Union Street School’s Rebirth Moves One Step Closer

The historic two-story building on Union Street, with its chipped paint and slopping floors, carries the stories of close to 150 years of education in Leesburg. It served as an education hub for the county’s black students from the early 1880s to 1958, first as the Leesburg Training School, Leesburg Colored School, and later as Douglass Elementary School.

For the past 75 years, the school system has used it for storage. But school leaders are now taking steps to see that it is restored and returned to the students who spent their formative years there.

A committee of the School Board is recommending that the school system begin the complicated process of handing over the historic school building to the Douglass Alumni Association and the Loudoun Freedom Center. The community organizations have said they want to restore the building and reopen it as a museum of sorts, displaying artifacts on black education in Loudoun and a “Hall of Fame” that tells the stories of the teachers who taught at the school and the students who attended.

The long-term plan also includes retrofitting part of the property for a preschool that focuses on STEM (science, technology, education and math) and a program that teaches students how to grow their own food. The Loudoun Freedom Center also wants to establish a DNA lab at the site to process materials that may be found at the slave cemeteries it is working to protect.

The Douglass Alumni Association includes many men and women, now in their 70s and 80s, who attended the school on Union Street. The building served as a school until 1958, when Frederick Douglass Elementary School opened on Sycolin Road.

The Loudoun Freedom Center is working alongside those alumni with the hopes of eventually move into the Union Street school. The move would be in line with the nonprofit’s mission to restore and preserve sites that were important to Loudoun’s black residents.

“We have first-hand accounts of what it was like to attend school there,” said Michelle C. Thomas, founder and executive director of the Loudoun Freedom Center. “We want to help them tell their story.”

The Loudoun County School Board has taken the first steps to set that plan into motion. Late last year, it unanimously approved spending $3,500 to have the property at 20 Union St. surveyed. With the results of that survey in hand, the board’s Finance and Facilities Committee voted last week to recommend that the building and the land it sits on be handed over to the two community organizations sooner rather than later.

“I don’t want to delay so they can begin to take care of the needs of that facility. The longer it sits, the more work it’s going to require to restore,” Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) said at the Sept. 26 committee meeting.

The committee is recommending that the school system give the title of the property to the Douglass Alumni Association and/or the Loudoun Freedom Center, but that a second brick building next door remain school property for now. It is being used as office space.

Thomas, who also serves as the pastor of Holy & Whole Life Changing Ministries International, said the groups’ goal is to make the once-forgotten building a center for learning again.

Similar to the one-room Second Street School in Waterford, that is run by the Waterford Foundation, Thomas and others want the Union Street school to give visiting students a glimpse of what school would have been like for black children at the time.

The process to hand over the property’s title is complicated and requires the blessing of three elected bodies. If the full School Board approves the move at its Oct. 10 meeting, the proposal will go to the county Board of Supervisors for approval. Then, the School Board will request that the Leesburg Town Council approve a rezoning of the property. The 0.84-acre property has two zoning designations: R-HD (historic residential) and R-6 (moderate density residential) with H-1 and H-2 (historic district) overlays.

The final step will require the School Board to declare the former school site as surplus and technically transfer ownership to the Board of Supervisors, which can then give it to the Douglass Alumni Association and the Loudoun Freedom Center.

Several School Board members have expressed support for returning the Union Street school property to the black community to restore and care for it.

“I think it makes total sense as a School Board to not be custodians of these historic sites,” Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) said. “A museum or foundation would do a better job.”

dnadler@loudounnow.com
twitter.com/danielle_nadler

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