The Board of Supervisors’ finance committee has endorsed the suggestion to formally name the historic courthouse in Leesburg, possibly after pioneering civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston.
The action comes as part of a debate that began in the fall of 2017, as nationwide protests around Confederate monuments spread to the war memorial at the front steps of Loudoun’s courthouse. The county board, under pressure from both sides of the debate, punted on taking any immediate action. Instead, supervisors directed the county’s Heritage Commission to look into the history of the courthouse, and to consider the possibility of adding another monument to the ones already around the courthouse.
The Heritage Commission produced research on the courthouse’s place in American history, a document which, according to a county report, has now been printed 1,000 times and placed in every county library. The commission also made several other recommendations for new monuments, for seeking National Historic Landmark status for the courthouse, and for naming a courthouse after Houston.
Since then, supervisors have worked to decide the best way to implement those ideas as the county gears up to expand the complex with the construction of a new District Court building across Church Street from the existing courthouses. Finance committee members this week recommended pursuing National Historic Landmark designation for both the old courthouse and the courthouse grounds; forming a committee to consider naming the old courthouse, possibly after Houston; reserving space for a “Path Toward Freedom” exhibit on the grounds; and gathering community input on designing and placing memorials on the grounds.
Supervisors focused largely on the practical questions of getting those projects underway. While the School Board has a formal process for naming buildings, County Administrator Tim Hemstreet said absent specific direction from the Board of Supervisors, county buildings are named “functionally.”
Board Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) pointed out, supervisors were meeting in a building named that way: “This building doesn’t have a name—it’s the Government Center. The Ashburn Library is the Ashburn Library.”
Although a recommendation came to the committee to name all three buildings in the courthouse complex—the historic courthouse, the current courthouse building, and the planned new courthouse—supervisors recommended naming only the historic courthouse, for now. The other buildings will likely be officially referred to as the Circuit Court and the District Court. Buona argued that would also make it easier for people to figure out where they need to be when going to the courthouse.
“I think that if we’re going to do anything [at] the old courthouse because of Mr. Houston and what he did—he’s known as the man that killed Jim Crow, and much of that killing of Jim Crow we can proudly say happened in the old courthouse,” said County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large).
The committee also recommended allocating $30,000 toward pursuing landmark status. According to a staff report, among the more than 2,600 historic places with that status, 121 are in Virginia and six are in Loudoun.
Today’s historic courthouse, actually the third on the site. It opened in 1895. The first courthouse on the site was built in 1758. It stands on the same ground where the Declaration of Independence was read, where enslaved people were sold, where trials for people who helped enslaved people escape along the Underground Railroad were held, and where in 1933 Houston won a landmark civil rights case.
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, who faced 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. In Loudoun, Houston would also 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 atloudoun.gov/4054/Courthouse-Grounds-Research-Project.