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EDITORIAL: Two hours in Waterford

Amid the noise over the role of Southern heritage in Confederate statues, there is an alternative story, one that has been nearly silent since the Civil War. It’s about the honor, pride and courage of a people. “Come to Waterford,” it whispers. “Here we honor the rich, historical narrative of the largest antebellum, free black population in Loudoun County.”

For two hours on Saturday, the Waterford Foundation will honor African-American heritage in a village, school and church along Catoctin Creek. Slavery and freedom rubbed shoulders here. The settlement was founded by Quakers who stood against slavery, but slaveholders also lived in the vicinity and traded in the village. In the early 19th century, free blacks migrated to Waterford for work in the mill or tannery, to ply other trades such as blacksmithing and coopering, or to work on Quaker farms. Black women performed domestic work and practiced as midwives, delivering babies black and white. Some free blacks bought homes themselves in the village. At the same time, slaveholders bought and sold enslaved people at auctions on Main Street.

During the Civil War, Waterford sympathized with the Union and organized a federal cavalry unit, the Loudoun Rangers. Men of color from Waterford fought for freedom in Union regiments. Waterford suffered greatly during the Civil War. In some ways it never recovered from the physical, economic and psychological blows.

Just after the war, African-Americans, with the help of Quakers, bought a lot and erected a building they used as a church and school. The Freedmen’s Bureau assisted in its early operation. It was part of the Loudoun County Public School system from the 1870s until 1957. In 1891, black Methodists built John Wesley Church on Main Street overlooking the mill.

African-Americans comprised a large part of Waterford’s population through the 20th century. Gradually they moved away, as did most of the white residents of the era.

As Southern loyalists in Loudoun created stories around their heritage, including the one about “The Rifleman” that stands as a public monument to Confederate soldiers killed in the war, the story about Waterford and its African-American heritage was all but lost. But for two hours on Saturday, its story comes out of the shadows.

Visitors can tour the Second Street School, home of Waterford’s African-American living history program. They can take a guided walking tour of African-American history down Second and Main streets. They can meet “Hattie” and the Female Re-enactors of Distinction (FREED) as they portray heroic black women from the 19th century. They can participate in a gospel service in historic John Wesley Community Church. And they can explore Waterford’s Underground Railroad history -- the other story about Loudoun County during the Civil War, the one where thousands of slaves fled slavery and escaped to the North through Loudoun.

Waterford is a National Historic Landmark that remains little changed today from the 19th century. Recognizing African-American heritage there will neither resolve nor balance the way history will be remembered. But for two hours on Saturday, it may well cause citizens to recognize that heritage is treasured and measured by people of all colors.


Historical references for this editorial were based on accounts from the Journey Through Hallowed Ground and the Waterford Foundation.

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