Educators, historians, students and longtime Loudouners gathered at Douglass School Saturday to recount the determination of the county’s black families to achieve an equal education for their children.
Loudoun was one of the last school systems in the nation to desegregate its schools. It was in 1968 when they finally integrated black and white students, 14 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that declared separate public schools based on race to be unconstitutional.
The Edwin Washington Project, a nonprofit organization created to preserve and retell the history of black students’ education in Loudoun, put on a program Saturday to share some of those stories. The event was called Dirt Don’t Burn, taken from the message a teacher at the all-black school in Willisville wrote to school leaders when they refused to send coal or wood to heat the schoolhouse.
Larry Roeder, historian and lead investigator of The Edwin Washington Project, told the story of a father with a fourth-grade education who was determined to see his daughter go to college. But first, she needed a high school education, so he petitioned the School Board to provide transportation for students in her village of Willisville to the Leesburg Training School, also known as the Union Street School, 24 miles east in Leesburg.
Speakers shared about how black families pooled their money to pay for things the school system was providing white students, such as books, pencils, coal for the schoolhouse stove and additional pay for the teachers. At one point, the superintendent charged a poll tax in order to speak to the School Board, a fee most black residents could not afford. So they instead began writing petitions to the school leaders requesting items as basic as toilet paper in an effort to deliver an education to their children.
“They would not stop. They would not be deterred,” Superintendent Eric Williams said. “Education is power, and the families were committed to their schools, no matter the odds.”
Learn more about the Edwin Washington Project at edwinwashingtonproject.org.