With the oldest of her nine children pushing her wheelchair Sunday, 84-year-old Yvonne Thornton Neal took in the one-room schoolhouse where she and other African American children had attended first through seventh grades during segregation.
“Oh my goodness!” Neal exclaimed before pointing to a place in the front where a potbellied stove once stood. “Oooh wee!”
Neal hadn’t been inside the tiny Ashburn Colored School in Northern Virginia since 1945. She recalled the hour-long walk that she and her 14 siblings had made there each day, often with their father carrying them through the mud because the school buses took only white children.
Much has changed in seven decades, but a week ago, vandals left a reminder of an ugly past. Someone had spray-painted the historic Loudoun County schoolhouse with obscenities, swastikas and a message of “white power.”
“I burst into tears,” Neal said of her reaction when she heard about the vandalism. “I wondered why anyone would harm such a beautiful place that had stood for so many years.”
But Sunday morning, Neal was smiling as hundreds of volunteers painted over the graffiti, scrubbed mold from the classroom’s baseboards and spread fresh mulch out front. More than 300 people turned out for what organizers called a “community restoration celebration” intended not just to help save a 124-year-old schoolhouse, but to form a united front against hate.
By early afternoon, the faded wood building had a fresh coat of white primer and more than $64,000 in new contributions toward its continued restoration.
“It shows love — love by everyone who has made this possible,” said Neal, of Manassas, beaming as a dozen volunteers looked on. “It’s just unbelievable. It shows we are still so loved by so many people.”
Authorities announced last week that five Loudoun teenagers would be charged in connection with the graffiti.
Deep Sran, founder of the Loudoun School for the Gifted, said the event stemmed from the “enormous frustration” his school and others in the community felt upon hearing about the vandalism. The private school recently bought the empty schoolhouse, which operated from 1892 to the late 1950s, and an adjoining parcel on Ashburn Road, where it plans to build a new campus. The school’s students have been working on the schoolhouse restoration for two years and plan to open it as part of a museum.
News of the vandalism that was discovered Oct. 1 spread quickly via social media and in the international press, and Sran said the school has been overwhelmed with offers of help from across the United States. Sunday’s event, he said, was intended to show a swift community response.
“There was a sense of frustration and anger, but the larger sense was, ‘We’re not going to let this stand. This is not our community,’ ” Sran said.
Local businesses donated food, dumpsters, paint and other supplies. Volunteers shoveled rocks to spread around the foundation and climbed ladders to paint the wood siding.
Many volunteers said they came both to help the schoolhouse and to combat feelings of being demoralized amid growing racial tension across the country in a particularly contentious election season.
Nicole Fulgham, 47, a Lansdowne resident, said she felt compelled to bring her 10-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, after she was “outraged” upon hearing about the vandalism and then moved by the outpouring of community support.
“I think what gets more attention in our country right now is the negative,” Fulgham said. “It can make you almost feel that it’s the majority of our country, but it’s not. This act was horrible, but it was [by] a small number of people, and there are hundreds of people here to make things right.”
Melanie and Christopher Starks of Ashburn brought their 3- and 4-year-old sons. The vandalism, they said, was out of character for a community they chose in part for its diversity and high levels of education.
“It’s a little sobering for someone raising two black sons,” Christopher Starks, 36, said. “You move to an area like Ashburn to sort of insulate your kids from this.”
“We were pretty distressed about the whole thing,” Melanie Starks, 37, added. “This was too close to home to be happening.”
Gwyneth McCrae, 17, a senior at the Loudoun School for the Gifted, said she cried when she heard about the vandalism.
“I was just taken aback that we’d put two years of effort into [restoring] it, and someone decided to spend 20 minutes vandalizing it,” McCrae said. “I definitely think it’s good to draw attention to it to let people know that this kind of behavior still happens.”
Ironically, McCrae and others said, the vandals have ended up helping the project. Because of the public attention and the new donations via the project’s GoFundMe site, the schoolhouse’s restoration has been sped up by about two years. Sran said he hopes to open it to the public by summer 2017.
The schoolhouse already has something new: a security system.