An African-American couple’s request for a library book eventually led to the first major civil rights victory in Loudoun County 60 years ago.
Many in Loudoun have sought out opportunities to commemorate that struggle, reflecting on how norms have changed and looking ahead to the work that still needs to be done.
On April 8, the Purcellvile Library hosted a day of history readings, African-American music and reflections on the same property that fostered a watershed moment in the county’s civil rights movement. Among the few dozen gathered for the event, the story of a historic moment morphed from a history lesson into a candid analysis of the present, serving as a microcosm for county residents’ concerns, and ostensibly race relations nationwide.
The Saturday afternoon conversation started with a library book.
In December 1956, Mabel Frances Moore, sister-in-law to then-President Dwight Eisenhower, asked a married African-American couple to create a set of ornate Austrian window shades for their home. The couple, western Loudoun upholsterers Samuel Cardoza Murray and Josie Cook Murray, went to the Purcellville library to check out a book on making the specific type of blinds. Little did they realize that no African American had entered the county’s only public library since it opened in 1937, according to a written account from Loudoun historian Eugene Scheel. With segregation laws still in effect in Virginia and across the south, white librarian Barbara Graham said the Murray’s couldn’t check out the book.
What followed was a months-long legal battle involving the town library board, town council and ultimately the Loudoun Board of Supervisors. The Murrays’ lawyer, Oliver Ellis Stone, argued that since the library was built in part with federal funds and received tax revenue from Loudoun residents, it couldn’t discriminate on race.
Realizing they couldn’t legally receive these funds while discriminating, the library board decided to end segregation. A late push by segregationists to pressure the Board of Supervisors into closing the library failed after a 4-3 vote by the Board to keep the library open and desegregated. Their petition to close the library, presented to the board ahead of the vote, received 44 signatures. The counter petition to keep it open and desegregated received 366.
The Murray’s request to check out a book would lead to the first major change to segregation policies in Loudoun. It would take years more to desegregate hospitals, pools, movie theaters, restaurants, marriage licenses and finally schools. With the integration of students from the formally all-black Douglass High School with the county’s other high schools in 1968, the last major vestige of legal segregation ended, at least on paper.
It would be far from the end of African American struggles for equality in Loudoun in the nation. As part of the April 8 commemoration of the library’s desegregation, historian James Hershman spent close to an hour sharing the “brief” history of how former Virginia Gov. and Sen. Harry Byrd led a decades-long effort to assure white supremacy, fighting each and every court order or societal change with restrictions from the schoolhouse to the ballot box. Hershman said Byrd’s political machine manipulated media coverage and the Commonwealth’s voters into believing the facade of “Genteel Virginia” while hiding systematic government efforts to subjugate black voters, as well as the lynchings and other acts of physical violence against African American residents that he described as too repulsive to speak of in public.
He said the residual impacts of nearly a century of oppression prevented any quick end to longstanding divides between races. In addressing the crowd in Purcellvile, Hershman says he seldom uses the word “integration” to describe the end results of the civil rights movement. While society was no longer segregated, efforts to end Jim Crow were not as successful in achieving a full reconciliation and unity between the races.
Following Hershman’s lecture, a candid conversation about Loudoun’s past sparked a discussion about the county’s present and unresolved racism — a view shared by many African American leaders in the county and across the Commonwealth. NAACP Loudoun Chapter President Phillip Thompson has said disproportionate disciplinary actions against black students by the county’s public school system is indicative of ongoing racial disparity. He has further argued the county is not doing enough to recruit and retain minority teachers. While LCPS has denied any racial shortcomings on its part, many in Purcellvile agreed with Thompson’s assessment.
Others shared racists anecdotes in Loudoun, including stories of girl scouts running afraid of an African American woman because of her race when she was simply asking to buy cookies. Recent high-profile incidents like vandalism of a historic African-American schoolhouse, desecration of a former slave cemetery and a racist comment left on a black waitress’ tip have lead others to accuse Loudoun of residual racism.
Even on a day jaded by the somber reflection on the atrocities of Virginia’s racist past, the crowd in Purcellville still pointed to the county’s progress. Gertrude Evans, who protested discrimination by county pools and the Tally Ho Movie Theater in Leesburg as a teenager in the 1960’s, said she was encouraged by the recent One to the World celebration at Leesburg’s Frederick Douglass Elementary School. At a school named for a African-American icon, she said Douglass has students with lineage to 80 countries learning together under one roof.
Others have hailed the 2016 hiring of Gregory Brown by Leesburg at it’s first African-American police chief. In 2015, Loudoun elected Koran Saines and Phyllis Randall to its Board of Supervisors, the first African Americans in the board’s history.
In Purcellville, others were buoyed by the simple fact that a group of different races could come together at a public library to learn about the people who made such a meeting possible.
“To be the first women of color to chair a board in Virginia is an amazing thing and I never take it for granted, but I don’t always get to see the people that made it possible,” said Randall during the celebration. “The people who made it possible aren’t the people who are on my campaign or the people who even voted for me. The people that made it possible are the people who fought these fights for so many years to desegregate the library or build the Douglass School.”