“It was a typical day’s work.” That’s how Sue Hall and others in the Loudoun school system’s Student Records Department describe the morning two years ago when they walked into the Union Street School in Leesburg to take a look around.
The building, which once served as an all-black school, had been all but abandoned. But they got a tip that there may—just may—be student records in there worth saving.
Hall, Donna Kroiz and others noticed a pile of a dozen dusty boxes stashed under a staircase. They pulled out a couple and lifted the lids.
Under a thick layer of dust, spider webs and even rat droppings, sat what local history experts are calling “a treasure trove” almost lost. Stacked in worn cartons were students’ classroom assignments and grades, teachers’ evaluations, correspondence between superintendents and school boards, and several letters from Loudoun’s black community petitioning for equal education, among other significant records.
“We couldn’t quite believe it,” said Hall, the school system’s record archivist. “We thought, these should be saved.”
Now a team of volunteers, led by Larry Roeder, chair for research on the Friends of Thomas Balch Library’s Black History Committee, have launched a year-long project to catalogue and preserve the once-lost documents that tell the story of Loudoun County schools between the Civil War and the end of racial segregation.
They’re calling the effort The Edwin Washington Project, named after a black teen who, between jobs, attended school in Leesburg in the 1860s.
Their focus is to get a better understanding of what school was like for black students specifically during the 125 years the county’s public schools were separated by race.
“Their story is in these records, that sat untouched for 50 years,” Roeder said. “We want to document what schools they attended, what they studied, who taught them. That’s never been done before.”
Discovering Untold Stories
Two to three days a week, Roeder and his assistant, Tony Arciero, put on dust respirator masks, roll up their sleeves and get to work.
On those days, they take over the gymnasium at the Round Hill Center; once the town’s elementary school, it now houses Loudoun County student records. They carefully thumb through letters, grade books and other reports, some dating back to the 1840s, as they decide how best to organize the material.
Each day, they uncover a new part of Loudoun’s history, Roeder said. Much of it is the part that is little talked about. The county was one of the last jurisdictions in the nation to desegregate its schools. It took intervention from U.S. courts to convince Loudoun leaders to integrate schools in 1969, 15 years after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that segregation was unconstitutional.
A stack of now-worn, dried-out petitions from the black community to the superintendent and School Board illustrate just how inequitable some of the school conditions were. They asked for more classroom space, for repairs to toilets that had been broken for months, for a sanitary drinking system—students in black schools took turns scooping water from a bucket—as well as more school supplies.
One fragile sheet of paper is, most likely, the very first petition the black community submitted to Superintendent Oscar Emerick and the school board requesting “a suitable, up-to-date high school … for the benefit of the colored children of our said County.” Seventy-two people signed it.
In another box, Roeder found a letter from those same individuals to Emerick in 1941 inviting the superintendent to speak at the opening celebration of the brand new Douglass School.
“You see the slow progress,” Roeder said. “I think Martin Luther King would have been proud of them (Loudoun’s black community) because of their approach. It was non-violent, and they used their education to improve the system.”
Letters from longtime superintendent Emerick show the educators’ inner struggle with splitting black and white students and teachers. He led the school system through some of its most transformative years, from 1917 to 1957.
In the early 1940s, he told the Board of Supervisors and School Board that
they should seriously consider integrating the schools before the federal government forced them to. In one letter to the school board, Emerick said the school system had done pretty well for white students but not so well for black students. He wrote, “That is prejudice.”
“You can see this clear build up to Brown vs. Board of Education within these documents,” Arciero said. “It was happening right here.”
The small team of individuals who found the records and are now working to preserve them have gotten statewide attention.
The General Assembly adopted a resolution in March that praised Kroiz, Hall, Roeder and others for their work to save the material. Del. John Bell (D-87), who sponsored the bill, said this week, “It’s a wonderful thing what they did. Frankly, we came close to losing a very valuable piece of history.”
The resolution includes language meant to protect the records from destruction. “Now, they can’t be ruined,” Roeder said with a smile.
Roeder works as the data manager at the Library Information of Science Department at the Catholic University of America and is adapting what he’s learned in organizing the university’s massive amounts of records to this project.
He and Arciero, with the help of volunteers from the school system and other history buffs, are digitizing the records and organizing them into an online database at loudounschoolproject.wordpress.com that the public can easily navigate. They are also working on a book that summarizes what they found.
The records are property of Loudoun County Public Schools and, initially, will be housed in archival boxes at the Round Hill Center. Eventually, Roeder would like to see them moved to the Thomas Balch Library in Leesburg where the public can more easily access them.
In an email this week, Superintendent Eric Williams praised the Student Records Department staff for going well beyond their job descriptions.
“Preserving educational records is preserving a unique window into our history; especially when those records reflect a community that history often ignores,” he wrote. “I’m proud Loudoun County Public Schools played a role in making sure these records, which could so easily have been ignored and lost, are protected and available to scholars and those researching their family history.”
Roeder and Arciero are asking for the community’s help to complete the Edwin Washington Project. They want to interview men and women who attended or worked in Loudoun’s segregated schools. They are also looking for volunteers to help in their preservation efforts. Those interested can email Roeder at firstname.lastname@example.org.