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Alumni, NAACP in Winchester, Va., fighting over spelling of Douglas School's name

The dispute began when a group of Winchester, Va., residents suggested that new signs be made to replace the decaying ones of the Douglas School, which is now a community center.
The dispute began when a group of Winchester, Va., residents suggested that new signs be made to replace the decaying ones of the Douglas School, which is now a community center. (Richard A. Lipski for The Washington Post)

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By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2010; 8:34 PM

For decades during segregation, the Douglas School was a bulwark in the push to educate black Virginians - the one-story brick schoolhouse shielded students from some of the state's most insidious racism.

Now, the same building that once brought the Winchester area's black community together has caused a controversy pitting the NAACP against many of the school's African American alumni. The dispute? Should the school, thought to be named after black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, spell its name with one "s" or two?

The NAACP and Frederick Douglass's descendants want to know why a school ostensibly named for him is marred by a misspelling of his last name.

"We are humbled that you would choose to honor our ancestor," Kenneth B. Morris, Douglass's great-great-great grandson and president of the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation wrote to city officials. "However, we would implore you, and any other organizations that desire to honor this great man, to respect the name he selected for himself and spell it accurately."

But a number of Douglas alumni disagree. They're fighting to preserve the school's current spelling - and a piece of their identity.

"If you attend a school from kindergarten to 12th grade, you form a connection," said Charles Harris, who graduated from Douglas in 1963. "Our connection is with Douglas with one 's.' It's the identity of the school, and it's a part of who we are as a community."

The debate emerged after a group of Winchester residents suggested that the school, now a community center, replace its decaying signs.

The group split over how the name should be spelled on the new ones. The scope of that dispute has grown, attracting interest from black activists far from Winchester.

Douglass was a Maryland slave who escaped bondage and, through eloquent writings and oratory, became a leading abolitionist in the years leading up to the Civil War. He adopted the last name "Douglass" as an adult and died in 1895.

The Douglas School was built in 1927 to house black students from the Shenandoah Valley, who were barred from attending public schools. On the school's opening day, the Winchester Star described the procession of "orderly and well-behaved colored people" who poured into the building.

As the fight to uphold segregation in Virginia grew more fierce - with the construction of government-supported "academies" for white students in some parts of the state - the Douglas community grew closer.

Prom was a countywide event, attended by parents and students alike. Black families, barred from the main seats of movie theaters, went to the school's auditorium to watch films projected on an auditorium wall.

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