Loudoun historians have emerged from the controversy around the Confederate monument at the Loudoun County Courthouse with newly-produced research on the history of Loudoun’s black community and their struggle for equality.
In the fall of 2017, the Board of Supervisors declined to take action as nationwide protests of Confederate monuments spread to include the statue at the courthouse in Leesburg. Instead, Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) asked that the county’s Heritage Commission look into the history of the courthouse, with an eye toward eventually adding a new monument.
Tuesday, June 5, county supervisors received that report, which includes a 78-page history of the county courthouse and the role it played in the history of racial justice and equality in Loudoun and in the country—much of it being original research.
“There was already a good body of published work on the antebellum period, the Civil War, and the modern school desegregation movement, for instance, but relatively little on Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the early civil rights movement among other things,” said Heritage Commission Chairman Robert Pollard. “So, much of this had to be written from scratch.”
The commission also recommended working to get the courthouse designated as a National Historic Landmark, reserving space for a future “Path Toward Freedom” exhibit on the courthouse lawn, starting a public engagement process for new memorials for Loudoun’s union soldiers and enslaved people—and naming a courthouse building after a central figure in civil rights history who fought an important legal battle there.
The commission recommended naming either the new or old courthouse after Charles Hamilton Houston, one of the foremost black attorneys in the country at the time.
According to research led by Mitch Diamond, in 1932, Houston led the first all-black legal defense team in a southern state, defending a black man, George Crawford, in a murder case. Crawford, accused of murdering two white women in Middleburg, faced the death penalty in a case that drew national attention. Houston, then only 37 years old and already legal counsel to the NAACP and dean of Howard University’s Law School, worked to create a record clearly illustrating the racially-biased jury selection process in Loudoun. Although Crawford was found guilty, he was spared the death penalty, unusual for a black man convicted of murdering a white person. Future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, one of Houston’s students, worked on the case as a researcher.
The case would also mark an important moment for America’s justice system, and two years later, the Supreme Court ruled biased jury selection unconstitutional.
Houston would go on to help put pressure on the local School Board and raise money to build and equip the new Frederick Douglass High School, the first high school for black students in Loudoun. It opened in 1941.
“We see this as an opportunity for the entire Loudoun community, especially those that either know nothing or have very little knowledge of local African-American history or African-American perspective on history,” said Donna Bohannon, a member of the Heritage Commission and chairwoman of the Thomas Balch Library’s Black History Committee. “We see this as an opportunity for them to gain awareness.”
Higgins called the historical narrative “one of the most important results” of the project.
“I knew that when I brought this issue to the board there was more certainly to the courthouse grounds story that needed to be told,” Higgins said.
Although he asked supervisors to move forward quickly with all of the commission’s suggestions, other supervisors cautioned those would have to be done correctly, moving ahead immediately only with the suggestion to publish the historical narrative online and in libraries.
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) suggested sending those proposals to the county finance committee, which he chairs, for more work.
“I’m not trying to slow that down, but there’s just a lot of things here, so the finance committee is a good place to work through these,” Letourneau said. He said that would allow county supervisors and staff members to work out “what the right paths forward are.”
“I have found that when we try to do things ourselves, as well-intentioned as we are, we often don’t do as good a job as when staff helps us with them,” Letourneau said.
Those suggestions will need study—such as where to find the funding for them, and questions like whether the county will need a judge’s approval to move forward.
“By no means is this going to the finance committee because we aren’t going to take action on it or because we’re just going to let it sit there,” Letourneau said. “It’s because we want to get it right.”
Supervisors approved that action 8-1, with Higgins opposed.