teacher at the historical Storer College. Pechuekonis’ curiosity and research led her to create a biography about that teacher, William Saunders.

Reporter Shepherd Snyder spoke to her about the book, titled Man of Sterling Worth: Professor William A. Saunders of Storer College.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Snyder: Starting off, I was wondering if you could introduce yourself and go through the general premise of your book.

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Pechuekonis: Hi, my name is Lynn Pechuekonis. I live in Harpers Ferry. And I moved into a beautiful home here and then discovered that it had been the original home of William A. Saunders, who was a professor at Storer College. And as I became more curious about who he was, my research turned into a book about his life from his birth in Louisa County, Virginia to formerly enslaved parents, to his death at age 93.

Snyder: For our listeners who might not know, can you talk about Harpers Ferry and its impact on Black history and culture?

Pechuekonis: Sure thing. So a lot of people think of John Brown when they think of Harpers Ferry and his raid, and it probably had some impacts on the town that he didn't expect. By the end of the Civil War, there were quite a number of self-liberated African Americans, formerly enslaved people gathered in Harpers Ferry that I've seen estimates of 500 to 700 of.

The missionaries from the Free Will Baptist church up in the north had already sent people down here to start working with the formerly enslaved peoples, and Harpers Ferry seemed like an ideal place for a school. The school started out teaching children. And soon it was believed that we needed a normal school, and a school to teach teachers because the need for education was so great among the Black population. So the Baptists up north were able to convince John Storer to donate $10,000 and Storer College was begun. And because of Storer College, an even greater population of African Americans flocked to Harpers Ferry.

The school had a very progressive stance towards encouraging home ownership in the town. And so a number of black residents were able to purchase property and have homes on really good land up in the upper town area where it was not prone to flooding, like in the lower town. And there was quite a thriving Black community here from just after the Civil War until about 100 years after.

Snyder: You mentioned earlier this book is particularly about one professor from Storer, Professor William Saunders. I was wondering if you could go into why you had an interest in him, specifically. Why is he important?

Pechuekonis: Well, what I discovered was that Professor Saunders was the longest serving Black teacher at Storer College. So he was there from 1907. He retired in the 1940s, but continued to be an integral part of the school even after that. The president (of Storer College) called him once “A man of sterling worth and a friend of every righteous cause.” He was known for helping struggling students, he boarded students in his home. And he taught an amazing breadth of classes from math, science, to professional studies in teaching, to sociology, to history of West Virginia and even Bible courses. So it was really hard to earn a degree at Storer College in the 20th century without sitting through at least one class from Professor Saunders. And he also was just an incredible man who served in his community and was a leader throughout the area.

Snyder: Is there anything of interest or any particular anecdotes or stories people should know about Professor Saunders and his life?

One of the things that stood out to me was that he was well known across the state. When (historian and author) AB Caldwell wrote his “History of the American Negro in West Virginia”, Professor Saunders was included in that that work. He was also selected by two West Virginia governors to represent the state at the Negro National Education Congress in 1911 and 1915. He was painted by Black artist William Edward Scott, who was known for his portraits, and he was even included in “The Crisis”, the publication by William E.B. Du Bois for the NAACP. Saunders went to Bates College for his bachelor's degree program, and even though it was a predominantly white school, he really excelled there and even became a football star during college.

Snyder: What was it like researching material about his life and getting material for this book?

Pechuekonis: So there was a bit of a challenge. Professor Saunders married another Storer College graduate, who was at least 12 years younger than himself. She was a teacher here in Harpers Ferry as well. She taught at the elementary school for Black children here, but they never had any children of their own. So there was nobody to save their photos and their papers, no direct descendants to speak with.

So really, I was left with looking at what's in the public record and what had been archived at Storer College’s archives, many of which are held by the West Virginia University Library. Some are still held by the (Harpers Ferry National Historical) Park Service, which took over the Storer College property after it closed. And those records are just full of references to Professor Saunders. He was always, you know, leading prayers, teaching classes. Very early in his career here, he was a football coach. He played in the band and he performed in theater productions that the school had. So his name is sprinkled throughout the records all over the place, in Storer College records, and also in newspaper articles. And as I mentioned, AB Caldwell’s history includes a brief biography of him. I also found some interesting information from a biography that his grandniece’s husband wrote in a creative writing class at Storer College.

Snyder: Fast-forward to today, why should people care about Professor Saunders and Storer College? What do you think their legacy is in 2022?

Pechuekonis: I think it's really important to understand history, understand that Harpers Ferry was not just about John Brown's raid and the Civil War. There were a lot of really great people who lived here and who were involved with the college who wanted to see people get an equal education here. I know that the alumni of Storer College held it very dear. Often people refer to it as the Storer College bubble. And there was not just the campus, but the whole section of the neighborhood where African American residents felt safe. Even if they didn't attend the school, young people came to Storer College, and it's just a beautiful inspiring story that I I find incredibly interesting, I think others do as well.

Eastern Panhandle Reporter, ssnyder@wvpublic.org, 304-449-4653

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