It seems every aspect of school for Loudoun County’s black children was work before the 1940s, the former students who are now in their 80s and 90s will tell you.
It was work to get to school—parents from all over the county chipped in for Mr. Will Brown to deliver their children in a raggedy bus to Loudoun County Training School. It was work to get supplies—each family bought their own books at Littlejohn’s Drug Store. It was work to learn—40 teenagers shared two classrooms and two teachers in the makeshift high school on Union Street in Leesburg.
“We were packed in like sardines,” recalls Almeta Johnson, who attended Loudoun County Training School until 1940. “You couldn’t get much done like that.”
But they soon would have a school of their own.
In a three-part series, we look at the 125-year heritage of African Americans in Loudoun’s public schools—their fight to first establish their own schools and later to attend school alongside the rest of the county’s children.
By 1938, the parent-teacher associations from the several small, all-black schools formed the County Wide League to draw attention to the inequality of education in Loudoun. After the county Board of Supervisors refused to build a high school for the county’s black children, the parents in the County Wide League set out to do it themselves. They traveled to nearby counties to drum up support; grandmas offered their penny jars; and the organization put on bake sales, dances, plays and lawn parties, similar to parent-teacher associations today, except they weren’t raising money for playground equipment or iPads. They were building a school.
“My mother wanted her children to have the best education that they could possibly have,” Johnson said. Her mother was part of the fundraising effort and a graduate of the all-black Storer College in Harpers Ferry.
In 1939, the Virginia Department of Education’s department of Negro Education recommended the Loudoun County Training School on Union Street be abandoned because of its hazardous condition, according to Journey Through Time, Events Affecting African Americans In Loudoun County, Virginia.
That same year, the County Wide League wrote a check for $4,000 to purchase land on East Market Street where Douglass High School would be built, and later deeded the land to the School Board for $1. The School Board offered to build the shell of the school, as long as the black community paid for windows and much of the equipment, according to Mary Randolph, a 1961 Douglass High School graduate and member of the Thomas Balch Library’s Black History Committee.
“They didn’t have curtains for the stage or chairs, so they asked people in the community to buy folding chairs at $2.12 a piece,” Frank Watkins, 91, recalls, adding that it gave the community a special sense of ownership. “It really was our school.”
Johnson, now 87, didn’t think she would get to attend a modern high school in her time. But by her junior year in 1941, the league had raised enough money to open Frederick Douglass High School.
“All I remember thinking is, this is awesome,” she said of walking into the brand new school that fall.
New books, notepads and pencils awaited the students, as well as three times the course options they had at their previous school, where two teachers taught history, health, English and mathematics. Douglass High School brought on several more educators to teach not only the basics, but also industrial technology, physical education, home economics, algebra, advanced science and French.
“We never thought we’d get to take a foreign language,” Johnson said, laughing at the memory. “Everything about this new school was exciting. There wasn’t a kid who didn’t appreciate it.”
The school building today houses the county’s alternative education program.
Fifteen years after Douglass High School opened, the School Board agreed to build an elementary school for the county’s black children in Leesburg. In 1958, four years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, Frederick Douglass Elementary School became home to 250 students who had been attending one-room schoolhouses throughout the county.
“Oh my, it was quite the sight,” Fred Drummond, the school’s first principal, recalled of stepping into the new building on his first day. “That was a big, fancy school then.”
Drummond, now 90, was the first face students saw as their bus pulled up. He greeted every student as they ran off the bus into the school, and inside his wife, Peggy Drummond, greeted the students from her desk in the front office.
In a film shown at the dedication ceremony of the new Frederick Douglass Elementary School, which opened on the same site of the original school last August, several former students spoke of the school, new in 1961, as a turning point for the county’s black children.
“Walking through those doors gave me a sense of pride,” Helen Louise Green said in the film. “It gave us a place we could finally call our own, instead of being shuffled here and there, not being wanted. I was thankful because I had my own school.”
Students rode buses from all corners of the county to get to the new school. Darryl Conrad Smith, now Purcellville’s chief of police, rode a bus for 45 minutes, mostly on bumpy dirt roads from Sterling, to get to his new school. For first and second grade, he could walk to the four-room Oak Grove School.
“My parents didn’t like how far I had to travel,” he said, but once he arrived at school, it felt like home. “You felt loved and protected in that school.”
Maybe because of the great effort it took from the black community to establish their own schools, or because the majority of the county didn’t expect much from Frederick Douglass students, the teachers set the academic bar high for their students.
Smith, now 62, remembers the elementary school staff worked to keep the building in pristine condition, and they wanted to see the same effort out of students every day in class.
“The teachers worked with you and made sure your work was done, and if you didn’t, they communicated with your parents,” he said.
At Douglass High School, Randolph said, “the teachers instilled in you that education, and hard work, was the way to go.” She said her home economics teacher Ms. Ruth Craben was one of her favorites. “Every day, I use something she taught me.”
And the students’ successes surpassed many of the county leaders’ expectations, Randolph added. Students from her graduating class of 50 went on to be judges, nurses, business owners and doctors.
Shortly after Randolph’s graduation, the School Board at the time offered to build the elementary school and add classrooms onto the high school, with no required donations from the black community.
Randolph said, “My theory is that they figured, well, if we give them a little something, a school of their own, they may not fuss about integrating.”
Black History In Loudoun's Schools (1846-1939)
1939: The County Wide League bought 8 acres along East Market Street in Leesburg to build a high school for black students. The land was deeded to the School Board for $1.
1940: NAACP of Loudoun County chartered.
1941: The new high school, named after abolitionist Frederick Douglass, opens as accredited school.
1944: The salary gap between the earnings of white and black teachers begins to narrow: The average white teacher earns $1,404, the average black teacher, $1,293.
1948: The first modern elementary school for blacks, eight-room George Washington Carver School, opened in Purcellville; Benjamin Banneker School opened in St. Louis; Oak Grove School opens in eastern Loudoun; Hamilton Elementary School closed.
1949: Douglass High School expands to include a 12th grade level and graduates its first four-year class of 12 in 1950.
1950-1952: For two seasons the Douglass High School girl’s basketball team, traveling to away games with the boy’s team, wins the Tri-State Championship.
1954: Supreme Court declares segregation in public schools unconstitutional (Brown vs. Board of Education).
1956: Loudoun Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to close public schools rather than integrate; action rescinded in 1962.
1956: The Loudoun School Board refused the County Wide League’s request to use the Loudoun County High School auditorium for the Douglass High School graduation ceremony.
Late 1956: The Board of Supervisors agrees to build the first modern elementary school for blacks in Leesburg, Frederick Douglass Elementary School.
1957: Waterford’s Second Street School is consolidated into Leesburg’s Douglass School.
Fall 1958: The 12-room Frederick Douglass Elementary School opens to 250 students who had been attending one-room schoolhouses throughout the county.
SOURCE: Thomas Balch Library and Journey Through Time: Events Affecting African Americans In Loudoun County, Virginia
NEXT WEEK: A decade after the U.S. Supreme Court rules racially segregated public schools unconstitutional, Loudoun County leaders see they can no longer fight against integration.