Lesson 5: Founding of the Laurel Grove School and Other "Colored" Schools in Fairfax County, 1860-1890

Historical Background

Though more than a decade had passed since Virginia had initiated a public education system, Laurel Grove was not started by the local school board.  It was not started by the state superintendent.  Neither was it begun by the Freedmen’s Bureau nor by Northern philanthropists.  Instead former slaves built the school.  Parents, grandparents, and neighbors donated the land, materials, and labor.  They found teachers in their own community, and they sustained the place of learning.  As they did so, their hopes, no doubt, soared, as they dreamed that their children might gain access to a better life than they thought possible for themselves. 

They did so because they recognized that literacy brought more power to defend their status as freed people, more expertise to help them buy property and start businesses, more independence in religious instruction, and more means to live an independent life.  Indeed, literacy shaped African-American identity and informed their conceptions of citizenship, freedom, and success.  Their determination and appreciation of education persisted even as former slave owners regained their hold of economic, political, and social institutions.  Though they lost the vote and other rights, they still ensured through their limited resources that the end of Reconstruction would not spell the end of black education.  Our national memory of black schools in segregation is deficient, however, if we only remember the harsh injustices.  As Vanessa Siddle Walker has argued in her study of an African-American school in North Carolina, a more complete picture also acknowledges the fond memories, good instruction, and parental support.  This account of Laurel Grove recognizes both and hence contributes to a historiography of the Jim Crow era that is dynamic, complex, and alert to the cruel deeds and rigid system fashioned by the oppressors as well as the creative ingenuity and resiliency of the oppressed.  Laurel Grove and the other “colored” schools founded at this time contributed to the educational achievements of African Americans.  Historian James Anderson documents that across the South the African American illiteracy rate dropped from 95 percent in 1860 to 70 percent in 1880.  By 1910, it fell to 30 percent. 

Laurel Grove, which eventually became a part of the town of Franconia, is situated in the north-central part of Fairfax County.  In the 1880s, the area, though close to the bustling grounds of Alexandria and Washington, D.C., was sparsely populated.  Dairy herds brought farmers the largest revenue, but many, including Winnie Walker Spencer’s grandfather William Jasper, cultivated small plots of vegetables for their families and sold the surplus in Alexandria markets.  Jasper and a few other free black farmers had settled in the region before the Civil War.  Their small parcels intermixed with larger plots possessed by white farmers.  After the war, the neighborhood, unlike some of the more heavily populated black communities in Fairfax County that emerged during Reconstruction, never drew a large number of African-American residents.

Common to many black schools in the South, Laurel Grove was linked to a church, in this case the Baptist church.  For some time, this small group of black farmers and laborers gathered occasionally for open air services near a grove of laurel.  Some, including Jasper who owned the land where the laurel grew, also worshipped at Alexandria’s Alfred Street Baptist Church.  But walking the almost twenty-mile round trip proved onerous.  Attending the nearby white church was not an option, so the neighbors, together with Alexandria pastor L. W. Brooks, established their own house of worship and called it Laurel Grove Baptist.  Before erecting a sanctuary, however, the congregation, led by four church trustees—Middleton Braxton, George Carroll, Thornton Gray, and William Jasper—created a school for their children.

Though sketchy, the historical record reveals some about these four trustees.  All were native to Fairfax County.  All farmed.  Middleton Braxton, born in 1853, married Mary Daggs in 1875 and had at least three children.  George Carroll, born a couple years after Braxton, was the son of Jane Carroll.  She had been a slave of Dennis Johnston, a very large slaveholder.  In 1856, Johnston’s heirs freed the Carroll family and allowed them to farm ten acres.  This area and land purchases after the Civil War by George Carroll and his wife, Hattie, eventually became known as Carrolltown and lay but a few miles from Laurel Grove.  The older trustees, William Jasper—son of Morris and Eliza Jasper—and Thornton Gray—son of Thomzen Gray—were both born around the time that the United States was embroiled in the War of 1812 and not long after America closed its doors to the international slave trade.  

Gray, described in 1834 as “a Darke Mulatto about . . . Six feet one Inch High, a Scar over the left eye, a Scar under the . . . lip, a Scar on the thum of the right Hand,” was the “son of Thomzen, a free woman Emancipated by General George Washington.”  Unlike Gray, Jasper was born a slave and worked for his master, William Hayward Foote, at Hayfield Plantation.  Foote, a very prosperous farmer and lawyer, owned land that had once been a part of Mount Vernon.  Jasper’s duties likely included farming his master’s wheat or tending his cattle, sheep, or hogs.  Or perhaps he served as a blacksmith, carpenter, or cooper.  He may also have plied his trades and rented himself out to gain a little cash.  Whatever his assignments on or off the plantation, he escaped what many Virginia slaves feared most:  he was not separated from his kin and sold south to work on a cotton or sugar plantation.  When Foote died in 1846, his will freed his slaves, including Jasper, his wife, Sarah, and at least two of their children.

Thus, before the Civil War, at least three of the church trustees were free blacks.  While this freedom did not equal the freedom of their white neighbors—laws certainly constricted their economic, political, and social mobility—Gray and Jasper made the most of their opportunities.  By 1860, each managed to acquire property and farm.  Gray established his family on five acres.  Across the road, William Jasper purchased his 13 acres from a white slaveowner in 1860.

When the Laurel Grove community decided to create a school, they first needed land.  Jasper responded by deeding one-half acre to the Mount Vernon School District in 1881.  Other black families donated lumber.  Most likely, church treasurer George Carroll was one of several who, after finishing his daily farm chores, felled trees and hauled logs to the school site.  Then neighbors erected an A-frame school house that typified the era. Hence with their own land, lumber and labor, these parents expressed hope that African-American liberties and status could be enlarged at the school door. 

About the time Laurel Grove students first entered the classroom, the congregation constructed a church.  Again, Jasper deeded a half-acre to church trustees and made it possible for the fledgling group to situate its two fundamental institutions side by side. Sacrificing one of his acres testified to the importance he placed on religion and education.  For close to fifty years, the school served African-American children within a five-mile radius, and the community, with slim state and county support, maintained operations.

When Laurel Grove School opened its doors in the mid-1880s, it became one of about 80 schools operating in Fairfax County, eleven of which were “colored.”  Hence, though black people made up 33% of the population, only 14% of the schools served them.  Just six of all schools had more than one room and only 35 percent of school-aged children attended.  In the Mount Vernon School District, Laurel Grove was one of five black schools in 1890.  The others were Gum Springs, Gunston, Springbank, and Woodlawn.  Gum Springs was the oldest, starting in 1865 in the Bethlehem Baptist Church.  In 1867, the Freedmen’s Bureau and Woodlawn Quakers helped the community erect a school building on land donated by African American Jane Ford Rogers.  Quakers also helped establish Woodlawn School in 1871.

Teacher reports testified to the enthusiasm black parents and community members felt for the Gum Springs School, but many in the white community exhibited a different response.  Superintendent Orrin E. Hine reported that public sentiment did not favor the education of freed people or poor whites:  “[I]t is barely tolerated and would not be if it were not from fear of punishment.”  Black teachers complained repeatedly of white harassment.  Numerous resignation letters to the Superintendent of the Freedmen’s Bureau testified of the difficulties.  In Gum Springs there was a new teacher every year.  Other places in Fairfax County also had problems.  Angry individuals engaged in “malicious burning” of the black school near Frying Pan and the “breaking up” of the one by Lewinsville.   In 1864, Betsy Read and her father, J.D. Read, started the Falls Church School in one of Fairfax’s three black enclaves called “The Hill.”  Shortly after opening the school, a group of enraged Confederate Rangers killed him.  Betsy, fearing for her life, fled.

Laurel Grove School, though faced with inadequate facilities and resources, apparently escaped these violent actions.  Still, Laurel Grove residents would have surely known of the violence and felt the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the county.  The Klan, hoping to reinstate the antebellum social order through fear and intimidation, organized in Fairfax shortly after black men exercised voting privileges and cast ballots for delegates to the constitutional convention in 1867.  Since Jasper and Gray were among those who voted the Radical ticket and helped send a Radical delegation to Richmond, they probably felt the anger of their area’s former slave owners.

Jasper’s children were probably some of the first students to attend Laurel Grove School.  Though Jasper farmed his same acreage in the 1880s, his family life had changed.  Sarah had died, and in 1869, William married Georgianna Jackson at Alexandria’s Theological Seminary.  A year later the couple gave birth to Richard, the first of two children.  Five years later, their daughter, Georgianna, completed the family.  These two possibly sat in the first class alongside several of Gray’s eight children.

The first teachers of Laurel Grove were African-American women.  So were the last.  Indeed, it is likely, that all of the school’s instructors were female, given the feminization of the teaching profession, the black community’s reliance on black women as teachers and the fact that teaching was the only professional role open to black women.  In 1890, women comprised 66 percent of the total number of teachers nationwide; in 1920, 86 percent of all teachers were women.   In 1910, 76 percent of black teachers were women.  

To become a teacher in Fairfax County was fairly easy.  The county superintendent gave the exam and rarely rejected a teacher who failed.  Nepotism was common.  Still, teachers complained.  Lillian W. Millan, a white teacher in Fairfax white schools, started teaching in 1891 and recalled the certification process with little fondness:  “At first the questions were prepared by our County Superintendent, Mr. M.D. Hall, but later on they were sent out from Richmond.  It was always a trying ordeal to take the examination and we usually did a lot of cramming beforehand which always turned out to be about things we were never asked to tell.”

Pedagogical training for teachers began in Virginia in the 1870s.  The 1869 Constitution required the Board of Education to establish state normal schools as soon as possible.  State Superintendent Ruffner started the process by hosting summer institutes and county meetings.  By the beginning of the 1880s, the state opened segregated Normal Colleges for whites and blacks.  These schools joined the existing Hampton Institute in training teachers.  The Peabody Fund, a northern philanthropy, helped facilitate these institutes.  For rural teachers who lacked even basic equipment, these institutes sometimes demanded remarkable creativity.  Teachers at a Virginia Institute asked, “How can you teach drawing with a two-by-four-blackboard?”  At another institute in South Carolina, an instructor explained:  “We strove, too, to avoid another mischievous mistake:  the mistake of supposing that expensive apparatus, or, indeed, furniture of any kind (blackboards excepted), are necessary to the illustration of most of the teaching of our common schools.”  The teacher continued with examples of resourcefulness:  “A base ball did duty in explaining the motions of the earth; . . . sand spread on the floor did duty as relief maps; pebbles picked up on the school grounds furnished the basis of a talk on common sense.”

In the 1880s and 1890s, when the state was in a better position financially, public sentiment swung more in favor of education.  Still, in comparison with northern schools, Virginia and the rest of the south disappointed in every category.  Thirty years after the inauguration of public education, Virginia schoolchildren were in school about half the time their peers in New England were.  While Massachusetts spent $37.76 on each child per year, Virginia spent $9.70.  Nationally, the average value of school property per child stood at $24.  Virginia spent five dollars.  Massachusetts spent $61.  Virginia teachers made an average of $168 while those in Kansas made $236 and those in Massachusetts made $566.  For blacks the situation was far worse.  On average, Virginia’s African-American children received one-third as much school money as the average white child.  They had fewer schools, fewer teachers, poorer facilities, and shorter terms.  In 1908, seats existed for only 50 percent of black children compared to 83 percent for white children.  As historian Louis Harlan concluded, “Considerable evidence supports the charge of W.E.B. DuBois that ‘enforced ignorance’ was ‘one of the inevitable expedients for fastening serfdom on the country Negro.’  By ‘determined effort. . . Negro schools had been made less efficient than twenty years earlier.’”