By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2008
The Lucasville School opened in 1885, just south of Manassas on a small plot owned by a former slave. It was an austere one-room building with a cast-iron stove and a blackboard and probably had portraits of Frederick Douglass, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on the walls.
For the next 40 years, black students in grades one through six took classes there in subjects such as domestic science, nature study and agriculture. It wasn't fancy, but for children whose parents and grandparents had been forbidden from reading under pre-Civil War Virginia laws, it was a symbol of hard-fought dignity.
Today, the Lucasville School is the last black schoolhouse in Prince William County. It opens to the public this weekend along Godwin Drive outside Manassas, not far from its original location.
"This fills a hole in the interpretation of our history," said Brendon Hanafin, director of the county's Historic Preservation Division. "What a great place to tell the stories of the people who were here and what their contributions were."
Along with the Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre, Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park and Rippon Lodge, the Lucasville School is the fourth site opened by the Historic Preservation Division in the past year.
Hanafin is proud the site was almost entirely paid for with outside grants and funding, requiring only a few hundred dollars from the county to complete. "Getting a museum for less than $500 is a pretty good deal," he said.
Hanafin said the reconstruction of the half-acre site and the building was done under a proffer agreement with developer Pulte Homes, which is building Mayfield Trace subdivision nearby. Grants from the Prince William County Historical Commission and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities paid for the furniture and interpretive displays.
The bright white schoolhouse, about the size of a two-car garage, ceased to be used as a classroom in 1926, when the Manassas District School Board moved Lucasville's students into the larger Brown School, which black children attended until desegregation in 1966.
Once closed, the schoolhouse was painted red and used as a farm shed. By the time preservation work began in 2005, the structure was on the verge of collapse. Crews from Pulte Homes relocated the building and rebuilt it using some of the rafters, beams and other materials salvaged from the original structure.
Although small, the Lucasville School contains a much larger history of the educational dreams of black families during Reconstruction, said Lillian Gaskill, former chairwoman of the Historical Commission.
"It is a symbol of the importance placed on education by the African American community at that time," said Gaskill, who worked closely with Hanafin's office to save the school and establish the museum. "It's a representation of all the schools for colored children in the country."
Because it has no full-time staff, the museum will be open for limited hours on weekends, by appointment and for school groups, Hanafin said. Visitors will learn the story of Alice A. Taylor, a teacher there from 1910 to 1926, and her husband, William C. Taylor, who taught at Lucasville and at Jennie Dean's Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth.
While conducting research for the interpretive displays, county preservationist Heather A. Hembrey was able to trace, through records, the history of educational discrimination. Payroll documents from the 1870s show that black teachers were paid as much as teachers at Manassas's white-only schools and that their budgets were essentially the same. By 1911, however, the Manassas District School Board had created separate budget categories for black schools, paying African American teachers far less than their white counterparts.
"You can see the discrimination," Hembrey said.
Much of the history of the Lucasville community and its schoolhouse are still largely unknown, she said. School records and county documents can fill in only part of the story, Hembrey said. She hopes visitors will bring their memories and family records to help fill in the rest. Reconstructing the area's history is an ongoing process.
"Any one person could come forward and change the story," Hembrey said.