Not too long ago, Virginia law required black and white children to be taught in separate schools.
At Laurel Grove, one of Fairfax County's "colored" schools, as many as 30 black children ages 6 through 14 crammed into one room for lessons from a single teacher. The few textbooks they shared were often filled with hateful slurs and drawings, hand-me-downs from white schools.
"We had to walk five miles to go to school," recalled Marguerite Williams, 70, of Dale City, one of the few surviving students who attended Laurel Grove, which is in the Franconia area. "There was a school closer by, but it wasn't integrated."
Williams is helping a nonprofit group restore Laurel Grove and turn it into a living museum where schoolchildren and others can go to learn what it was like to attend a segregated school in the 1920s.
On Saturday, the Laurel Grove School Association is hosting one of its first events, a lecture on the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. And next month, fourth- and fifth-graders from nearby Lane Elementary School will drop by for what amounts to a trial run of the visits that the association hopes will become frequent.
"We have been doing research for the past two years," said Phyllis Walker-Ford, 55, of Clifton, president of the Laurel Grove School Association. "Just from listening to the students of the 1920s, we were able to discover the importance they felt for education and faith back then, coming here for education and going to the church."
Walker-Ford is a descendant of William Jasper, one of four former slaves who founded Laurel Grove School in 1884. She and the other members of the restoration group have undertaken a study of the post-Civil War era in tracing the beginnings of the school, which housed students in grades 1 to 7. Fairfax had no black high school then.
In the 1880s, Laurel Grove's four founders banded together to fill a need for schools and churches in the Franconia area. A plantation owner named William Foote had freed Jasper and granted him 12 acres. Jasper set aside an acre for a school and church.
Using donated lumber, African American families built the institutions, naming them after the laurel shrubs that dotted the grounds. Today, Laurel Grove Baptist Church still holds services, a link to what was once the close-knit black community of Franconia.
The school is a reminder of the importance that African American parents at that time gave education, a value that persists in many such families today. Parents saw learning as their childrens' ticket out of poverty. The 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. day at schools such as Laurel Grove enabled their children to see beyond their agriculture-based, labor-filled lives.
"We wanted a little education, so we had to walk to try to get it," said Williams, who attended Laurel Grove during the early 1920s until she was 14. "My dad didn't have a full education, just up to the fourth grade. My grandmother didn't have any education at all."
Laurel Grove was part of the Fairfax County public school system through 1933, when the county closed it after the number of students had dwindled to seven. Many of the other 13 "colored" schools stayed open until Fairfax schools were fully desegregated in 1965.
"These schools were enormously important," said Richard Rabinowitz, a historian and president of American History Workshop, a consortium of historians, educators and designers who create museums and education programs around the country. "The teachers, most of whom were women, held extremely high standards for the students, even under impoverished conditions."
Those teachers were paid not quite half of what white teachers earned. In 1920, the cost of educating a white student in Fairfax was $13.29 a year, compared with $6.44 a year for a black child, according to a county history. African American students attended dilapidated schools in most cases, some without drinking water.
To help re-create the experience at Laurel Grove, the nonprofit association has consulted historians such as Rabinowitz. He and his team have conducted an elaborate analysis of Virginia public records and interviewed former students. Laurel Grove is one of the few remaining black schoolhouses in the state.
A routine real estate transaction led to the restoration effort. The land on which Laurel Grove sits had been passed down through Walker-Ford's family for three generations, while the school building had been owned by the Mount Vernon and Fairfax County school districts. In 1954, the Fairfax school district sold the school building at auction to Walker-Ford's aunt, who turned it into a private, two-bedroom house on the 23-acre lot, which the family already owned.
In 2000, the Walker family sold the house and acreage to the Fried Cos., a family-owned, Fairfax-based real estate company. A title search by Fried on the house helped unlock the story of Laurel Grove School.
Leah Fried, executive vice president of the Fried Cos., said that when her mother, Barbara Fried, the company's co-chairman, found out about Laurel Grove's history, "she thought it was a great story and that we needed to save it. . . . We thought this would be a perfect part of Virginia history education."
The Frieds have chipped in money to restore the house as a museum; so far, the association has spent $150,000 on the project and is hoping to raise $100,000 this year.
They also hope to persuade county and state educators to include the story of Laurel Grove in the elementary school history curriculum.
"I think survival of Laurel Grove is a kind of miracle," Rabinowitz said. "African American, Asian, Latino students -- all students -- will encounter one of history's most important stories, the struggle for equality and education. [The founders of Laurel Grove] created an important legacy for everyone."