This crumbling, wood-sided house looks out of place in Ashburn, Va., where the former farming community has been eaten up by fast-growing suburbia. It sits across the street from a convenience store and adjacent to land that soon will be the new campus of the Loudoun School for the Gifted, a small, private school.
But as students from the School for the Gifted have learned, this small building holds a lot of local history. It once housed the Ashburn Colored School, an institution dedicated to educating black children. The one-room schoolhouse — where one teacher taught as many as 50 students ages 6 to 17 — reflects the state’s tormented history of segregation, when black students were barred from attending school with whites and were often given short shrift on textbooks and facilities.
Shailee Sran, an eighth-grader, said that seeing the schoolhouse and feeling the chill of the winter inside the building drove home for her the poor conditions that black students faced, particularly since her school is in a modern office complex.
“We take things like [air conditioning] and heating for granted . . . even more so we take our ease of getting an education and our comfort in the world for granted,” Shailee said. Going from her comfortable modern campus to the one-room schoolhouse offered a lesson in contrasts: “It just presses it home in a way that textbooks really can’t.”
Shailee and a group of her classmates are working to preserve the building, raising funds and consulting preservation experts in the hope of eventually restoring it and opening it to the public so that students can learn more about Ashburn’s educational history. The students will be directing the efforts nearly every step of the way, choosing how to restore the flooring and the windows and attempting to discern what color the structure was originally painted. They have the help of preservation specialists who are volunteering their time to teach the students. And the students are going to meet Yvonne Neal, 83, who attended the school.
“It’s up to four high school students to figure out what it should look like in the end,” said Gwyneth McCrae, a 17-year-old junior. “That’s a lot of pressure.”
The Ashburn Colored School opened in approximately 1892 and did not close until the late 1950s, when Loudoun County built another school for black students. Property records indicate that parts of the building were listed in “poor” condition for three decades before it was closed.
Segregation would persist in Virginia until the late 1960s. The state’s political leaders were the authors of “Massive Resistance,” a strategy to push back against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, when the court struck down school segregation.
Many of the students involved in the project had seen the building but had rarely given it much thought. Situated off of Ashburn Road, it’s easily overlooked.
“Before I started this project I didn’t think there was anything of historical significance in Ashburn,” Shailee said. “It’s a more modern place, with all the data centers.”
It’s likely that others who pass the building grant no more than a passing glance and do not realize its importance in the history of the area’s African Americans. That’s why the project appealed to Kamran Fareedi, a 15-year-old 10th-grader.
“This is an opportunity to explore something that no one really knows about,” Kamran said.