After 75 Years, Douglass School Keeps Talking

After 75 Years, Douglass School Keeps Talking

In August, the school’s voices, the old ones that went to meet life outside these walls or life beyond this world, are back again.  The dozens gathered in the Saturday crowd, many in their Sunday best, ostensibly came to recognize 75 years of a building. In reality, they came talking, to tell a story, or more accurately, their piece in it.

“We all had such great pride in this,” said Guthrie Ashton, Douglass High School Class of ’53, and a speaker at the 75th Anniversary Celebration. “Our parents, families and neighbors had put so much work into making this a reality.”

Douglass is a monument to Loudoun’s past. But to spend too much time on what Douglass was then is to discount what it is now. Practically, it is still serving some of the county’s most disadvantaged. On a less empirical level, it’s the edified home for the stories of this community, stories that live on and because of these voices, voices that are still talking.

Douglass’ Golden Age

Today Douglass has all the signs of a school ready for the prospects of its latest semester.  On the walls there are fresh banners with school mottos, in the classrooms there are cleaned desks with used textbooks. But at the Douglass campus, even when these voices from the past are overwhelmed by the young ones that roam the halls, the old voices are still hard to ignore.

These walls are lined with trophies for singing competitions and basketball games 60 years gone by. There are photographs alongside names of teachers and principals, faded newspaper clippings of sports champions, commemorations of anniversaries past. Most strikingly is a large plaque at the front of the school. The plaque itself, dedicated in 1993 to tell the school’s history, is older than every student coming into the school year — and some of the county’s teachers. It enshrines the facts of the background — the sacrifice — that made these voices possible. 

By the late 1930’s, three decades after Plessy v. Ferguson and “separate but equal,” white students had high schools to call their own. In Loudoun County, black students, in all practicality, still didn’t have one.  The community hadn’t demanded to be educated alongside the white’s in the community. Under segregation, they just wanted to be educated, period. They had a dilapidated second-story room on top of the black elementary school in Leesburg. There were no safety devices in the building, no opening windows or equipment for laboratory sciences or home economics. There was, however, an open oil drum beneath the stairs. Bus transportation was only available for some students in the county. Those who could make it to Leesburg attended a school that wasn’t accredited by the Commonwealth. That meant they couldn’t even attend the limited college opportunities granted in state unless they were willing, or able, to pay expensive boarding school tuition fees to live and learn out of the county.

The black community, despite promises otherwise, had to fight to earn the right to the promise and potentials brought with education. The board eventually acquiesced to the demands, but did little else. The community worked out the deal to buy an eight-acre property in Leesburg from Mr. W.S. Gibbons to house the school, then raised $4,000 to pay for it.

“They held bake sales, rummage sales, dances, ball games, field days, recitation programs and any other fundraising activities they could think of to raise money,” said the registration form for the Douglass School’s National Register of Historic Places application.

The school board then bought it from them for $1.

Then, the board recommended to the Board of Supervisors that it apply to the State Literary Fund for a loan to pay for constructing the school, but the Literary Fund said it couldn’t loan them any money for 12 to 18 months. So in 1940 the County-Wide League, an organization of Loudoun County African-Americans trying to build the school, hired Washington D.C. lawyer Charles Houston. Houston, who was later decorated as the Man Who Defeated Jim Crow, helped them argue the community’s case to have a school as soon as possible.  He wrote a series of cordial letter to superintendent O. L. Emerick and the school board, even asking permission to attend public school board meetings. While he stayed genial, he also reminded them in not so uncertain terms their legal duties to serve all students. Through his persuasive tactics, the school board and Literary Fund found the money to build the school and have it ready for classes in fall 1941. They named it after Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery to become an acclaimed orator and abolitionist. It was only fitting to name it after someone who could overcome hardship.

Finally built, the county designed a school that was notably lacking compared to the white schools — including an undersized basketball court better suited for shuffleboard.  After the school was built, the community still had to pay for most of the supplies and furnishings. But finally, they had a place of their own.

“I wish you all knew what we felt when we were here,” said former Douglass student Mary Randolph. “This was a safe place for us.”

Silver and Gold: Current Douglass assistant principal Sherri Simmons (left) and former student Barbara Evans Scott sing a Douglass School song as part of the 7th Anniversary event. Simmons has help lead Douglass through its modern, or "Silver Era", while Scott was part of the "Golden Era".

Silver and Gold: Current Douglass assistant principal Sherri Simmons (left) and former student Barbara Evans Scott sing a Douglass School song as part of the 7th Anniversary event. Simmons has help lead Douglass through its modern, or “Silver Era”, while Scott was part of the “Golden Era”.

All this was in 1940, with war wagging across Europe and southeast Asia, and the ominous prospect of war creeping across both oceans.

“The world was a pretty crazy place in 1941 when this miracle called the Douglass School came to be,” said Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall, a guest speaker at the anniversary event. “Black people in this county, with all that going on, had the presence of mind to know ‘we need to educate our children’.”

With the school opened for classes in autumn 1941, many students, who hadn’t enlisted already, would leave by the start of 1942 to fight for the United States in World War II. Across the ocean, many African-Americans were treated better in foreign lands than they were in the nation they were fighting for.

“African-Americans are very patriotic,” Randall said. “We have always believed in our country, even when the country didn’t believe in us.”

Fresh off victory in 1945, America would end up prospering after the war. So would Douglass. Though still serving what was effectively considered a second-class of citizens, Douglass would enter its “Golden Age.” Brown vs the Board of Education, with groundwork laid by the now deceased Houston, would finally end segregated schools in 1954, but Jim Crow would cling on in Loudoun County until 1968. Still, the 27-year period of all-black Douglass High School is remembered fondly by many of its alumni, dozens of whom returned to celebrate the school’s 75th anniversary.

“The Douglass High school is both a truthful, while appropriately tactful, product and expression of the ethos that has charmed America, to which our nation has always aspired and which is the wellspring of our community life,” said the Historic Places application. “The Douglass High School is significant locally as a tangible symbol of the sense of purpose and quiet tenacity of the black people of Loudoun County in their determination to secure a good secondary education for their children.”

Community Outside School Walls

After 25 years in Loudoun County, Randall is still new. The first African American Chairperson of the Board of Supervisors, the Colorado native still has community members ask if she went to Douglass School or had a family members who did.

“Well then,” they’ll say, “you new.”

While some consider her “new,” the significance of the Douglass School and it’s 75 years is not lost on her.

“What I know for a fact, is that if you all didn’t do what you did, I would not be where I am,” she told the anniversary celebration crowd. “I never question that. I never think ‘I did this’. I know who laid this ground for me, and I know the ground that I walked on, and I know how hard you’ve worked.”

She also knows the importance of community. Growing up in a large family with 27 cousins, family and community was everything. Most at Douglas didn’t have a classroom’s worth of biological cousins like Randall. They did have a school’s worth of adopted brothers and sisters.

As a girl in Colorado, she wasn’t Phyllis. She was Deegan Henderson’s granddaughter or Billie Jean’s daughter. Today, several decades and thousands of miles later, the Douglass alumni still introduce themselves as the sons and daughters of others. The were separated by time and distance, but Randal’s Community and Douglass’ Community was one in the same.

And, particularly for the Douglas alumni, they still have their stories of that community- and the talking.

“I know you might think that no one is listening to you anymore,” Randall said to the Douglas alumni. “I know you might think that all the things you’ve done and the experiences you’ve had and the pain and suffering and toil to put this school up is something people don’t want to know anymore. With all due respect, you are incorrect.”

“Don’t stop talking. Until God takes you, you have a job. Your job is to keep talking.”

If the 75th Anniversary commemoration is any indication, the alumni are not going to stop talking.

The Silver Age of Douglass School

After 1968, when black students could finally go to Loudoun County or Loudoun Valley or the newly opened Broad Run High School, Douglass was still serving the community. During the next 40 years, at points the school served as an annex for high school students, a middle school, an alternative school for students with academic or disciplinary issues. It was a home for students who spoke English as a second language before those programs were integrated countywide. When needed it was a summer school, a pre-school, a place for students to earn their GED diplomas. At one time pulleys and ropes were rigged from the ceilings of the building with the undersized basketball court. These helped the mentally and physically handicapped out of wheelchairs and through the classrooms of the only school many of these children, some who would pass before their 10th birthday, would know.

With autumn approaching, the school is gearing up for another school year. Around 100 students, many looking for a more intimate setting from the large public schools in the county, will begin later this month. Douglass has room for nearly 60 more.

“Douglass has always been that landmark for all these needs, to help,” said Gary Kitchen, a teacher for 24 years at Douglass.

The pictures and letters still hanging on the walls at Douglas are nice. The talking gives them life. Stories of old teachers and students — living and past — all alive in those moments. Stories about the girls basketball team’s victory in Berryville that “went to overtime” after a man pulled a gun on them and said the game wasn’t over. Memories of a student who overcame a learning disability to not only graduate Douglass but serve as a teacher in DC for 23 years. It’s about running into working men on the other side of the state who also learned to lay bricks because of Douglass teacher Mosses Knox. It’s the stories of a young girl who had to walk five miles to get picked up by a truck, spend the day at Douglass, only to walk five miles back and repeat the 13-hour day again beginning the following morning.

During the Golden Age at Douglass, black students wouldn’t just graduate, but go to a college or university. Some would settle as far as California and Alaska. Some became doctors and lawyers. A few years earlier, they couldn’t even go to high school.

“Ten, twenty, and certainly thirty years ago,” said the application for historical preservation in 1991, “the Douglass High School would have been considered a dated and far from noteworthy, yet puzzling building that mysteriously seemed to inspire affection among graduates.”

And now in the post-integration “Silver Age,” Douglass continues serving the needs of the community that have not been served elsewhere.

After 75 years, it still garners this affection because it is a local symbol of what Loudoun County citizens accomplished through will and hard work.

Its also where the voices that made it possible still live, still talk.  

“I just think about, I feel the spirit of all the people,” Randolph said. “I feel Charles Houston’s spirit in this building. I think of all the people, from Oak Grove, from Herndon, from Lovettsville, from Middleburg, from Leesburg, from Aldie, from all over. These people, who didn’t even have a way to get together and someway they made it happen. I feel it.”