In Our Backyard: The History of Banneker School

By Jane Covington

Loudoun County, as typical of other localities, provided inferior educational facilities for its African- American students during the Jim Crow era.

In the early 1900s, many of the African-American schools were one or two-room schoolhouses with marginal facilities, usually with only a wood stove for heat and an outhouse. Following the mandate of “Separate but Equal” established in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, African-Americans protested for “equalization”—equal pay for their teachers and equal facilities for their students.

By 1930, a national movement had started under the leadership of the NAACP.  In 1938, involved parents of local African-American students formed a protest movement, known as the County-Wide League, in Loudoun County.  The League hired attorney Charles H. Houston to help them with their efforts. Houston was a national figure, serving both as dean of the Howard University School of Law and special counsel for the NAACP.  Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was one of his students. As a result of these efforts, over the next decade, slow progress was made in Loudoun with the opening of Douglass High School in Leesburg (1941), and two consolidated elementary schools, Carver in Purcellville (1947), and Banneker in St. Louis, near Middleburg (1948).  Until Douglass High School began holding classes, African-Americans were allowed to attend trade school, but opportunities for them to receive a high school education in Loudoun were virtually non-existent.

The community of St. Louis was established in 1881 when Thomas Glascock, who owned surrounding farmland, sold one-acre lots to formerly enslaved families. By the last quarter of the 19th century, the farmland evolved into a village with the 1877 opening of the one-room Hamlin School, and the 1885 establishment of Mt. Zion Church. The Hamlin School, despite its rudimentary “sanitary” and heating facilities, remained in use until 1948, when it was replaced in response to parents’ protests for better conditions for their children.

In the fall of 1948, Banneker opened its doors as one of Loudoun’s first consolidated “Colored schools.” In addition to replacing the Hamlin School, Banneker supplanted several other schools whose facilities had fallen into disrepair, including the two-room Middleburg School, and the Marble Quarry School near Mountville. Banneker’s “fireproof” building, with its clinic, kitchen, radiant heat and indoor plumbing, was the epitome of modern convenience compared with the schools it replaced. Parents and community members provided desks, chairs, and kitchen equipment, and furnished the multipurpose room. Along with the area churches, Banneker soon became part of the social center of the St. Louis community.

During the early 1950s, confronting sustained pressure from the NAACP, Virginia  Governor John S. Battle apparently realized the state might not be able to postpone or even prevent a racially integrated school system unless the standards of “Separate but Equal” were met. Consequently, the state made available $75 million in construction funds to improve African-American schools in an attempt to meet those standards. Three schools in Loudoun benefited from additional funding:  Banneker Elementary and Douglass High School were expanded to alleviate crowded conditions, and a new building was constructed at Douglass Elementary, as the original building had fallen into disrepair.  In 1952, Banneker was expanded to incorporate students from the Bull Run School located southeast of Aldie.

In an interview, Fred Drummond, who served as principal from 1953 to 1958, described Banneker’s overcrowded conditions, “There was no limit to classroom size,” and under-staffed positions. “The full time custodian doubled as a bus driver.”  Even so, Mr. Drummond characterized Banneker (and Carver) as the “Cadillacs of the minority schools in Loudoun,” adding that other Black schools (Ashburn Colored and Willisville Colored, for example) had just one overcrowded room which lacked indoor plumbing and central heat.  He also noted the close support from Banneker’s PTA, which raised the funds to pay for a part-time school secretary, and from community leaders, including Paul Mellon and Charlotte Noland.

In Brown v. Board of Education, argued by Thurgood Marshall on behalf of the NAACP, and decided in 1954, the Supreme Court invalidated “Separate but Equal.” But Virginia responded by defying the Supreme Court decision. Construction funds continued to be made available to upgrade African-American Schools in an attempt to perpetuate “Separate but Equal.”  With this money, in 1960, Banneker was expanded a third time, incorporating students from Willisville School; again, Banneker took in students from a neighboring school whose facility was so sub-standard, it was closed.

It was not until 1967, in compliance with judicial mandate, that Loudoun schools were fully integrated. At that time, the Loudoun School Board changed the name of Banneker to “Mercer.” The School Board decision was later reversed in response to the St. Louis community’s objections. Banneker Elementary School was named for Benjamin Banneker, a renaissance thinker of the late 18th century, who was born a “free Negro.” He was a man of many accomplishments, an early champion of civil rights who advocated racial equality in correspondence with Thomas Jefferson.  Today, Banneker Elementary continues to serve its local community.

Jane Covington is the principal of Jane Covington Restoration.  She conducted research concerning Banneker and six other rural Loudoun schools under contract with the Loudoun County government as part of a Certified Local Government Grant financed in part by the National Park Service of the US Department of the Interior.  The opinions presented here are solely those of Ms. Covington. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition.  To learn more about the organization or to participate in the Rural Roads Initiative, go to loudouncoalition.org.

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