Graduates of the former Frederick Douglass High School in Leesburg — now in their 70s or older — made a final walk through the building that operated until it closed when public schools in Loudoun County were fully desegregated in 1968.
Inside the building’s entryway, which served both as a gymnasium and access point for classrooms and offices, staff from Loudoun County Public Schools provided guided tours and illustrations for the officials who will determine how the space will look and for what it will be used in the future.
The Douglass High School Commemorative Committee, which includes graduates and appointees from local history and preservation groups, as well as town and county governments, was appointed by the Loudoun County School Board with the goal of renovating the school which was built in 1941.
The Frederick Douglass High School property was purchased by the School League, a group of African American parents, for $4,000 and deeded to the Loudoun County School Board, according to project planners.
The school grew out of parent and teacher associations concerned with the “inadequate secondary education” for Black students in the late 1930s at the Loudoun County Training School on Union Street, according to records from the National Register of Historic Places.
The group referred to as the County-wide League later began seeking land for a new school funded by bake sales, dances, donations and other fund-raising events.
Two to three years later, enough money was raised to buy 8 acres of land, and Willie Hall, a successful Black contractor in Middleburg, co-signed the note for the purchase. The Trustees of the County-Wide League purchased the land from W.S. Gibbons on November 4, 1939.
Historians said the school board purchased the land from the County-Wide League for $1.
After months of discussions with the Board of Supervisors and seeking loans and for a new high school, pressure from the County-Wide League led the school board to take out a loan to build the new school for $35,438.
Three months later, supplementary loans were requested from the Board of Supervisors and contracts were then signed.
The school was named after Frederick Douglass, a former slave who, became a prominent abolitionist. The name for the school was chosen by the citizens, who with quiet persistence and great cooperation with the county, had supported the effort to have a high school for their children, records state.Records indicate the school board at the time provided only the barest necessities, such items as desks, and the County-Wide League raised money for furniture, chairs for the auditorium. According to the records, John Tolbert, former vice-mayor of the Town of Leesburg, even donated money for several chairs.
The school board arranged a loan from the State Literary Fund for $2,000 to build a workshop of cinderblock and brick and students did some of the construction work, records state.
A number of contributions came from white community individuals and businesses.
Originally consisting of four rooms, the school went through two major expansions.
In 1950, a science laboratory, home economics suite and five classrooms were added. Then in 1960, a gymnasium, shop, cafeteria and several classrooms were built.
Douglass School served as the only high school for Black students until schools were desegregated in the 1968-69 school year.
In the years since desegregation, Douglass has served several roles. For the 1968-69 school year it was the Broad Run High School Annex, followed by use as a School Board Annex (1969-71); Leesburg Middle School (1971-76); and finally, as the home of the Alternative Education Program.
By Sept. 24, 1992, the school was added to the National Register of Historic Places, which is the official list of America’s historic places worthy of preservation.
A good problem for the committee
Kevin Lewis, assistant superintendent for support services at LCPS, said everybody that visited during the event was excited to see the school and proposed ideas for it.
A decision that the committee is going to have to consider before renovations begin is the question of which of the building’s many iterations should be the goal for the redesign.
“That’s going to be a significant conversation for them to have,” Lewis said.
The committee has come up with 19 separate concepts to contextualize a school that operated for more than 20 years.
Historic display cases for artifacts and documents, and timeline exhibits are a few of the proposed ideas for the project.
Additionally, the suggestions include freestanding large photo exhibits, an outdoor seating area/amphitheater and interpretative markers.
Planners said the school, which currently houses the LCPS Alternative Education Program and Loudoun County Parks and Recreation programs, is scheduled to be renovated this summer when the Alternative Education Program moves to The North Star School in Leesburg.
A renovated Douglass School is scheduled to reopen in late 2022.
Architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle was selected by the school system to design the renovation of Douglass School.
Beyer’s previous projects include the U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument and Carnegie Library. Additionally, the firm has worked on local projects including the Loudoun County Courthouse, Waterford Mill and the Loudoun Museum.
What leaders said
Supervisor Kristen Umstattd (D-Leesburg): “I think the most important thing with any plans going forward is to honor the Douglass High School Alumni Association input because members of the group went to the school.”
Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) after her visit: “It was just great to be there with them when they went through the building and I want for the building what they want. It belongs to them.”
“With all respect to any other groups or any other individuals, but the weighted opinion of what should happen should be with the Douglass Alumni themselves to say they want,” she said.
Supervisor Mike Turner (D-Ashburn) after his tour: “Our history, good or bad, is immutable. We are where we are in large measure because of where we have been, but if we are wise, we will take the time to understand our past and carry its lessons forward to make a better future.”
What committee members said
Charles Avery, co-chair of the Loudoun Douglass Alumni Association: “We are making history while recording history, and remembering history. So, I’m just really excited about leading this group and just looking to see what the end is going to be, [and] what the commemoration looks like when we finish this project.”
Erica Bush, co-chair of the Loudoun Douglass Alumni Association on highlighting the school’s historical value: “These are stories that I think need to be told and depicted, so that we can remember that … despite all these obstacles, they still got this school built and they went on to become historians, judges, teachers, military people, and so it sends a message that they faced so much during Jim Crow, but they didn’t give up — they persevered.”