An effort to preserve a historic Black school, and honor the students and educators who learned and worked there, was met with resounding support from the Leesburg Planning Commission on Thursday night.
By a 5-0-2 vote, with commissioners Keith Reeve and Earl Hoovler absent, the commission supported a rezoning application and text amendments for 20 Union Street NW.It’s an area that has historic significance, as it was the former center of education forthe county’s Black students from the early 1880s to 1958—first as the Leesburg Training School, then the Leesburg Colored School, and later as Douglass Elementary School. The slightly less than one acre property contains the former school building, which has been used on and off as storage for the school system for years, and an adjacent office building that houses Loudoun County Public Schools’ Child Find program.
A little more than two years ago, Loudoun County Public Schools transferred the property to the Board of Supervisors. Both the Douglass Alumni Association and the Loudoun Freedom Center have expressed interest in repurposing the former school as a museum and/or cultural center honoring African American heritage, although no curator for the property has yet been identified. That is expected to be considered by the Board of Supervisors in the coming months.
Current plans by the county include restoring the building to reopen it as a museum, displaying artifacts of Black education in Loudoun and a “Hall of Fame” that tells the stories of the teachers who taught at the school and the students who attended. A potential two-story addition of the north side of the former school building is contemplated in the plan. The long-term vision for the property, according to documents submitted by the county government, also includes retrofitting the facilities to promote STEM activities, developing programs on how to grow food as part of the educational outreach of the museum, and establishing a DNA lab at the site to process materials that may be found at slave cemeteries, an area that has been of particular interest to the Loudoun Freedom Center.
For the plans to proceed, town and county government staffs working together determined the best way to move forward would be to consolidate the property into the G-C (Government Center) District and the Old & Historic District, and to do so concurrently with zoning text amendments that support the addition of the property in those zoning districts, according to a staff report. The property is currently split zoned between the R-HD and R-6 zoning districts, as well as between the H-1 and Gateway districts. The G-C District allows a museum as a by-right use, and adding the property fully into the historic district ensures that the buildings on site will be adequately preserved. The Board of Architectural Review previously endorsed the property’s placement in the historic district, with members remarking that there was no property in town more deserving of inclusion, Senior Planning Project Manager Chris Murphy told commissioners Thursday. Murphy pointed out the Union Street school building may be the oldest school building still in existence within town limits.
Assuming the Town Council approves the plan, the Union Street school would be the fifth parcel in town to be included in the G-C district, joining the Pennington parking lot and garage; the county government center; the Loudoun County Courthouse; and the courthouse expansion area.
Ron Campbell, executive director of the Loudoun Freedom Center, spoke in support of the application during Thursday’s meeting, saying the project was “a partnership opportunity” for many stakeholders to preserve an important piece of town and county history.
Murphy said the staff had received letters of support for the project from nearby Union Street neighbors, and no written opposition. Commission Chair Gigi Robinson, who noted she had toured the property on several occasions, said she was delighted the project was moving forward.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” she said.
The project now heads to the Town Council, which has final approval authority. The BAR would also need to sign off on architectural improvements to the property.