History Hidden in the Walls
Edwin Washington Project depicts history of rural Black education
What we know about Edwin Washington is that he wanted to learn. We don’t know much else about him. But we know he longed to learn, and that is enough.
In June 1867, Washington was 16, a former slave working as a waiter in a hotel in Leesburg, Va., for $5 a month. Though he was the sole wage earner for his mother and two younger brothers, he wanted to attend a Quaker-run school. After some prodding, the hotel owner agreed, provided it did not interfere with the bustle of work. “I think it is a very good thing to go to school and learn to read and write. It is the first opportunity we ever had, and we ought to make good use of it,” Washington later wrote in an essay titled “Going to School.”
Washington was the first known example of a Black teenager insisting on an education in Loudoun County, Va. Though his fate has been lost in the mists of time, his name lives 154 years later as the inspiration for the most comprehensive county-level study of rural Black education in the country.
RECORDS LONG LOST
His colleagues in the Edwin Washington Project refer to Larry Roeder as the Energizer Bunny; that is, if the Energizer Bunny is a white-haired former diplomat with a knack for bringing order to a chaos of information.
A former State Department advisor and historian, Roeder attracted the attention of school officials for his history of the predominantly African American community of Conklin in southeastern Loudoun. Meanwhile, school representatives had salvaged truckload after truckload of musty boxes full of disorganized records and correspondence from a circa-1880s elementary school-turned-dumping ground in Leesburg.
They wanted Roeder’s Conklin project writ large — to tell the story of Loudoun schools from Reconstruction to integration in 1968, warts and all.
“The school system really deserves a lot of credit because we were looking at decades of segregation and education that was separate and not equal,” Roeder says. “But they could not have been more open and welcoming, even though the story can be embarrassing at times.”
Roeder reviewed some of the materials and the school system set up shop for him at a facility in Round Hill, Va. Tony Arciero, now an adjunct professor at George Mason University, was a doctoral student when he answered a scattershot email call for volunteers at Round Hill.
“There was a room full of boxes, yards of stuff, and we were completely overwhelmed,” Arciero recalls. “I went and grabbed the oldest-looking thing, because it seemed fascinating, a leatherbound book, and you could tell it was ancient. It had beautiful handwriting entries from the 1870s. I said, ‘Wow, that’s old. Cool.’ But we still had no real sense of what we had.”
In time, Roeder recruited nearly three dozen volunteers to comb through a collection of documents, letters, photographs and land deeds for dozens of schools, many of which no longer exist.
They have scanned 500 gigabytes of documents so far, an amount equivalent to 142,000 digital photos—and they’re nowhere near completion since the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed activity during the last year.
“We think this is important information to have available to the public as part of the historical record,” says Julie Goforth, who manages the project’s website and preservation efforts. “To see something firsthand in somebody’s handwriting makes an impact, even if you know what happened. It makes it more personal.”
The abandoned school that housed the old papers was once the heartbeat of Black education in Loudoun. Known as the Loudoun Training Center, students through 7th grade took classes there on the first floor. With few exceptions, that was their educational glass ceiling. Data show an annual average of 220 whites in Loudoun took post-elementary classes from 1886 to 1904. For African Americans in the same period, the average was two.
“It wasn’t separate but equal. It was separate but unequal,” says Gertrude Evans, a former Loudoun student who works on student and teacher records for the project. In digging through century-old class files, she found the names of her parents and relatives, and a lot of information she never knew.
“It wasn’t talked about,” she says. “My generation and the ones after me didn’t know about all this. They had no clue.”
Nathan Bailey, retired as a manager from Raytheon, pieces together the history of school transportation from records and interviews. He’s found that the school system provided transportation for white students in horse-drawn carriages as early as 1911. Not until 1937 does the first record of a Black bus driver appear on the rolls, he adds.
“Until then, it was ‘hoof it,’” Bailey says. Even after Douglass High School opened in 1941, it was the only Black high school in a county of 522 square miles. “If you didn’t have any transportation, high school was off-limits to you. You just couldn’t go.”
In ensuing decades, the Training Center was used for elementary schooling and then fell into disuse, storing records, rodents and mold. Looking for more clues, Edwin Washington Project volunteers explored the unheated schoolhouse with flashlights, and discovered cracks in walls. They pried apart planks and came across a stash of ceiling tiles that teachers had pressed into service as makeshift class calendars.
“They were handwritten schedules of who was teaching what course,” Arciero says. “We all grabbed them up and bagged them. I hesitate to even guess what they were made of. We were not sure what kind of toxic materials they were.”
They turned out to be valuable additions in developing a record of classroom assignments. “One of our main objectives is to determine who the students were, who the teachers were and what was taught, so we can have that biographical information,” Roeder says.
In November 1944, while Jim Crow ran rampant in rural Virginia, parents of students at Grant School in Loudoun had a simple request of school Superintendent Oscar L. Emerick: Please don’t shoehorn 96 students into two rooms. Cattle-car learning is no way to educate young people.
“We are also afraid that an epidemic might break out because of crowded conditions. We are wondering if it is possible to get another room,” according to the letter, signed by parent Melvina Beale and 15 others.
The request, simple and politely stated, was one of dozens of petitions rolled up, stuffed at the bottom of a box and neatly tied with a piece of string. After the string was untied, the papers naturally flattened in a week and rate as one of the project’s most remarkable finds.
“Today, it wouldn’t be anything strange, but in that context of the 1930s and 1940s, it was exceptional,” Arciero says. “These people signed their names. They put their name on a document, knowing that could come back and possibly lead to retaliation.”
Collected at churches and by going door to door, the petitions were about the only way Blacks could ask in segregated Virginia for smaller class sizes or toilets that worked. Even if they qualified to vote by passing a literacy test, they still had to pay a $1.50 tax. If they failed to pay, they could not appear before all-white governing bodies to seek better education.
In one 1940 petition, parents asked school board members to inspect the aging Training Center because oil from open drums saturated floorboards. “If a match were dropped on the floor or if the electric wire short circuited while school is in session, scores of children would be trapped and their lives could be saved only by a miracle,” they warned.
A year later, the Training Center gave way in part to Douglass High School. True to the times, Black citizens raised $4,000 through bake sales, rummage sales, dances and field days to purchase 8 acres for the new school. The county took over the deed for $1.
“The building was one piece of it, but it was the endurance and the stamina of the families,” says Sherri Simmons, an assistant principal at Douglass from 2009 to 2019, when it was used for special and alternative education. “It’s more than tradition. It’s tradition and evolution; it’s preservation and it’s conservation. It’s a place where children and families found hope.”
The most poignant petitions came from a teacher who didn’t want her students to freeze. In January 1955, Ethel R. Stewart, a teacher at Willisville School, a one-room school built in 1918, petitioned the school board to send some kindling wood “right away” to keep a woodstove burning.
The following January, she repeated her plea, this time to Emerick. “Please send some coal up right away. All we have left is dirt and that doesn’t half burn,” Stewart wrote. Her entreaty was the title of an Edwin Washington Project conference and a forthcoming book, both titled, “Dirt Don’t Burn.”
“It’s a real story of educational heroism,” Roeder says.
NEW RESEARCH TOOLS
Oscar L. Emerick was a legend in Loudoun. A native of Purcellville, he was educated at Eastern College (now closed) in Front Royal, Va., and the University of Virginia before becoming principal of a white high school in 1911 at 22. Six years later, he was named superintendent of county schools and held the job for 40 years through a depression, two world wars, expansion and segregation.
Emerick was a legend, but he also was a hoarder. To the joy of Edwin Washington Project researchers, he kept copies of everything — notes and replies, teacher evaluations, letters from parents, and suggestions where to place “No Trespassing” signs to deter kids from cutting across property lines.
He also kept a large bound ledger with page after page of pasted newspaper clippings.When Roeder and his team discovered the daybook, which ran from 1914 until about 1920, they detected handwriting under the yellowed clippings that matched Emerick’s other correspondence.
To uncover the hidden writing, they turned to multispectral imaging, a sophisticated technology that separates content along different spectral bands —kind of like recovering writing on mummy wrappings. Museums and universities with the necessary equipment would have charged $50,000, but the Preservation Research and Testing Division at the Library of Congress agreed to examine Emerick’s ledger for free because of its importance to Black history.
The task was complicated by the fact that Emerick wrote and pasted on both sides of the page, which led library analysts to make several passes with different spectrum colors. The job took six months, three scientists and a $350,000 camera.
Roeder suspects the paste-over job was innocent, but estimates interpreting the images will take the Edwin Washington Project into 2022, given the number of entries on students, travel and hirings and firings. “It’s a real history of the life of this guy at a certain point in time,” he says
It also is one example of the role high tech plays in the project. In another, Neil Steinberg, owner of Photoworks in Leesburg with his wife, has been digitally copying and reproducing photographs that were ripped, timeworn or barely salvageable.
“I found really compelling the various pictures of the teachers because you see the real human faces and it’s kind of touching,” he says. “All too often, people will bury history in order to create a rosier picture of our past. And it’s a mistake to ignore the past, however painful it might be.”
The Edwin Washington Project received the Outstanding Volunteer Award from Loudoun County in 2019 and has connected with universities and libraries in the South for additional documents and photographs. State Sen. John Bell of Loudoun shepherded a resolution through the General Assembly that commended the project, underscoring the need for state and local officials to protect similar records.
The team remains committed to bringing the entire story of Loudoun schools, of all races, to succeeding generations—and to building a template for use by researchers in other places.
“Edwin Washington’s drive to become an educated Black man in a time that was not desirable is a strong statement from him. And that is a beacon for those of us who know his story,” Simmons says.
For more information, visit EdwinWashingtonProject.org.