It's been nearly 50 years since Helen Simms walked to her new school for the first time, but she still remembers the pride that grew with every step.

"It was a high feeling," said Simms, a Purcellville resident and graduate of Douglass High School, the first black high school in the county. "We marched from the old school down to the new school. I tell you, it was a great day."

The old school was Loudoun High School, also called the Loudoun County Training School, a ramshackle structure that offered the only secondary education black youngsters could get unless they left the county or were tutored at home. The new school was Douglass, paid for entirely by black residents, such as Simms's parents, because the School Board said there was no money to build one.

More than 20 years have passed since county schools were integrated and the last class graduated from Douglass High School. But the red brick building on Market Street in Leesburg, now home to the county's Alternative School and a community center, remains a tangible symbol of black pride.

Next year, the building will be 50 years old. And members of the Douglass Alumni Association, which represents about half of Douglass's 600 graduates, have already started planning a celebration.

"We have come a long way" since Douglass was built, Simms said. "There was so much effort and love and dedication that we all felt."

The coming year will also likely be one of anticipation. Douglass alumni are working with the county NAACP and other groups to get the building listed on the Virginia Register of Historic Places to ensure its preservation. They have filed all the necessary papers with the state and are awaiting a reply.

Mary Lee Perry, a secretary in the alumni association, said she "had a ball" while she was a Douglass student. She also remembers "the closeness, the caring of the teachers."

There was the math teacher who would spend extra hours teaching children their multiplication tables and the English teacher who sought School Board permission to teach a semester of black history instead of American literature.

"That was very unusual then," Perry said.

Shirley Washington, the president of the alumni association and a 1956 graduate, said she so admired her teachers that she wanted to be like them. She now teaches third grade at Hamilton Elementary.

Washington describes the alumni group, whose members live mostly in the Washington area, as "very close." This year, the group awarded three $500 scholarships to talented black high school seniors. It has given Christmas parties for children from low-income families, donated food and money for victims of Hurricane Hugo and given baskets to needy families during the holidays.

"When we hear of things where we can help, we like to help," Washington said.

On Saturday, about 60 members braved the rain to attend the group's annual picnic, where they honored the Class of 1940, the last to graduate from Loudoun High School, and began to plan the anniversary of Douglass. The next day, the association sponsored its kickoff anniversary fund-raiser, an art show at the home of Douglass graduate Reginald Simms. A golf tournament, an "old-timers" basketball game, and a dinner and dance are among the activities planned for the coming months.

Galen Brooks, a Leesburg lawyer, went to Douglass in the mid-1960s, when "the county and the state generally permitted freedom of choice, as it was called at that time."

But Brooks decided against attending a majority white school, and he said he has never regretted it. He enjoyed the personal attention he received from teachers at Douglass.

"Our facilities weren't as good as Loudoun County High School," Brooks said. "But I don't think if I had to do it all over again, I would do it any differently."

But when it came time for college, Brooks made a different decision. He applied to several predominantly black schools, but with encouragement from his counselor, Marie Briscoe, he also applied to Virginia Tech.

"At the time, I was interested in engineering, and we decided this was the best opportunity," Brooks said. He said Briscoe also helped him fill out an application for a scholarship, which he received.

Lou Etta Watkins, president of the Loudoun NAACP, said Douglass is special because "it took a lot of doing, back in those days, to do what the people did to get a high school . . . the black people had a spirit that would not quit. They knew what they wanted, they knew what they had to have."

But Watkins noted that Douglass would never have existed had it not been for segregation. She said she thinks that her son, a Douglass graduate who teaches math for the Prince George's County Public Schools, could have received a better education if he had had a choice in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Watkins said her son had to take college preparatory courses before his freshman year at Fisk University in Nashville, one of the nation's top black colleges.

"To be completely fair, I think they {Douglass teachers and administrators} did the best they could with what they had," Watkins said. "That was the whole problem with 'separate but equal.' It doesn't work."