The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She found her father’s segregated schoolhouse decaying in the Va. woods. Now, it is on the way to being saved.

Kimberly Morris at the Old Dawn School, which had been abandoned for decades when she found it in December 2020 in a wooded area of Dawn, Va., just outside Hanover. (Mary Chiaramonte Carroll)
7 min

The dilapidated wooden, one-room schoolhouse is more than a century old, with a torn-up floor, a precarious roof and missing windows.

It is an unexpected treasure Kimberly Morris found in the woods of Virginia’s Caroline County, the result of years of research about her ancestors. Her own father attended the school.

“This is my family’s history,” said Morris, a genealogy hobbyist from Richmond, who is working on a book about her family going back to the early 1800s, when her ancestors were enslaved.

Her father, Isaiah Morris, attended the segregated school starting in the 1930s until he was 10 or 11, she said. His classmates were other students who were descendants of enslaved people in the Richmond area.

“My great-grandfather and my great-grandmother were born into slavery, and my great-great-grandparents were also slaves,” said Morris, who is in her early 50s.

It is unclear when the building stopped being a schoolhouse and fell into ruin, but it has sat neglected for years in a wooded area in the community of Dawn, Va.

Until Morris discovered it.

“Here I was, looking at an important piece of my father’s past,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that the school he went to as a little boy was still standing.”

She had wondered for years about the school her dad often reminisced about before his death in 2017 at age 87.

“I remember him talking about living in the country and walking in the woods to get to school every day and how much fun he had going there with his cousins,” she said. “I always wondered what the school looked like.”

Her father went on to work in Richmond at the same job for 35 years until he retired, said Morris, who declined to discuss specifics of his occupation because of her mother’s wishes for privacy.

In late 2020 while Morris was doing research for her book, one of her elderly relatives recalled the name of the rural country road that led to the Old Dawn schoolhouse that her father had attended.

An older cousin told her the road was not far away, perhaps 20 or so minutes from where Morris lived in Richmond.

Her dad died. So her favorite NFL star took her to the father-daughter dance.

“I set off to look for it, and I was amazed to find it in 30 minutes,” said Morris. “Because the trees were bare, it was easy to see from the road.”

She followed a short pathway into the woods — probably the same one her father took — and ended up at the ramshackle school building. It was no trouble to peek inside, she said, because the doors and windows of the school were missing.

She knew it was the schoolhouse because it was on the road her cousin told her to take, and it was just as her relatives had described it, she said. It was also the only structure in the area.

“It was an emotional moment to realize that it was still there after all these years,” she said. “I pictured my dad playing with his cousins and sitting outside to eat his lunch. All that history came home.”

Morris said she did some research to find out who owned the property and then got permission from the landowner before exploring inside. She said nobody knows why the building has been vacant and abandoned for so long.

“I cried some happy tears when I saw that little building in the woods,” said Morris.

Her father often spoke fondly of the school when she and her three siblings were growing up in Richmond, said Morris. He was the youngest of nine children born to parents who were farmers on their own land in the rural community of Dawn, just outside Hanover.

Crossing guard was hit by a car as she shoved a student out of the way: ‘You got to protect that child.’

Now, because of her discovery of the 20-by-30-foot wood-framed school, it’s on the way to being preserved.

“It needs to be stabilized or it’s going to fall in,” she said. “Now that I’ve found it, I want to see that it’s cared for.”

She learned that the Old Dawn School, as it was known in the early 1900s, is also an important part of Virginia’s Black American history.

The abandoned schoolhouse is one of several historic schools in southern Caroline County for Black students who were descendants of enslaved people, said Sonja Ingram, associate director of preservation field services for Preservation Virginia in Richmond.

Every year, the privately-funded organization selects about 10 historic buildings in Virginia to preserve through its Endangered Historic Places Program, she said. Last year, the Old Dawn School was chosen after Morris nominated it.

No decisions have been made yet about how they will preserve the school, but Ingram noted there are grants available to fund the restoration of historical buildings.

Preservation Virginia recently started working with the landowner, who does not live on the property, to stabilize the crumbling structure, she said.

“We’re really happy that Kimberly brought this to our attention,” Ingram said. “She’s passionate about it, and you can tell [the school] means a lot to her. When she talks about history and her ancestors, her eyes glow.”

Morris, who works in the finance industry in Richmond, said her quest to research her family’s history was years in the making.

“History was my favorite subject in school, and I’ve been curious about my own family’s personal history since I was a girl,” she said. “I always wanted to know more.”

Historical records in Virginia show that there were once two large plantations in the area that enslaved people, North Wales and Meadow Farm. Some of the descendants of the enslaved people who lived there attended the Old Dawn School.

“The little school my dad went to in the 1930s produced [horse] grooms, farmers, railroad workers and millworkers who all contributed to making Caroline County what it is today,” said Morris. “The building deserves to be saved.”

The Old Dawn School, also known as School No. 4, was probably built in the 1910s, about a decade before educator and presidential adviser Booker T. Washington campaigned to improve the quality of education for Black children in the South, said Ingram.

Washington worked with philanthropist businessman Julius Rosenwald to build more than 5,000 rural “Rosenwald” schools across the United States and more than 360 in the Virginia commonwealth, between 1917 and 1932, she said.

The Old Dawn School is not a Rosenwald school, but the construction is similar, noted Ingram.

“At the time, the public school system was segregated and they were supposed to abide by a ‘separate but equal’ policy, but it was not equal at all,” she said.

“A lot of these early Black schools were built by people in the community who often paid for a third of the school in many cases,” Ingram added. “The schools are symbolic of the struggles Black families had to go through during that time to educate their children.”

After Morris nominated the schoolhouse as an endangered building, Preservation Virginia placed a tarp over the roof to prevent further damage while plans are worked out for preserving the structure.

There has been local interest in the schoolhouse since a Richmond television station reported on Morris’s discovery earlier this month, she said.

Mary Chiaramonte Carroll, who is a friend of Ingram’s, recently completed a portrait of Morris, imagining her as a schoolteacher in the late 1800s.

“I stood in front of the school while she took my picture, and it was like going back in time,” said Morris.

“Realizing all the history that had happened there with my dad was an incredible thing,” she said. “It was everything.”

Read more:

He saw a man in a four-second news clip — who turned out to be the brother he never knew he had

Horses were trapped in the Colorado fire. This couple rode into the flames to save them in the dead of the night.

A stranger bought this Broadway star a ticket years ago when he couldn’t afford it. They just reunited.

Have a story for Inspired Life? Here’s how to submit.