Members of the Board of Supervisors’ finance committee have begun discussions around how to act on the Heritage Commission’s recommendations to tell the story of the old Leesburg courthouse’s place in
In the fall of 2017, as nationwide protests over Confederate monuments spread to the Leesburg courthouse lawn, the Board of Supervisors declined to take any immediate action. Instead, they directed the county’s Heritage Commission to look into the history of the courthouse and the possibly of adding another monument to join the monuments Loudouners killed in war, the American Revolution and to Confederate soldiers in the Civil War.
After producing a body of research on the courthouse’s place in American history—a place where the Declaration of Independence was read, where enslaved people sold, where trials for people who helped enslaved people escape along the Underground Railroad were held, and where a landmark civil rights case was won—the Heritage Commission made recommendations for how to tell that story.
Those included pursuing National Historic Landmark status for the old courthouse, creating a new “Path the Freedom” walk with monuments and signs telling that story, and naming either the old or planned new courthouse after pioneering civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston, one of the foremost black attorneys in the country in his time.
The commission recommended the “Path to Freedom” walk include a memorial to Loudoun’s Union soldiers near the existing war memorials on Market Street, recognizing the Loudoun Rangers, the Union Potomac Home Brigade and the local men of the U.S. Colored Troops. Another monument, a smaller plaque or sign, would commemorate the reading of the Declaration of Independence in August 1776, and acknowledging the continued injustice of slavery on those same steps long afterward.
The “Walk to Freedom,” the commission suggested, should go through a community design process to gather public input.
Assistant Director of Planning and Zoning John Merrithew said naming a courthouse building would have an added benefit: helping people get around. Supervisors agreed.
“I like the potential to name the three buildings three different things,” said Supervisor Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn). “There’s a diversity of history that has occurred at this courthouse, and it just gives more opportunity to recognize different pieces of that history. So being diverse in that matter makes a lot of sense.”
He added, “it’s easier for people to get around if they know which building they’re going to.” The county government is working to build a new District Court building in Leesburg, with no plans yet to name any of them.
However, he said, the statues should be mostly privately funded, reflecting the history of other monuments on the property to which the county contributed some funding, but no the majority. At the most recent monument, the Patriot Project’s Revolutionary War monument, the county contributed $50,000.
Finance committee Chairman Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) was skeptical of investing the time and effort to win National Landmark status for the old courthouse, questioning the benefit. Merrithew said the benefit is that it’s a very rare designation.
“It’s just the highest acknowledgement of the value of that property at a national level, and I think that it’s important to acknowledge the role the courthouse played,” Merrithew said. “And the Heritage Commission felt the landmark status was that appropriate level of recognition.”
“Part of the board’s vision states, ‘by honoring its [the county’s] rich heritage,’ and I think part of our rich heritage is the history of the courthouse, and that’s why I think it’s important,” said Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), quoting from this Board of Supervisors’ adopted vision statement.
With a project of that scale potentially years away from completion, Letourneau suggested a smaller, interim display.
“So that we we’re acting with some swiftness in this, could we do something like interpretive signs almost as placeholders for something else, or just kind of have a little bit of the history laid out on this facility so we don’t have to wait five years for someone to raise money for this memorial or something like that?” Letourneau asked.
He said the next step would be to formulate more specific recommendations for the project in future committee meetings. County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) also asked that staff briefings be made available to the other supervisors who do not sit on the finance committee.
If the buildings are named, and if one is named after Houston, it is not yet decided whether that will be the historic building, or the new courthouse that has not yet been built.
According to research led by Mitch Diamond, in 1932, Houston led the first all-black legal defense team in a southern state at the Loudoun County courthouse, defending a black man, George Crawford, facing the death penalty in a murder case. Houston worked to document a racially biased jury selection process. Although Crawford was found guilty, he was spared the death penalty, unusual for a black man convicted of murdering a white person. The case would mark an important moment for America’s justice system, and two years later, the Supreme Court ruled biased jury selection unconstitutional.
Future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, one of Houston’s students, worked on the case as a researcher.
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.
Read the Heritage Commission’s courthouse grounds history research online at loudoun.gov/4054/Courthouse-Grounds-Research-Project.