February 11, 2023 Blog

William A. Saunders was the longest serving Black professor at Storer College in Harpers Ferry, but his fascinating life story includes a sweet love story with a tragic ending.

Back when Saunders was a 29-year-old in his senior class at Bates College, the class prophet predicted he would never marry. Perhaps it because he was so much older than his classmates or because he seemed such a serious missionary for his Freewill Baptist faith. Understandably, during his years in a predominantly white school, he had limited options for courting.

Saunders’ romantic fortunes changed, however, while he was teaching in southern West Virginia at what was then called Bluefield Colored Institute. He had met and fallen in love with Inez Marie Johnson, an 18-year-student, and he wrote back to his Bates alumni newsletter in 1906 that he hoped to have a “better half” within the year.

A succession of life events happened that delayed their marital bliss. Inez moved up to Storer College to earn her normal diploma so she could become a teacher. William was hired onto the Storer faculty in December 1907. Inez graduated from Storer and taught briefly in southern West Virginia, then went back home to Institute in Kanawha County – perhaps because she was needed by her family. She finally returned to Harpers Ferry. After an eight-year wait, the couple traveled up to Wheeling and married quietly in the home of the pastor of the AME Church on September 10, 1914.

Two years later, William and Inez bought property down the street from the college campus and began planning their new home. Inez taught in the two-room Bolivar Graded Black School on West Ridge Street. She served as treasurer of the Potomac Valley Teachers’ Association and attended John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church.

In 1927, William and Inez moved into a stately, solid-stone American foursquare house built to their specifications. William wrote in a poem how they enjoyed sitting in front of the fireplace in their library, “whether we read or work on lace.”

When the new Grandview School opened at the end of Putnam Street in 1931, Inez moved over with her students. She taught local children in the K-8 school, while William taught many of them in the high school program at Storer.

Tragedy struck in fall 1937. After a week in a Martinsburg hospital, Inez died at the age of 49. She suffered from myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart tissue, and inflamed kidneys (nephritis). Her obituary in the Spirit of Jefferson noted, “She was well known and very highly esteemed by both white and colored residents of [Harpers Ferry and Bolivar].” A Storer College new release described her as “even in temperament, cheerful in disposition, constant in devotion to all worthy enterprises, a charming hostess and devoted daughter of Storer College, she was a woman of unusual attainments.”

In his grief, William wrote to those expressing their condolences:

You will never know the weight
That rests upon my lonely heart;
For her whose happy smile and bright,
Did always make my burdens light
And gave me strength to press the fight
To unknown fields with greater might,
I do now long; and O’ the smart
Of loneliness that comes to me of late.

A year later, he was still thinking of her as he wrote in a poem called “Christmas Cactus Blooming”:

“. . . But as I sit and watch thy blossoms ope
I note the absence of that constant friend
Who just one year ago did watch thy buds
Unfold and show their three-part petals red…
But loneliness is mine at this glad time
Because my well respected friend is gone
And will to me no more return to see
Thy beauteous flowers obey the voice of Him
Who marks the sparrow’s fall. And as the days
Go past I seem to hear her walk with soft
And aery tread and feel her presence here
Through day and night alike.…”

William stayed on in their lovely home until the early 1960s, when he was in his early 90s. He often boarded struggling Storer College students, including his grandniece. In 1950, he told a student biographer that marrying Inez was the best thing he ever did.

Their story is a beautiful reminder that love is worth waiting for, yet life offers us no promises of longevity. Remember to make every day count with your special someone.

Lynn Pechuekonis is vice chair of the Foundation board of directors and author of Man of Sterling Worth: Professor William A. Saunders of Storer College, which is available from the Harpers Ferry Park Association Book Shop.

Written by Rachel Meyer