Less than nine months after vandals defaced the Ashburn Colored School by spray-painting it with racist graffiti, a Virginia historical marker has been installed near the front entrance of the gleaming white building.
The marker came about through the efforts of a group of seventh-grade students at Farmwell Station Middle School who selected it as a project for their social studies class in the fall. They cleared hurdles at local and state levels to obtain grant funding for the marker and win approval from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which installed the marker Monday.
“As an African American student, it means so much that I have the opportunity to bring this school back into the light,” Ashlee Brown, one of the students who worked on the social studies project, said during a brief dedication ceremony Tuesday.
The marker says the one-room school was built about 1892, during the era of segregation, and served African American students until 1958. Loudoun County records indicate the property was sold the following year.
For decades, the school building sat unused and almost unnoticed off Ashburn Road, at the edge of Old Ashburn. Ashlee’s mother, Shamaine Henderson, said in an interview that she remembered seeing it, boarded up and abandoned, when she attended a small church that formerly stood next to the school.
The school returned to the public eye early last year, when the Loudoun School for the Gifted announced plans to restore the dilapidated structure. It made the news again in the fall, when the vandals struck. Five teenage boys pleaded guilty to the crime and received sentences requiring them to educate themselves about the devastating effects of hate speech.
The community responded quickly to the vandalism. About $100,000 in donations poured in, and volunteers applied a fresh coat of white paint during a “community restoration celebration” less than two weeks after the crime.
Clyde P. Smith, chairman of the Virginia Board of Historic Resources, told those gathered at the dedication ceremony that the vandals might have unwittingly done the school a favor.
“In some bizarre way, I want to thank the . . . guys that came here and messed up this building, because it made us focus a little bit on this whole racism issue,” Smith said. “It’s interesting how it brought the community together.”
The idea for a historical marker came from Farmwell Station social studies teacher Anthony Dodson, who decided that it would make a good hands-on civics lesson. He asked students to think about what person, place or event deserved the next marker in Loudoun County.
“The kids were then unleashed to go research all they could on Loudoun County history,” he said.
They formed small groups, each of which came up with an idea for a marker, researched it and developed a proposal, including the text to be displayed. Ten groups presented their proposals to a panel of judges, and the Ashburn Colored School was the top choice, Dodson said.
Ashlee said that she had learned about the school from her parents, and that she persuaded her group to choose it for the project. Other members of the group were Ben Bressette, Dheeman Sinha, Jackson Vickers, Quin Dumouchelle, Natasha Holecek, Jordan Clark and Colin Kolb.
“Then, we sent the application to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and waited and waited and waited and waited,” Dodson said. On March 16, they were informed that the application had been approved.
“I never imagined it being this successful,” he said.
Group member Ben Bressette told those who attended the dedication that the students who worked on the project “are of many different races and religions, proving that our country has changed drastically 50 years later.” He added that the vandalism shows that the country has not yet changed completely.
Ashlee said her mother and other family members had taught her to “remember the generations on whose shoulders you stand.”
“They tell me stories of how much pain and suffering they endured, as well as the determination my people . . . displayed just to get an education,” she said. “The educational facilities were not equal, nor [were] the materials or resources. However, my people valued a chance to learn.
“We wanted — and want — an equal education to work, to excel,” she said. “We are not a lazy people. We aspire to have good-paying jobs, to work not only with our hands, but to lead with our minds and intellect.”