By Roger Vance
History’s hard reality has a habit of intruding uncomfortably to disrupt our present. Sometimes the disruption is driven intentionally as a means to incite and divide, other times as an effort to educate and reconcile. The events in Charlottesville last month were a horrific example of the former. I recently had the great honor to participate in an event in Purcellville that exemplifies the latter.
The annual Emancipation Day celebration, held this year on Sept. 16 at Purcellville’s Carver Center, pays homage to Loudoun African-Americans who, more than 125 years ago, organized the Loudoun County Emancipation Association. The mission of the organization was to commemorate President Abraham Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862, which set the date of January 1, 1863, for freedom for millions of enslaved people in the then rebelling states. “On the first day of January … all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Lincoln’s proclamation came just days after the bloodiest single day ever on American soil at nearby Antietam, Maryland, where more than 22,000 soldiers were wounded, killed or missing in action.
When founded in 1890, the Emancipation Association was the first African-American-controlled organization in Loudoun and was dedicated to uniting “persons of the Negro race; to cultivate good fellowship; to work for the betterment of the race educationally, morally and materially.” Thriving during a period of intensifying racial injustice and expanding “Jim Crow” segregation, the group incorporated in 1910 and purchased 10 acres in Purcellville that would become known as the “Emancipation Grounds.” The rich history of this local movement is documented in the late Elaine Thompson’s book In the Watchfires: The Loudoun County Emancipation Association, 1890-1971. Thompson, who died last fall, was honored at this year’s celebration along with the founders of the Association. A founding member of the Black History Committee of the Friends of the Thomas Balch Library, Thompson’s work to educate carries on when the committee hosts an important panel discussion and dialogue, open to the public, on Loudoun’s Civil War history Oct. 1 at Oatlands.
The former Emancipation Grounds lie just adjacent to the Carver Senior Center, which was formerly George Washington Carver Elementary School, the first modern school for black children in Loudoun County. Built in 1948 when segregation and “separate but equal” was the law of the land in Virginia, it was closed in 1968 when Loudoun’s schools were finally integrated. The Carver School itself is a physical thread to an unpleasant past, a past still very real to the Carver School Alumni who carry on the Emancipation Day commemorations.
The past is past, but its threads run through all of us to create the living tapestry of our present. While sometimes the threads are timeworn, or buried, they still exist. When we have the good fortune to uncover and explore our lost past, we have an opportunity to better understand our present.
The past preserved by the Emancipation Association a century ago was one of people subjected to unspeakable harshness and brutality in a nation founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” and nearly destroyed in a civil war waged to rid itself of the malignant antithesis to that principle, slavery. It required courage by the Association’s members to stand up in the midst of hostility and prejudice. Likewise, it requires courage today to confront hard realities of our history and to engage in dialogue rather than retreating to our own corners and burying the past.
Our history is—quite literally—buried all around us in Loudoun, and we have a unique opportunity to come together by uncovering, recognizing, and honoring that history. Around the Loudoun countryside and among its suburban sprawl is ground hallowed by the remains of men, women and children whose unending and unrequited toil for others built great wealth that has enriched and endowed generations. Among the once “lost” burial grounds is the Belmont Slave Cemetery at Lansdowne, uncovered and saved through the efforts Pastor Michelle C. Thomas and the Loudoun Freedom Center. On Oct. 8 the Freedom Center offers an opportunity to learn about the experience of and honor Loudoun’s enslaved at its third annual wreath-laying ceremony and oral history walking tour of the cemetery.
I am hopeful that discovery and recovery will spread across Loudoun. Closer to my home in Hillsboro, an effort is now underway, led by Pastor Mark Jagoe and his parishioners, to research, restore and properly recognize a long-forgotten slave cemetery on the grounds of the Hillsboro United Methodist Church. Having the willingness to listen, learn and care, even when we feel uncomfortable, is liberating, and allows us to begin to mend and re-stitch our tattered tapestry.
Indeed, we must not attempt to simply “move on” by burying the painful past. Rather, we need to unbury what is our shared past—to embrace it, learn from it and lay it to rest with the respect, honor and grace it deserves.
[Roger Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro. His column, A View From The Gap, is published monthly in Loudoun Now.]