Four years ago, a school system employee discovered stacks of dusty boxes stashed under the staircase of the former Leesburg Training School building on Union Street. Inside was what historians later described as “a historical treasure trove” once lost—students’ classroom assignments and grades, teachers’ evaluations, correspondence between superintendents and school boards, and several letters from Loudoun’s black community petitioning for equal education, among other significant records.
A team of volunteers, led by historian Larry Roeder, rose up to catalogue and preserve the documents that tell the story of Loudoun County schools between the Civil War and the end of racial segregation.
They have since formed a nonprofit organization, called The Edwin Washington Project—named after a black teen who, between jobs, attended school in Leesburg in the 1860s—and will showcase some of the historical gems they’ve discovered at an event they are calling Dirt Don’t Burn. It is billed as a community celebration for equal education from 1865 to 1968 and will be held from 12:30 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10, at Douglass School, 407 E. Market St. in Leesburg.
The name of the event was carefully chosen by Roeder, principal investigator for the project. Those three words—Dirt Don’t Burn—capture the inequality black students faced in Loudoun County. In early 1950s, after the all-black school in Willisville had run out of wood and coal to burn, a teacher wrote to the school board to request more resources to keep the school heated. “Dirt don’t burn,” she told them.
“That phrase is emblematic of what little resources the black community had,” Roeder said.
The event is a chance to celebrate the black community’s perseverance during the more than 100 years that they were not offered an equal education. Roeder said that, after the Civil War, the all-black one-room schoolhouses were packed during the day with children learning and packed at night with parents wanting to learn to read and write.
“They were determined to get an education, and we see all the same determination all the way through the Civil Rights movement,” he said. The documents found at the old Union Street School illustrate much of that determination, with hand-written petitions for toilet paper, better teachers, equal pay, transportation for students. “All of this is real Civil Rights history that was buried and is now being preserved.”
Among the speakers at the event will be Sherri Simmons, assistant principal at Douglass School on the school’s historical significance; county Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall on why black history research matters; Dolores Grigsby on the black community’s use of petitions; Reggie Simms on the connection between schooling and black veterans; Julie Goforth on the project’s website, database and technology plans; Chief Cartographer Maddy Gold on the maps that show historical schools and transportation routes; Gert Evans on teaching and student experiences during segregation; and Superintendent Eric Williams and Roeder, who will give more details about The Edwin Washington Project’s goals and impact. Music will be provided by Randy Ihara and students from Banneker Elementary School and the Catoctin School of Music.
The second part of the event, called Courageous Conversations, invites people to gather around tables and share their stories of pursuing education.
The event is also a chance to remind members of the public of the work the nonprofit organization has undertaken and offer a chance for them to support it. Those interested in learning more about the project and supporting it can do so at edwinwashingtonproject.org.