Supervisors voted Tuesday to work with the School Board “to study the harm caused by Loudoun County’s discrimination of Black students and seek out ways to rectify disparities.”
The project was proposed by Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian). While her Sept. 17 announcement and board item did not lay out details about the form that study should take, Briskman said that was intentional to leave space for the Joint School Board-Board of Supervisors Committee to have that discussion, and suggested a “truth and reconciliation committee.”
Her office’s proposal cites examples around the country such as city mayors committing to pay reparations for slavery, Georgetown University paying reparations to the descendants of 272 slaves the university sold in 1838 to save itself from bankruptcy, and House Bill 1980 passed this year introduced by Loudoun Del. David A. Reid (D-32) establishing the Enslaved Ancestors College Access Scholarship and Memorial Program. That bill requires five state universities to identify and memorialized enslaved people who worked at those schools, and provide “a tangible benefit such as a college scholarship or community-based economic development program for individuals or specific communities with a demonstrated historic connection to slavery that will empower families to be lifted out of the cycle of poverty.”
Briskman called rectifying Loudoun’s racial disparities “a moral imperative.”
At the Sept. 21 board meeting, County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) identified one specific topic to tackle and seek to rectify: the history of the Douglass School.
There, the Black community came together to buy land for school, but the local School Board refused to build on land they didn’t own, forcing the group to sell property they’d bought for $4,000 to the school district for $1. Even then, the School Board repeatedly declined to appropriately construct and outfit the building, leaving Black families once again struggling to get their children an education.
Addressing the Douglass School experience won unanimous support from supervisors, but Briskman’s more general proposal to send the commission to the joint committee was approved on a 6-3 vote, with all three Republicans opposed. Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said he wants to have the discussion, but struggled with the vague intent, while Supervisor Caleb E. Kershner (R-Catoctin) denied there is systemic racism.
“I want to do the right thing, I’m just struggling with it process-wise, because the motion doesn’t give any direction,” Letourneau said.
“I think Loudoun County has in large part overcome this. I think in large part it has,” Kershner said. “And obviously there are pockets, but not from a perspective of a systematic problem.”
That drew rebukes from other supervisors, particularly the Black members of the board.
“There is nothing like one of my colleagues dispelling the myth of systemic racism,” said Supervisor Sylvia R. Glass (D-Broad Run). “We don’t have to go back 40 or 50 years. I can go and talk to my sons about the experiences that they had at their high school.”
Vice Chair Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) pointed to a report from the state Attorney General identifying issues of systemic racism in Loudoun’s school system today, along with experiences his own son has had in school. And Randall said the effort was not about placing blame on people today—it’s about understanding that life is more difficult for some people because of the color of their skin.
“I find it really incredible with the same people who think we should never take down statues because we shouldn’t forget history are the same people who think that every town, city, hamlet and village should not be having a tough conversation about the history of race and race relations,” Randall said, likely referencing Kershner’s arguments last year defending the statue of a Confederate soldier that then stood on the courthouse grounds.
The Douglass School story is only part of the history of Loudoun, one of the last school districts in the country to desegregate. Loudoun Schools were integrated in 1968, 14 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that declared separate public schools based on race to be unconstitutional.
The county board fought integration, including supporting a state constitutional amendment that would allow it to help pay for white students to go to private schools, avoiding integrated public schools; withholding work on Douglass Elementary School and Douglass High School unless “reasonable assurance was given by the parents of colored children of the County that they conform to the opinion that their education be promoted better by their continued school attendance on a segregated basis,” and joining the effort to defund schools rather than integrate. During that time, the School Board was appointed by the Board of Supervisors.
“The purpose of a truth and reconciliation committee is to hold public hearings to establish the scale and impact of a past injustice, typically involving wide-scale human rights abuses, and make it part of the permanent, unassailable public record,” according to Briskman’s proposal.