The Path to Freedom, Justice and Racial Equality – A History Told Through the County Courthouse

By Mitch Diamond and Robert A. Pollard

“The courthouse is the symbol of the presence and power of the Commonwealth of Virginia in Loudoun County … It was the state that could execute you, imprison you or take your property—all of that was done in that building. It was under Virginia’s Constitution and the state laws it authorized that race was defined and segregation was mandated … Justice, under state authority, was meted out—in unequal fashion—in that courthouse to the black and white citizens of Loudoun County.”

In its nearly three century history, the Courthouse has been the center of life in our County—witness not only to acts of honor and bravery, justice and freedom, but also to acts of tyranny, injustice, humiliation and suffering.

The Courthouse represents the long path from the promise of “All Men Are Created Equal” in the Declaration of Independence read from its steps, to the delay of that promise through brutal acts of enslavement and punishment, to the horrors of a Civil War that pitted brother against brother, to the incomplete work of Reconstruction, to the restrictions and entanglements of Jim Crow segregation, and finally, to events and actions moving us step by step toward the long overdue fulfillment of the Declaration’s promise of equal justice for all.

—————

The quote above by Virginia historian James Hershman, and the words that follow, is the prologue to the Loudoun County Heritage Commission’s new report on the history of the Loudoun County Courthouse and Courthouse grounds. The report’s 82 illustrated pages illuminate moments in our history from its earliest days under British rule through to the modern era with a special focus on the history of slavery and civil rights through stories and vignettes of specific residents and local events which mirror the history of race relations in Virginia and across our nation.

As the report describes, Loudoun has a complex racial history. Even during the time of brutal and widespread enslavement, including slaves bought, sold and punished on the courthouse grounds, some residents of Loudoun actively worked to aid enslaved persons to escape. Local African Americans and white residents served bravely in the Union army and navy. Loudoun County saw efforts to expel our free black residents to Africa and the adoption of terrible Jim Crow laws and segregation. But it also witnessed the organization of the local African-American community to open schools and fight for their rights. A civil rights case of national significance was argued here. And finally, Loudoun saw the dismantling of segregation in the ‘60s and the emergence into our modern era.

Our Courthouse played a central role in much of this history.  

In 1768, under British rule, the very first public executions in Loudoun County were of three African American enslaved persons. 

In 1776, as the bells rang out, the Declaration of Independence was read from the Courthouse steps to the gathered people. But enslaved people were bought, sold and punished on the same Courthouse grounds for many decades to come.

In 1828, Quaker Yardley Taylor was given a small fine at our Courthouse for aiding a black slave to escape. The enslaved man suffered a worse fate. In 1836, Loudoun’s County Attorney, writing from the Courthouse, petitioned the state legislature to send many of Loudoun’s free African Americans to Africa. In 1846, a free African American was tried in the Courthouse for stealing his enslaved wife—and acquitted. 

During the Civil War, hundreds of Loudoun’s African American and white residents served in the Union forces, but their service has never been commemorated on our Courthouse grounds. 

During the brief period of Reconstruction, the first schools for African Americans were opened in Loudoun. But as Reconstruction ended and rights began to be lost, local African Americans convened at the Courthouse in 1883 to argue vainly for equal rights. 

In the early years of the 20th century, memorials were erected at the Courthouse to the soldiers who served in the Confederate forces while segregation and Jim Crow became local and state policy.

As the fight for civil rights began to rise up across the nation in the 1930s, a case of national importance to that cause was argued in our Loudoun Courthouse. In the same period, the local black community organized itself, raised funds and bought land and pressured the local authorities to finally open an accredited high school for African American students. But the community remained segregated by race for decades to come.

Finally, in 1970, after a long, long struggle, all Loudoun schools and public facilities were fully integrated and African-American families joined the huge influx of new residents as Loudoun began its period of tremendous growth.

The report by the Heritage Commission includes a detailed timeline of events, commentary on critical events at the national and state level through our history, and 20 articles, vignettes, illustrations and statistics showing our nation’s history of race relations and the long struggle to fulfill the promise of our Declaration as seen by events here in Loudoun.

The report is available in local libraries, can be requested from your County Supervisor and is available on the County website at: loudounnow.com/heritage_commission_report.

In addition to printing and distributing 1,000 copies of the Heritage Commission report, the Board of Supervisors approved nominating the Courthouse to be a National Historic Landmark, proposed naming the old Courthouse after famed civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston who argued a nationally significant case here in 1933, reserving space on the Courthouse grounds for appropriate memorials to our African-American history and organizing a public dialogue about the design and placement of such memorials.   

————————

In Our Backyard

Mitch Diamond is a Commissioner on the Heritage Commission; Robert Pollard is its Chairman. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. For more information about the organization, go to loudouncoalition.org.

Leave a Reply