By Deep Sran
For over 18 months, students, teachers, and parents at Loudoun School for the Gifted have been working, with the community’s support, to restore a small, forgotten building in the heart of Ashburn. Though it looked like nothing more than a neglected storage shed, this is the oldest school in Ashburn, serving African American children from 1892 to 1959.
The high point of the experience for our students so far has been meeting two former students, Yvonne Neal and Louise Winzor, and meeting Reverend Alfonso Harrod, whose sister, Lola Jackson, was their teacher. When we met Miss Neal, who attended school here from 1938 through 1945, she remembered Miss Jackson warmly and told of the love she felt for and experienced every day in the school.
When we met Miss Winzor, she and her family told us the school was called the Ashburn Colored School, and they urged us to use its original name, so we do. A 1940 tax document uses the same name and shows the building to be in good condition, valued at $400.
By the 1950s, when the Soviet Union had already put a satellite in space, some of our community’s children were still forced to attend a one-room school with an outhouse. One of our students is now working to create a replica of the outhouse building as part of his Eagle Scout project, to remind visitors of what education was like for some students in Loudoun County during the Space Age. These are truths that are easy to forget in what is now a diverse, affluent, and vibrant suburban county. Yet, the schools here were only integrated in 1968, almost 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education found “separate but equal” to be unconstitutional.
The site is of great historical significance, particularly for what it reveals about the African American experience in the county. Around 1880, Charlie Harris, an African American farmer, purchased the adjacent lot and donated it for what would become the Zion Baptist Church. Mr. Harris’s red barn has been restored and moved to One Loudoun. Extant records suggest that members of the congregation built the school in 1892. The 640-square-foot school housed up to 50 students between the ages of 6 and 17 by the early 20th century.
Over the past two years, our students raised about $20,000 through bake sales, yard sales, and individual donations. This money was used to rebuild the foundation a few months ago and to repair the windows, which were just re-installed a couple of weeks ago, bringing sunlight into the school for the first time in decades. During our second bake and yard sale two weeks ago, it was with great excitement and pride that we looked at the visible progress bringing the schoolhouse back to life–and back into the light.
On Saturday, before 9 a.m., we learned that the building had been vandalized. My colleagues and I raced to the site and found swastikas, hateful speech, and lewd images on three sides of the building. I cannot describe our disappointment. Who in Ashburn would expend so much effort on such a worthless end? We have come so far, but there is still some distance to go.
I called Danielle Nadler of Loudoun Now, and she worked to get the story out to readers quickly. Our parents shared the story on social media. Over the next several hours, we received an outpouring of support from those who learned of the vandalism. Local news outlets called or sent reporters to the site to document the damage. Donations poured in to the project’s GoFundMe page. Our students and parents and countless other visitors came to see for themselves what had happened. They expressed their disbelief and frustration–and their optimism that something good would come out of this senseless act.
By the time we woke up the following day, only 24 hours after the story was first covered in this paper, it had become a national and international story. It was among the top stories on CNN and the BBC. In a day and a half, strangers had donated over $40,000 towards the $100,000 goal of reopening this modest building to the public.
This is certainly a teachable moment, but what does it teach?
On the “cause” side, it teaches that the words and ideas people learn matter. They shape how people behave, and they create genuine good or harm. Though the words and ideas scrawled on this historic building have been shared publicly and privately in this country for far too long, it’s been ideas like justice, decency, and community that have galvanized this recent outpouring of support. Also on the cause side, it is clear that the perpetrators lacked worthy endeavors or goals. If people have worthwhile things to do, they don’t do things like this. On the “effect” side, it shows that there are words and actions that are beyond the pale, that so offend standards of right and wrong that they move people to act–to volunteer their time and to donate their money to strangers. On balance, this episode teaches me to teach my students that there are many more reasonable and generous people who will act to undo the actions of the few hateful and destructive ones.
This episode also teaches that amazing connections and outcomes are now possible among people across the globe. This was impossible just a few years ago. In 24 hours, a story about a small town in Loudoun County, Virginia, has reached the whole world. What was once a story of local interest now draws interest and support from people thousands of miles away. Like us, they’re all just trying to figure out how to make sense of it. What I have learned is, as is often the case, a reflection of what I believed before: the better angels of our nature will prevail, so long as we respond when people trample upon beautiful things.
Thank you to everyone who has embraced this project and volunteered their time and money to make sure this old building, and the stories and lessons it holds, live again. Please visit www.loudounschool.org/crc to learn more about the Community Restoration Celebration on October 9th at the Ashburn Colored School. I’ll close by sharing what Reverend Harrod told our students: “We may not be where we ought to be, but thank god we’re not where we used to be.”
[Deep Sran, founder of Loudoun School for the Gifted in Ashburn, has been on a mission to improve formal education for two decades. Contact him at email@example.com.]