By Thomas Kuehhas
Once a year, Waterford holds its famous fair (this year Oct. 6-8), but year-round the village honors its African-American history.
Founded c. 1733 by Quakers from Pennsylvania, followed by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and German Lutherans, Waterford became a bustling commercial town, supporting a prosperous quarter of Loudoun County. By 1762, the ethnic mix included African-Americans, some enslaved, and some free—a rarity elsewhere in Virginia. By 1830, African-Americans headed a fourth of Waterford’s free households, giving Waterford the largest antebellum free black population in the county.
Today, the village retains several architectural treasures related to the African-American community, including a one-room school and the John Wesley Community Church. As part of its mission to protect the National Historic Landmark village, the nonprofit Waterford Foundation works to preserve these buildings and the integrity of their rural village setting. This fall, the Foundation will debut the “Lantern Light Fund” to support the preservation of the sites and stories of Waterford’s African-American heritage. Honoring the tremendous effort of the Wesley Church builders, the money raised will be used to preserve the historic buildings and enable the Foundation to share Waterford’s rich African-American history with the public.
In 1867, a consortium comprised of the Freedman’s Bureau, a black Educational Board, and local Quakers purchased land in Waterford for $75 to construct a new school. The administrative name for the school was “Colored School A” of Jefferson District, but it was known in the community as “the school on Second Street.”
The first year’s session opened in October 1867, and records indicate that 63 students enrolled; twenty-eight were older than 16. The first teacher was Miss Sarah Ann Steer, a Quaker who lived down the street, and who had begun teaching pupils at her own home in 1865. Subsequent teachers were from the black community.
The school became part of the newly established Virginia public school system in 1870 and continued as a school for African-Americans until it was closed in 1957. The Waterford Foundation purchased the school in 1977 and uses it today as part of the Second Street School Living History program. Since 1984, more than 50,000 students have participated, playing the roles of African-American children of Waterford who attended the school in 1880.
The village’s African-American community also used the schoolhouse as a church, but soon outgrew the space. The John Wesley Community Church was built in 1891, with the congregation doing most of the construction work themselves. Descendants today share stories of women holding lanterns for the men to work late into the evenings after a hard day’s work elsewhere. The church became the religious and social center of village life for the black community and remained so until the late 1960s, when the young people migrated to the cities. It was not long before the church stood vacant—cared for but unused.
Before the last church trustee died, the Waterford Foundation agreed to take title of the building to ensure its preservation. The Foundation has since worked to restore the building to its original appearance. The John Wesley Community Church is a strong visual presence in the village of Waterford and its history makes it one of the most important contributing structures to the Waterford National Historic Landmark. Join the Foundation and Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall for an ice cream social and educational exhibit on Sept. 9 to kick off the Lantern Light Fund, and help preserve this part of our cultural heritage.
Thomas Kuehhas is executive director of the Waterford Foundation. To learn more about the Foundation, go to waterfordfoundation.org. 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.