The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A lost history, recovered: Faded records tell the story of school segregation in Virginia

Photos kept for decades by Ethel Rae Stewart Smith chronicle her years teaching black students in a two-room schoolhouse in rural Virginia. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The two-room schoolhouse sat deep in rural Virginia in 1956, at the height of segregation. The temperature dwindled to single digits.

Ethel Rae Stewart Smith, who taught two dozen black children in that schoolhouse, had run out of coal for the potbelly stove. She thought back to a visit, years earlier, from the white superintendent, Oscar Emerick. She recalled his promise: “If you need anything,” he had said, surveying her school, “don’t fail to let me know.”

She reached for a pen.

“Dear Mr. Emerick,” the 28-year-old teacher wrote, “please send some coal up right away. All we have left is dirt and that doesn’t half burn.”

Half a century later, Smith’s words have emerged through the discovery of more than 10,000 pages of records capturing the history of Loudoun County’s all-black, rural schoolhouses between the end of the Civil War and desegregation in the 1970s. The records, left to molder for decades in an abandoned building, include report cards, curriculums, class rosters, health and insurance records, photographs and faded maps.

Since 2016, an all-volunteer team of Loudoun residents, historians and high school students has sifted through the musty, dusty pages to distill an almost-lost history. The documents — unearthed by school officials acting on a tip — are probably the largest collection of black school records found anywhere in the nation, historians say.

Typically, as integration approached, these kinds of papers disappeared: buried, burned or stuffed in out-of-the-way places, never to be recovered, said Vanessa Siddle Walker, an Emory University professor and expert on segregated education.

It has never been proved that the vanishing of the records, often undertaken by white officials, was intentional or coordinated, she said. Still, it had far-reaching consequences: From the 1970s through today, she said, the historical narrative of segregated black education — as taught in most classrooms — has centered on the schools’ inadequacy.

Generations of young Americans have learned only about secondhand materials and dilapidated buildings, Walker said.

“If there are no records, then the history of success — of agency, petitions, all of that — it cannot exist in the American imagination or memory,” she said. “If there are no records, then you can wipe away children’s history. A people’s history.”

At the end of this year, the team of volunteers in Virginia, called the Edwin Washington Project, plans to publish two books, a dozen articles, an online database and a digital map summarizing its findings. The volunteers will focus on the little-recognized efforts of black parents and educators, like Smith, to demand a quality education for their children, despite substantial risk.

In Virginia and across the South, speaking up for black students’ rights could lead to firings, church burnings and even lynchings, said Larry Roeder, a Loudoun County historian who founded the project and leads it.

“And yet they would write petitions to the white government saying, ‘We want this,’ and they signed their names to it,” Roeder said. “America needs to know about this.”

The Loudoun County records, though comprehensive, do not contain Emerick’s response to Smith, whose school in Upperville was near the border between Loudoun and Fauquier counties. But they do record the outcome.

A few days later, she got her coal.

'We had to save them'

When Donna Kroiz accepted a job as Loudoun County’s first student records manager in 2004 — the year the division formed a records department — older co-workers congratulated her. Then, many asked variations of the same question: Do you know about the papers hidden in the Union Street School?

A few months on, Kroiz gathered two colleagues, drove to Leesburg and unlocked the historic black elementary school, converted to storage in the 1950s and later left to nature. Propping the door open to light her way, she encountered dust so thick you could shovel it. Above, the second floor yawned with holes. Underfoot were animal droppings.

Spilled across the room were more than a dozen white cardboard boxes, undisturbed for decades.

“We realized what we’d found when we saw the names of schools,” Kroiz said. “We’re all longtime Loudoun County residents — I’m seventh generation on my farm — so we recognized the schools.”

The three women began loading the boxes into Kroiz’s green pickup truck, bound for the basement of a nearby administrative building. The move took two weeks, and the records reeked, but the trio was determined: “We had to save them,” Kroiz said — a determination born when she spotted her grandmother’s name, midway down a list of teachers.

Kroiz, like her two colleagues, is white: Some of the Loudoun County records come from white schools, others from black schools. The twin sets of documents, Roeder said, allow the Edwin Washington Project to draw important parallels.

“We’re comparing black books to white books, the black day to the white day,” Roeder said. “Black education is the focus, but to do it properly, we have to document both.”

Evidence of inequity peppers draft versions of the project’s research. In a 136-page spreadsheet recording the physical conditions of roughly 250 schoolhouses in Loudoun County between the 1860s and 1968, white schools earn entries such as “8 room brick,” “6 high school rooms on ten acres” or “7 room. Wood. Windows and steam heat.”

The fortunate Middleburg School boasted six rooms, an auditorium and, by 1940, “had water and plumbing” and was in “good condition.”

Comments beside the names of black schools tell another story.

“One story, metal roof. . . . No electricity or water.”

“One room frame . . . in 1922/23 had an American Flag. . . . 20.5’ by 30.’ ”

“One room with coal stove . . . and [a] bucket.”

The entry for the Nokes School is just one word: “Shanty.”

Roeder, a retired State Department employee with expertise in document preservation, got involved after Loudoun County administrators contacted him several years ago. He had just completed a study of the Conklin Colored School, and officials wanted to know if he would do the same thing — for the entire county.

That’s impossible, Roeder scoffed. Then: “They just showed me box after box.”

The school system donated workspace in Round Hill, Va., and Roeder recruited roughly 35 volunteers, from teenagers to retirees. Four years later, the group — named for Edwin Washington, whom their research revealed was probably the first black teenager to attend school in Loudoun County while also holding down a full-time job — is about halfway done processing its cache of documents.

Project members, trained by Roeder, clean each fragile sheet (sometimes donning face masks to avoid swallowing dust), classify it by content and digitize it using a scanner. As the group works during the next year to finalize reports — including books, essays and a public database of every historic black school in the county — each volunteer is devoted to a specific aspect of the research.

Mallika Lakshminarayan, 18, and Emily Branch, 17, are studying end-of-term reports to better understand conditions inside and outside schoolhouses. The Broad Run High School students juggle their project duties with an onslaught of homework, exam-cramming and college applications.

They squeeze in project work on weekends, analyzing PDF copies of records in their bedrooms and Skyping each other for encouragement.

It helps having a partner, the students said. The reading is sometimes rough.

“The bathrooms in black schools were so often just pits, holes in the ground,” said Branch, twisting in her chair to look at Lakshminarayan at the project’s offices last month.

Lakshminarayan bit her lip.

“There was one with no roofs,” she said. “So, like — what happened in winter?”

'The point is the persistence'

The state of black schools in Loudoun County — one of the last corners of the United States to desegregate — mirrors conditions faced by black students throughout the South, experts said. Rural schools proliferated below the Mason-Dixon Line after emancipation: some built by the Freedmen’s Bureau, others by African American churches and still others, called Rosenwald schools, through a partnership between businessman Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington.

By the 1930s, 1 in 3 black children in the South attended a Rosenwald school.

“A little-remembered school in a rural setting is . . . representative of the education of most blacks during the first half of the twentieth century,” Walker wrote in her 1996 book, “Their Highest Potential.”

To write that book, and other texts on segregated education, Walker remembers having to crisscross the country in search of records from schools that educated black students. The paucity of documentation, Walker said, has rendered most histories of black education anecdotal, reliant on interviews with alumni.

That, she hopes, is changing.

“People are starting to realize these documents matter,” Walker said. “I think we’ll find more of them.”

The Loudoun County collection, said historian Ralph Buglass, marks an excellent start. Buglass — a board member of the Country School Association of America, a nonprofit that works to preserve rural schools — compared the Edwin Washington Project papers to a shawl once owned by Harriet Tubman, now on display at a D.C. museum.

“History relies on artifacts to tell the story,” Buglass said. “This is an absolute firsthand account: You have actual documents of teachers asking for additional supplies, logs for the wood stove.”

Dave Prebich, a 69-year-old retired Internal Revenue Service employee, drives 40 minutes round-trip to Round Hill every week in service of that goal. Prebich is sorting through 73 petitions sent by black teachers, mothers and fathers to white school officials between 1922 and 1956, almost every one seeking improvements.

Some letters ask for running water, others for toilets, still others for transportation to school — which black students, unlike their white peers, lacked until the 1940s, according to Roeder.

“There’s variety in terms of grammar and spelling. . . . They’re written by people who had a third- or fourth-grade education,” Prebich said. “But the point is the persistence.”

The best find so far, volunteers agree, is Ethel Rae Stewart Smith’s 1956 letter. Project members plan to title a forthcoming book, “Dirt Don’t Burn,” in her honor. In 2018, Loudoun County schools held an educational symposium of the same name.

Smith — who, at 92, lives just down the street from the coal-starved classroom where she once taught — could not attend.

She knows about the Edwin Washington Project, Smith said in an interview in her home last month, and commends the push to preserve “what happened a long time ago.”

She remembers writing to Emerick about the coal for what she called the Willisville School. She kept his response; it’s probably tucked away “somewhere in all this,” she said, eyeing the teetering piles of scrapbooks, schoolbooks and photo albums that fill three-quarters of her living room.

Smith, who retired from teaching in 1980, pointed from the edge of a faded floral sofa. She directed her daughter, Lottie Smith Payne, who lives next door, to pick out a square, crimson-colored volume.

As her mother turned yellowed pages, Payne, 62, said Smith taught everyone within a 10-mile radius. Former students still send flowers on Smith’s birthday, Payne said, and walk up whenever they spot Payne at the supermarket.

“It’s always, ‘How’s Ms. Smith? How’s Ms. Smith?’ ” Payne said. “How’s your — ”

“Oh! Here it is,” Smith interrupted. But she was not holding the superintendent’s response. She lifted up a black-and-white photo of a clapboard building. Ranged on the steps to its front door were seven black students: three standing, four sitting, one grinning.

“The seventh-grade graduating class,” Smith said. “From 1956.”

Wouldn’t you rather, she asked without saying a word, look at this?