The National Women's History Project has designated March as a time to "reexamine and celebrate the wide range of women's contributions and achievements." In Loudoun County, no woman of the distant past has had her career reexamined more closely than Margaret Mercer, who has been alternately celebrated and scorned.

Mercer, known primarily as a teacher of young women, began her life's vocation in an Episcopal Sunday school in Cedar Park, Md., her parents' home. Her father, John Francis Mercer, was a Virginian, born in Marlborough in Stafford County. After marrying the wealthy Sophia Sprigg, of Cedar Park, in 1785, he moved to Maryland, climbed the political ladder and became Maryland's governor from 1801 to 1803.

Margaret Mercer was 12 when her father retired as governor and moved to Cedar Park. In his 1848 biography, "A Memoir of Miss Margaret Mercer," a neighbor, Caspar Morris, recalled her saying that "she had been brought up at her father's feet."

It was her father's "great delight," Morris said, "to communicate to his daughter. . . . He took great pleasure in watching and aiding her intellectual powers, and cultivating her taste. . . . She read French in the original as a young girl, and later, as her interest in theology increased, she undertook the study of Hebrew."

Her theology differed from that of her father, however, for he owned many slaves -- 72 at his death in 1821 -- and believed that slavery was justified by several Biblical passages that he interpreted as condoning a master-servant relationship.

Morris does not mention Miss Mercer's disagreement with her father's pro-slavery sentiments while he was alive, but after his death, she left Cedar Park for about four years to work at Mrs. Garnett's School in Elmwood in Essex County, Va.

Miss Mercer taught five days a week, helped in Sunday school and on Saturdays worked for the county's controversial colonization society, whose aim was to purchase the freedom of slaves and resettle them in Africa.

The society was a branch of the American Colonization Society, founded in January 1817. To achieve its goal, it bought land in 1822 from tribes on Africa's Guinea Coast, sometimes known as "The Slave Coast." There, slaves and the ancestors of slaves had lived in freedom, and there they were captured and sold to traders for export.

The colonizationists called their purchase Liberia -- from the Latin word "liber." One of its meanings is "free." Its first settlement was named Monrovia for President James Monroe, a member of the colonization society.

Margaret Mercer's sympathies with the colonization movement were fortified by three cousins: Charles Fenton Mercer, a member of Congress who had lived at Aldie; James Mercer Garnett, a member of Congress from Essex County, Va.; and John Henry Benjamin Latrobe, a Baltimore architect. Mercer and Garnett served as vice presidents of the Virginia Colonization Society, and Latrobe was considered Maryland's foremost colonizationist.

Without citing a date or a name, Morris quotes a letter from Miss Mercer to an "ardent abolitionist" who wanted immediate freedom for slaves, without deportation. "Sir, from the bottom of my heart," she wrote, " . . . I would do more, if personal sacrifice would avail, to put an end to African slavery. . . . I am and always shall be of the opinion that you want that humility which trusts to the mild, prevailing effect of Christian doctrine to work a gradual change."

Miss Mercer had inherited some of her father's slaves but had to postpone their export because his estate was more than $17,000 in debt in 1821. Returning to Cedar Park about 1825, she started a girls school and, with its profits, began to pay off her share of the family's obligations.

By 1833, her finances were in order, and under auspices of the American Colonization Society, she sent six freed family slaves to Liberia. Sometime that year, aboard the schooner "Margaret Mercer," they landed in Monrovia.

Three years later, the tropical environment had taken its toll. Three had died, two of fever. One had returned to the United States, and another had moved away. The whereabouts of the sixth were unknown. Similar statistics would soon end the well-intentioned colonization movement. There is no record of whether Miss Mercer knew what happened to those six family slaves, and no record has surfaced of any further shiploads of slaves sent to Liberia under her aegis.

We do know that in 1836, she heard from at least one of her cousins that Loudoun County's Ludwell Lee had died and that his 1,000-plus-acre plantation, Belmont, was for sale. Lee and the Rev. John Mines, pastor of Leesburg Presbyterian Church, had organized the Loudoun chapter of the American Colonization Society in December 1817.

Miss Mercer moved to Belmont that summer and opened a new school in the fall. In December, she bought 400 acres of Belmont from the Lee estate for $7,000, the equivalent of about $150,000 today, an indication that the manor house was in poor condition.

The acreage had particular appeal because she wanted to emphasize the importance of agriculture at her new Belmont Academy. An education in agriculture could lessen dependence on slave labor. She also was an avid outdoors person and a talented painter of flowers and landscapes. Several hang in museums.

Along with agriculture, Belmont's curriculum offered several courses in philosophy, ethics, the Bible, French, Latin and the sciences -- including geography, geology and astronomy. She required her students to master a core of 33 books, and many of the titles match the core discipline of the Great Books curriculum now at the St. John's colleges in Annapolis and Santa Fe, N.M.

Her students were mainly daughters of the southern gentry, and they paid $250 ($5,000 today) for a year's tuition. Board was a nominal $10 a month. With an initial enrollment of 10 paying students and five indigents, Belmont developed a reputation for academic excellence and moral instruction that soon increased the number to more than 45.

At one time, she employed seven teachers, including her main assistant, the widow Ann Wampler, who had taught with Miss Mercer at her Maryland school. Wampler's young son, John Morris Wampler, was the only boy to attend Belmont Academy. He would later achieve Civil War fame as a topographical engineer and mapmaker for the Confederate cause.

On Sundays, Miss Mercer's students studied the Bible under her tutelage, and she sometimes invited George Adie, rector of St. James' Episcopal Church in Leesburg, to give a sermon and communion. Each day of the week, Bible study preceded evening prayers.

Concerned about the lack of a local church because St. James' was nearly an hour's journey on horseback, Miss Mercer described the Belmont neighborhood in the late 1830s as "this most uncultivated corner of the Lord's vineyard. I never saw such people. The sabbath profaned."

So she wrote to her cousin John Latrobe and asked him to design a neighborhood chapel, a "simple but tasteful plan, the very cheapest that can be constructed." By 1841, Belmont Chapel was ready for Bible study and services, usually conducted by Adie.

Studying and worshiping with the academy girls and a few local residents were several children of slaves and free Negroes. Services were held in the chapel until 1936. It burned in 1967.

Miss Mercer's students provide the best descriptions of life at Belmont. Sally McCarty noted in her reminiscences: "The great upper chambers were converted into dormitories, each furnished with five double beds accommodating ten girls. For toilet purposes, a round table in the middle of the room served; on this five basins were arranged around a bucket of water provided with a dipper. In winter, we broke the ice for our scanty ablutions.

"At meals a rigid abstemiousness was inculcated; it would have been considered the acme of bad taste to ask for a second helping of anything. . . . One Sunday, after the chicken had been made to go as far as possible, my neighbor at table was served with the carcass, which had the deceptive appearance of a liberal helping.

"Lifting her hands she exclaimed in boarding-school French: 'Oh, ma chere, ma chere!' To which I replied enviously, 'I think it's more than your share.' "

One day in the autumn of 1845, a physician visited Belmont to give the girls smallpox vaccinations, an important procedure to Miss Mercer because she had survived the virus. McCarty composed a poem describing nine girls' reactions to the "pricks":

Says the Dr., "Miss Phenie, & pray how art thee?"

Says, Miss Phenie, "I thank thee, I'm not very well,

And I don't like the looks of that lance I can tell."

Then comes Fanny N., yes, that beautiful girl,

With lips like the ruby, & teeth like the pearl.

She walks modestly forth, and betrays no alarm,

Gently looses up her sleeve and shows a white arm.

Miss Mercer was 55 when she died of tuberculosis at Belmont in September 1846. A fellow teacher, Mary Coudy, who had shared quarters with her, wrote a cousin two weeks later: "For many long & happy years, Miss Mercer has been the light & life of not only the numerous family circle, but of her whole neighborhood.

"Those associated with her enjoyed the privilege of . . . an intellect ever strong, bright & clear, a disposition of unusual cheerfulness, a heart always full of tenderness, ever sympathizing in all our joys and sorrows.

"Her very look and smile seemed to carry a blessed influence with it, and when she was surrounded by the girls who always gathered around her in the evening in the hour of recreation, every word that fell from her lips seemed to be valued."

Coudy mentioned in the letter that before Miss Mercer died, she asked that the school continue, and under the tutelage of a neighbor, Eugenia Kephart, it prospered for 12 years at Belmont, then the home of Miss Mercer's older brother, John.

In 1856, the school moved to Oak Hill, now called Dodona Manor and better known as the former Leesburg home of Gen. George C. Marshall in the 1940s and 1950s. There, the school closed in the early 1870s.

Soon after Miss Mercer's death, a memorial was built in the Belmont Chapel churchyard. Although her remains were later removed to Cedar Park, the memorial remains. Its inscription reads:

"Sacred to the memory of Margaret Mercer, born July 1, 1791; died September 17, 1846. Her remains repose beneath the chancel of this church, built by her own self-denying labours. This monument is erected by her pupils as a testimony of their admiration of her elevated Christian character, and of their gratitude for her invaluable instructions."

Not until 1885 did Miss Mercer receive her first slight from Loudoun's public schools. In that year's Virginia School Report, a detailed re{acute}sume{acute} of past county private and public schools made no mention of hers. The author of the re{acute}sume{acute} was a former Confederate colonel, William Giddings, the Loudoun school superintendent.

In 1998, she received her second. A committee had proposed, 7 to 1, to name a new public school near Belmont, in Ashburn Farms, after her. But the School Board voted, 7 to 2, to cashier the name and instead chose Stone Bridge. The bridge, five miles from the new high school, had caved in after Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972.

Eugene Scheel is a Waterford historian and mapmaker.

Margaret Mercer, seen in a copy of an 1846 daguerreotype, promoted the education of young women. She died at 55. A map from 1853 shows the Belmont Plantation where Margaret Mercer lived moved in 1836 and opened a school for girls.A copy of a watercolor of Belmont Chapel by A. Bernisen hangs in St. David's Episcopal Church in Ashburn.A map from 1853 shows an etching of a memorial to Margaret Mercer.