An Elementary History Lesson

By Arianne Aryanpur
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008

When Janet Wiggins was a student at Loudoun's all-black Banneker Elementary School in the 1950s, she used hand-me-down textbooks from white students. Her school didn't have a library, so she checked out books every couple of weeks from a bookmobile.

Banneker, founded in 1948 in the community of St. Louis near Middleburg and named after African American mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker, was racially integrated in 1968. Today it is the only one of Loudoun's historically black elementary schools still operating. The others were demolished, vacated or converted to other purposes.

On Saturday, a few hundred alumni, students, parents and teachers assembled at Banneker to commemorate the school's 60th anniversary in a celebration that included tours, displays of historical photographs and the performance of an original musical about Benjamin Banneker, the man.

Arthur Lloyd, a 1958 graduate who attended the festivities, said the institution has come a long way.

"When I was there, it was completely black," said Lloyd, 63. "Now, you have black, white, Mexican, Asian. It's the way I envision America should be."

Banneker hosted a reunion in 2005 for people who were connected to the school between 1948 and 1968, and another in 2006 for those who attended or taught between 1968 and 1978. For the 60th anniversary, organizers decided on a celebration for anyone who was part of the school's history.

The event included photos from previous reunions, old class rosters and pictures contributed by community residents. Because many alumni still live in the area, the reunion was publicized mostly through word of mouth.

Current students helped write and perform the musical about Benjamin Banneker. That project was organized by music teacher Vicki Petrosky, who came up with the idea after she found six pages of handwritten history about the African American scientist in a school filing cabinet. The undated, anonymous pages contained musical cues, indicating that the author might have been writing a musical.

Petrosky, who said she thinks the pages are about 20 years old, approached officials at Wayside Theatre in Middletown, who agreed to work with Banneker students to develop and write the show.

"It was a good experience for them to learn about the school and learn how far we've come since those days," said LaVerne "Tootie" Warner, a former Banneker student who works in the school's health clinic and helped organize the reunion. The development of the musical was funded by the school and a grant from the Loudoun Education Foundation.

The effort to build Banneker started in 1944 and was led by parents and community activists. After years of lobbying, the Loudoun School Board agreed to purchase 19 acres in St. Louis, a small community founded by freed slaves after the Civil War. The school, which had six classrooms, a multi-purpose room, a health clinic and a kitchen, opened to 185 students in 1948. The school now has 193 students and is predominantly white.

Wiggins, 62, who graduated in 1960, remembers being spanked by her teacher when she misbehaved.

"Then you would get it again when you got home," she said. "That's what it was like being raised in a small African American community."

When Banneker was integrated in 1968, the School Board tried to change its name to Mercer, but St. Louis residents objected. For many, it held a special place in the community.

"That school was the center of activity," recalled Lloyd, who still keeps in touch with many of his classmates. "After Banneker, a lot of us went on to Douglass High School in Leesburg," another all-black institution. "I guess because we were local, we never lost contact."

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