Celebrating the 'quiet tenacity' that built Loudoun's first black high school 75 years ago

Douglass High School instructors assemble for a teacher training session at the school on Jan. 9, 1948. Photo by Winslow Williams

Douglass High School, the first accredited black high school in Loudoun County, has stood in Leesburg for nearly 75 years as a symbol of the strength of the community that persevered through nearly insurmountable obstacles to fight for equality.

The school only came to be because the black community of Loudoun battled tirelessly against the school administration in the early 1940s to make it a reality. After the School Board told them they didn't have the land to build it, the group raised funds to buy a plot of land themselves. Every challenge standing in the way of the school opening was ultimately defeated by people who scarcely found the means and resources to stand up for what they believed was right.

The 75-year history of the Douglass High School, now the Douglass School, will be celebrated this weekend by its alumni organization and Loudoun County Public Schools.

The building is "a tangible symbol of the sense of the purpose and quiet tenacity of the black people of Loudoun County," according to documents filed to register it as a Virginia Historic Landmark.

Before Douglass was built in 1941, LCPS only provided secondary education to black students within the Loudoun County Training School building on Union Street in Leesburg. The first floor of the building was an elementary school and classrooms on the second floor were used for high school students.

The building was full of safety hazards, like windows that wouldn't open to fire escapes and an open oil drum stored under the stairs. Only a very sparse curriculum was offered and there wasn't any transportation provided to students, according to historical documents.

In the 1930s, members of black parent-teacher organizations formed the County-Wide League to address inequities in the "separate but equal" education school divisions were required to provide during the Jim Crow segregation era. The group's main goal was to have an accredited black high school in Loudoun.

"[The School Board] routinely listened to complaints of the community and made idle promises or gave excuses, but rarely took action," reads a passage in Essence of a People by the Black History Committee of the Friends of the Thomas Balch Library.

The County-Wide League was told by the board there wasn't any money to purchase land to build the school. So the group held "bake sales, rummage sales, dances, ball games, field days" and more to raise money to buy the land, according to historical documents.

After about two or three years of raising money, the group was able to buy eight acres of land on Nov. 4, 1940.

The board told the County-Wide League even though the land was acquired, there wasn't money in the budget to build the school.

That's when the County-Wide League sought legal help from Charles H. Houston, dean of Howard University School of Law and counsel for the NAACP.

Houston's involvement in Loudoun sparked "a flurry of activity" in a fight for civil rights, according to historical documents. The lawyer advised the County-Wide League to organize a local branch of the NAACP, which formed on March 24, 1940.

"Houston made it clear to the School Board it was violating the law by not providing educational opportunities to the black community that were equal to whites," reads Essence of a People. "To avoid a possible lawsuit, the School Board agreed to build the new high school that could meet accreditation and provide transportation."

In exchange, the County-Wide League sold the land to the School Board for $1 on Dec. 16, 1940.

The school finally opened in September 1941. It was named after Frederick Douglass, a man who escaped slavery in Maryland in 1838 to become an abolitionist in New York. The name was meant to symbolize the perseverance of the group that fought tirelessly for the school.

Still, the School Board "only provided the barest necessities" to the school before it opened. The County-Wide League had to raise money once again to purchase basic amenities like furniture.

The school was eventually accredited by the commonwealth and more land was purchased to expand the structure with more classrooms and a gym.

Even though the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 mandated desegregation of schools, LCPS wasn't fully integrated until 1968. The building became a middle school the same year. It became a community and alternative school in 1976.

The Douglass School continues to serve the community as an alternative education center for LCPS. It also is the home to Douglass Community Center, which opened in 1966. The school is a focal point for the Martin Luther King Day festivities and other black history events.

The nonprofit Loudoun Douglass Alumni Association formed in 1985 to preserve the history of Douglass High School and to recognize the actions of the black community who made it a reality. In 1993, Douglass High School was placed on the Virginia and National registers as a historic landmark.

The anniversary celebration will take place from 11 a.m. To 5 p.m. Aug. 13 at the school. There will be tours of the building highlighting its historical relevance followed by a sock hop.

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