Full Historical Background
Slavery & Free Negroes, 1800 to 1860
Slavery was primarily a labor system based on oppression and violence. Slaves were forced to work. At the same time, despite the cruelty, slaves created families and culture (song, dance, religion and education). This diverse and complex institution was not static. Instead the dynamic system evolved and changed over time and place. For example, life for a southern Virginia slave working tobacco in 1710 was not the same as life for a northern Virginia slave laboring on a wheat farm in 1850. Contrary to popular conceptions of slavery, many slaves did not pick cotton or live on Gone with the Wind-like plantations. Societies that allowed slavery also varied. In Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, Ira Berlin distinguishes between slave societies where slave labor dominated the economic, political, and social world and societies with slaves – those in which there was not a total dominance of slavery.
In the 1650s and 1660s Virginia and Maryland had been societies with slaves, in which slaves had provided some labor. By the end of seventeenth century, they were being transformed into slave societies, in which slaves formed the bulk of the subordinate labor force. Laws passed in the 1660s had formally recognized slavery and begun to define it in racial terms – clearly distinguishing between black Africans and white workers. In the two decades before slave importation ended in 1808, planters purchased some quarter of a million Africans, doubling the number they imported in the previous two centuries. In the following years, natural reproduction and the internal slave trade replaced importation and met the demand for workers.
In 1830 a significant portion of Virginia slaves worked on small farms, where a laborer might cook one day and hoe cotton the next. On these farms patterns of labor varied from season to season as owners tried to insure profits and, at the same time, cultivate enough food and raw materials to sustain their own families. In such situations, slaves had more direct interaction with owners and could hope that a successful owner might purchase nearby family members. But slaves on small farms faced great danger. One bad season could cause owners to sell slaves to pay off debts, thus breaking up slave families and contributing to the great internal migration of slaves to sugar or cotton plantations in southern states such as Mississippi and Alabama. Alexandria had one of the largest slave markets in the U.S.
By the 1820s and 1830s throughout the Upper South, including Virginia, residents questioned the profitability of slavery. Many farmers turned from tobacco, which did not grow as well in northern Virginia as it did further south, to other crops, such as wheat, that did not require year-round labor. By the 1840s northern Virginia farmers had diversified and were growing wheat, corn, flax, raising hogs, cattle, and sheep. There was a change to smaller farms and to skilled slaves on plantations. Work was differentiated and skilled. With these skills, slaves had greater power and increased opportunities. They had more leverage to negotiate for better living conditions, less work, and some contracted their labor out.
In 1831-32, the Virginia state legislature considered resolutions that supported the gradual emancipation of slaves or their shipment to Africa. The resolutions received a substantial number of votes but failed to pass. This debate and the defeat of the resolutions was the result, in part, of timing, for in 1831 a major slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, erupted in Virginia. Instead of granting freedom, southern masters tightened their grip on blacks, free and enslaved, and on anyone else who challenged their right to own slaves. In Virginia, fearing the influence of antislavery literature, it became illegal to teach slaves to read. Nonetheless, the existence of such a debate suggests the problems Upper South slaveowners faced in sustaining the institutions of slavery.
What was life like for free Negroes in the South? Often free blacks were highly skilled in occupation, lighter in color than in North. While some lived and worked on small farms, most free blacks lived in urban areas and supported themselves as manual laborers, domestics, petty traders, artisans, or small shopkeepers. Often they formed support networks among themselves, founding their own churches and clubs. But after Nat Turner’s rebellion, whites assumed that the freedom of any blacks could stimulate dangerous notions among slaves. The Virginia legislature passed new restrictions on the activities of free blacks, denying them the right to own firearms, be ordained as ministers or meet for worship without the permission of the local white officials. By the 1830s, free blacks in every southern state found their very presence assailed and sometimes banned. Often the laws that limited them became the same as those after the Civil War.
Although free Negroes have been described as more slave than free, they were not a monolithic group, with different circumstances and choices depending on the region they lived in. In the North even without fear of slave revolts free Negroes had limited political rights, but they were allowed to travel freely, organize their own institutions, publish newspapers, and petition and protest. By 1810 the Upper South contained nearly 100,000 free Negroes, who composed about 8 percent of the black population in the region and almost 60 percent of the free blacks in the U.S. Thereafter repression slowed the number and the proportion declined. Some were freed by their masters who began to see slavery as inconsistent with the principles of the new Republic or who lost economic incentive to keep slaves. In the South there was less immigrant labor competition than in the North, so free blacks had higher economic standing than in the free states. But free Negroes in the Upper South were severely limited in their political and communal activities because whites feared they would instigate slave rebellions. Consequently, they were prevented from voting, sitting on juries, testifying in court, and also barred from travel without permission and meeting without supervision of whites. Free Negroes in the Upper South enjoyed economic advancement at the expense of political activism, and this was even more pronounced in the Lower South.
The William Jasper family, 1808-1870 William Jasper, an African American, was probably born in 1808 not far from George Washington’s plantation in Mount Vernon. He was born a slave on the plantation of William Hayward Foote’s Hayfield plantation. Foote was one of the richest men in Fairfax County—when he died he owned 50 slaves. Jasper worked on a plantation that grew wheat and corn, and raised horses, cattle, sheep and hogs. Slaves at Hayfield, including Jasper, are likely to have had skills as farmers, blacksmiths and carpenters. Jasper and his family were not sold south to booming cotton and sugar plantations, as were many other slaves. According to his will, Foote decided to free his slaves on or soon after his death in 1846. At this time Jasper, in his thirties, was valued by appraisers to be worth $350. Foote’s will also freed Jasper’s wife Sara, in her mid-twenties, and their two daughters who were six and four. They were actually freed in the early 1850’s. It is important to note that the Jaspers were free blacks in Virginia before the Civil War. But even as free blacks they faced numerous obstacles. They could not: own a gun, obtain an education, vote, conduct business freely, worship in religious services unless supervised by whites. Also they might be captured by slave traders and sold back into slavery. The Jaspers wanted to stay in Virginia near friends and family, so in 1853 and 1858 they chose to register as free blacks in Fairfax County to prove that they were free. This meant they could travel and gain employment. In 1860 William Jasper purchased 13 acres of land near the Hayfield Plantation. It is likely that he put together the $200 to pay a white farmer and slave owner for the land from his work as a farmer. The Jaspers probably did not stay on their newly bought land during the Civil War – and it is also likely that what they had on this land, including buildings, animals and crops, was lost during the war.
A Look At Virginians During Reconstruction
According to Christopher Clark and Nancy Hewitt, “Both failures and successes were inherent in the task of rebuilding the nation following the Civil War: vigilante violence, often fatal conflict over the right of African American men to vote, courageous African American insistence on self-determination and participation in the political process, and federal intervention in the South to help assure freedpeople’s rights. The Union victory in 1865 had settled two major debates but left everything else in doubt. The United States of America was preserved; slavery was dead, and African Americans were now free. But who would hold and exercise economic and political power in the postwar South? What kind of labor system would replace slavery? Who would lead the South politically? What would freedom mean for the four million former slaves? Answers to these questions were widely contested and would emerge only after two decades of intense political and social struggle, a struggle that contemporaries hopefully called Reconstruction.
Racial conflicts in the former Confederacy continued to disrupt efforts at reunification, and a protracted financial crisis dashed hopes for a quick economic recovery. In response, northern political and business leaders focused their efforts on revitalizing the economy through reconciliation between North and South rather than protecting racial advancement in either region. Thus… the old planter aristocracy – under the protection of a revived Democratic Party – returned to power, controlling a nonslave but still exploitative system of agricultural labor.
The failure of Reconstruction to transform southern race relations shaped the nation as a whole. Still, it was freedpeople who paid the highest price. Outgunned, both figuratively and literally, they were left with few alternatives. Yet they did not give up. Those who remained in the South established a dense network of autonomous community-based institutions, including black schools, churches, and businesses, to keep their democratic hopes alive within an oppressive and racist system.” (From Clark, Christopher and Nancy A. Hewitt. Who Built America, Volume I (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008), pages 589-590.)
The 1869 Virginia Constitution, unlike previous state charters, mandated public education. Virginia’s position on public education – let alone its position on educating blacks – had been tenuous at best. The state had long resisted a system of free schools, despite the efforts of some of its more famous citizens. Thomas Jefferson’s unsuccessful campaign for free schools had yielded little more than a literary fund for indigent children. All of that changed when Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of March 2, 1867 demanding that southern states ratify new constitutions guaranteeing black suffrage. Once these constitutions met with congressional approval and after the state approved the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress promised re-admittance into the Union.
Responding to the Reconstruction Act, Virginians registered voters and called an election to decide if the state would call a convention to revise the state’s constitution. In 1867 226 Fairfax County blacks registered to vote – voting unanimously in favor of a constitutional convention. In 1869, they returned to the polls and voted for adoption of the Constitution.
At the 1867-1868 Constitutional Convention, education proved to be one of the most hotly debated topics (the state’s war debt was the other top issue). Though delegates largely consisted of northern immigrants and freedmen easily approved a public school system, they were strongly divided over the question of integration. Many northern immigrants viewed public schools as the foundation of a democratic society and a key to reconstruction of the South. The question broke along racial lines. Black members introduced resolutions ensuring equal access to education “without distinction of color.” White delegates never took these suggestions seriously. Even radicals who supported desegregation voted against such resolutions. Mindful of widespread sentiment against mixed schools, they did not want to risk ratification. In the end, while most assumed public schools would be segregated, no language could be agreed upon and the question was not resolved until the legislature revisited the issue in 1870.
While blacks lost their campaign for mixed schools, they still passed a milestone in gaining access to public education. However, as a result of poor political and financial support, Virginia’s first public schools for both blacks and whites were grossly inadequate. Many did not have heat or toilets, schools were small and scattered; also the average term was less than the five months mandated by the Constitution, and attendance, which was not required, was sparse. Despite these conditions – and those for black children were considerably worse than those for whites – still there were now public schools in which both black and white children learned.”
The Impact of the Jim Crow Era on Education
In 1877, white southerners moved with great speed to erect a system of segregation and black disenfranchisement and in 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court aided white supremacists by striking the Civil Rights Act of 1875, an act that had banned racial segregation in public transportation and accommodations. In 1887, Florida passed a law requiring segregation in public facilities. The rest of the former Confederate states soon followed. These Jim Crow laws – named for a character in a minstrel show – soon became the norm in all southern states and applied to everything from segregated seating on trains to separate bathrooms, drinking fountains, and graveyards. Whites worked to keep blacks in separate spaces from birth to death, and the differences later proved unjust by every measure.
In the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court validated southern legislation, ruling that segregation was not discriminatory in intrastate railroads, provided that accommodations for blacks equaled those for whites. Jim Crow laws, according to the majority, did not violate black civil rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Since legal ratification of segregation was not enough to keep blacks in subservient roles, southerners resorted to extra-legal action in the form of public humiliations, race riots, convict labor, and lynchings.
Race relations disintegrated in Fairfax County, too. In the 1870s, black landowner William West described “relations between the races in Vienna as ‘very good; a black could go into any white store, and none was prevented from buying land.” In 1873, the town had 632 registered voters, 232 of whom were black. By the 1880s, however, relations between the races had deteriorated significantly and many privileges, including voting rights that William Jasper and Thornton Gray had enjoyed immediately after the Civil War, were denied.
Black disenfranchisement and increased segregation came about in many ways. In Falls Church, whites used gerrymandering to improve their situation. Other places relied on fear to intimidate black voters. Some used the press to counter black ambitions to hold public office. In 1889 the Fairfax Herald, expressing anxiety over a possible nomination of a black for constable in the Providence district, wrote, “[I]t is the suicidal and pernicious policy of electing negroes to office to the injury and detriment of our county, to which we wish to call the attention of the people.” Statutory acts, court rulings, and constitutional amendments provided the legal apparatus to solidify white rule.
Following other southern states, Virginia made black disenfranchisement legal at its Constitutional Convention of 1901-1902. Delegates traveled to Richmond with the chief intent of stripping blacks of their right to vote. In education, delegates rewrote sections of the education clause to legalize racial discrimination in the school system. They did so by approving a substantial loophole in school funding that enabled districts to withhold funds from black schools. Depriving black fathers of the vote and black children of the schoolbook was the intent of the convention and its result.
In 1915, discrimination against blacks could be clearly seen in counties across Virginia. For every dollar spent on educating a black child in Amelia County, $12.37 went to a white child’s education. Educational discrimination was worst in areas with the greatest number of blacks. While African Americans continued their lessons in inadequate one-room buildings – one of which was commonly referred to as “our shoebox” by its students and teachers because it was so tiny – white children often enjoyed much larger schools. Some of them were two stories tall, and some were brick.
Despite these added obstacles, black schools stayed open, and children continued to learn. Black education advanced as the state made more of an effort to improve education generally. School reformers, including northern philanthropists, campaigned for longer terms for both black and white children, improved teacher training, school consolidation and transportation, school libraries, better organization, and local school improvement leagues. Though improvements in education moved at a slower pace for blacks than whites, blacks nevertheless held to their strong values in education.
Black communities realized the power of literacy. As historian James Anderson has noted, “The short-range purpose of black schooling was to provide the masses of ex-slaves with basic literacy skills plus the rudiments of citizenship training for participation in a democratic society. The long-range purpose was the intellectual and moral development of a responsible leadership class that would organize the masses and lead them to freedom and equality.” As discrimination increased, blacks did not alter their education strategy.
Support from the black community for education was crucial. Black community investment in education remained a constant. Examples of community and teacher support are many. These include reports of parents and neighbors providing firewood for the schools, dinner and lodging for teachers, and donating services to warm schoolrooms on cold days, and build a baseball field for the children. Generation after generation, from 1886 to 1932, the Laurel Grove School community supported its little school.
Growing Up in a Segregated Society
Segregation was more than an attitude – it was a system supported by both law and custom, and its purpose was to control newly freed African American people. The system of racial domination was carefully constructed to accomplish its goal.
Its economic component was meant to control black labor, and included job discrimination that limited African Americans to agricultural and service jobs. Sharecropping, an essential part of this system, assured white planters of continuing black farm labor by establishing a cycle of debt. This was accomplished by “fixing the books,” debt peonage, vagrancy laws, a credit system, and a convict lease system. These tactics prevented black people from receiving wages due them or moving when their situation worsened. Often these laws were modeled on Slave Codes during slavery.
Politically, segregation disfranchised freedpeople and suppressed black political action – especially the expression of newly gained rights as citizens (14th Amendment) and the right of black men to vote (15th Amendment). Disfranchisement was a two-stage process. First the Ku Klux Klan and other related groups used violence and the threat of violence to suppress black political action. Lynching and other violence was justified by the threat of miscegenation, and the alleged need to protect white women against rape by black men. The second kind of disfranchisement came in the form of laws designed to prevent blacks from voting, including literacy requirements, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and all-white primaries. These laws were carefully crafted to avoid the 15th Amendment – they could not explicitly use race as a barrier to voting.
A key piece of this system of control was Jim Crow laws and customs. More than a series of strict anti-black laws – it was a way of life that affected whites as well as blacks. There were many state laws touching all aspects of life, including these typical Jim Crow laws: • Barbers. No colored barber shall serve as a barber (to) white girls or women (Georgia). • Blind Wards. The board of trustees shall...maintain a separate building...on separate ground for the admission, care, instruction, and support of all blind persons of the colored or black race (Louisiana). • Burial. The officer in charge shall not bury, or allow to be buried, any colored persons upon ground set apart or used for the burial of white persons (Georgia). NOTE: Eleven additional Jim Crow laws are available at http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/what.htm
During Jim Crow segregation African Americans were not passive; they responded, resisted and negotiated in a variety of ways. Among the most famous responders were Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. They represent two different approaches. Washington, born a slave in Virginia, became a well-known educator and founded Hampton Institute in Virginia then Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In his important and influential Atlanta Compromise Speech of 1895, he stressed accommodation rather than resistance to the racist order under which southern African Americans lived. Acutely conscious of the narrow limitations whites placed on African Americans’ economic aspirations, he stressed that blacks must accommodate white people’s – and especially southern whites’ – refusal to tolerate blacks as anything more than sophisticated menials. In this 1895 speech to the predominantly white audience, Washington said:
Casting down your bucket among my people, helping and encouraging them as you are… to education of head, hand, and heart, you will find that they will buy your surplus land, make blossom the waste places in your fields, and run your factories. While doing this, you can be sure in the future, as in the past, that you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen… [I]n our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”
W.E.B. DuBois, on the other hand, was born free and was the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard. In 1903 as an influential black leader and intellectual W.E.B. DuBois published an essay in his collection The Souls of Black Folk with the title “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” DuBois rejected Washington’s willingness to avoid rocking the racial boat, calling instead for political power, insistence on civil rights, and the higher education of Negro youth. In 1905 DuBois and other middle-class but militant Black intellectuals, including Ida Wells Barnett, and some whites organized the Niagara Movement, and later the NAACP. Included in their “Declaration of Principles” was this statement on the Color-Line:
“Any discrimination based simply on race or color is barbarous, we care not how hallowed it be by custom, expediency or prejudice. Differences made on account of ignorance, immorality, or disease are legitimate methods of fighting evil, and against them we have no word of protest; but discriminations based simply and solely on physical peculiarities, place of birth, color of skin, are relics of that unreasoning human savagery of which the world is and ought to be thoroughly ashamed.”
Many African Americans resisted Jim Crow segregation. Among their strategies and tactics were collective protest, migrating north or west, especially to urban communities, and creating their own institutions, especially educating their children for a better life. Education particularly offered African Americans hope and a sense of possibility. Chafe, Gavins, and Korstad, et. al in their introduction to Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South (New York: The New Press, 2001), recognize: “The extraordinary resilience of black citizens, who individually and collectively found ways to endure, fight back and occasionally define their own destinies…” “The enduring capacity of families to nurture each other, and especially their children, in the face of a system so dangerous and capricious that there were no rules one could count on for protection. Under these circumstances parents still managed to convey a sense of right and wrong, strength and assurance.” “The incredible variety, richness and ingenuity of black Americans’ responses to one of the cruelest, least yielding social and economic systems ever created.”
The Founding of Laurel Grove and Other “Colored” Schools in Fairfax County, 1860-1890
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 freedpeople, 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 slaveowners 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 slaveowners.
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.’”
The Daily Experience of the Laurel Grove School, 1925
In 2002, Marguerite Giles Williams reflected on her years at Laurel Grove “Colored” School in Fairfax County, Virginia. She declared, “I liked to learn and I loved all subjects.” Williams attended the one-room schoolhouse from 1925 to 1932. She walked ten miles daily to join her classmates of varying ages and grades. Together they worked in small confines, shared books and desks, made do without dictionaries, and studied geography without maps. Though they lacked many essentials, they still learned to read, write, add, and subtract. Williams was not alone in her enthusiasm. Winnie Walker Spencer explained that had it not been for Laurel Grove School—which sat on land that was donated by her grandfather William Jasper—she and her siblings would have been without an education. Instead, she proudly stated, the school’s motto proclaimed, “Get an Education and Everything Will Fall in Line.”
By the 1920s, Laurel Grove School teachers had taught children reading and writing for forty years. Though the school remained a one-room building, the public school system now stood on firmer ground. Students, ranging from first to seventh grades, advanced independently. They shared books and older students helped younger ones. A school day was five and one-half hours and the teachers were paid on a basis of a 20-day school month. Since 1918, when Virginia passed the first compulsory attendance law, children aged eight to twelve were required to attend school for at least sixteen weeks.
Laurel Grove and other Fairfax County students benefited from these and other state requirements. In 1920, the county, ranked first in the state with a 96 percent literacy rate. Still, discrimination against black students was the rule. In 1920, the county spent more than double for a white child’s education than a black child’s. It gave white teachers fewer students per class than black teachers and paid white teachers almost twice as much. Mid-decade, the Fairfax County School Board mandated that all schools close on the same date, but this did not mean that all schools operated for an equal number of days. White schools conducted sessions for 160 days and black schools 140 days. In addition, no black child could obtain a high school education in Fairfax County. While secondary curriculum was available in the county since 1907 (one year after the state passed a secondary education law), the schools admitted only white students. The first high school was opened in Clifton, and by 1912, its students moved into a new school building with six classrooms, a library, and an assembly hall. Other towns followed, including Herndon, which built a new $10,000 high school around 1911. By 1924, the school had an athletic director, two basketball and two tennis courts, a baseball diamond, and a 220-yard track. In 1925, the school developed a business curriculum.
Despite this discrimination, former Laurel Grove students, such as Winnie Walker Spencer and Marguerite Giles Williams, recalled their school days with nostalgia. To get to school, they walked through pastures and along country roads. Williams made the five-mile trek from her family’s farm. She left home with her two sisters at 7:30 a.m., met fellow classmate Lily Jenkins along the way, and arrived at school an hour and a half later. By that time, fellow student Dan Baker had the fire lit and other children, including descendants of Jasper and Carroll, would be fulfilling other duties. Each had chores. Some pumped drinking water from the well; others stoked the stove with firewood and straightened the room. During winter, they hung their coats on nails and warmed themselves by the pot-bellied stove.
School began at 9:00 a.m. with devotions and the pledge of allegiance. R. L. Carrington, Lula P. Bueckner, Alma Walker (another Jasper descendant), and other teachers taught their pupils reading, writing, math, geography, history and spelling. “We had good teachers,” Spencer reminisced, “They gave us a good basis. If we misspelled a word, we had to rewrite it fifty times.” For music lessons, the teacher played the piano and the children sang. For lunch, students ate food from home. Marguerite’s grandmother sent bread and butter sandwiches. Sometimes the children brought garden vegetables and the teacher cooked a pot of stew. At recess, they enjoyed sports. “We were ball players,” Mamie Lightfoot said. When they struck up a game, boys who could not attend school regularly because their parents needed their labor on the farm joined them.
Laurel Grove students did not work solely on academic lessons. Spencer recollected sewing samplers, and the County’s “Colored Industrial” teacher Mrs. C.W. Patterson tutored students in other skills, too. In doing so, Patterson followed the dictates of the state supervisor of rural black elementary schools who advocated lessons in basket making, carpentry, cooking, chair caning, sewing, and shoe repair. Giving time to such activities placed Laurel Grove on par with other black schools in the south and positioned it within ongoing debates about what black schoolchildren should learn and who should decide.
In the still rural Fairfax of the 1920s, teachers at white schools also wove industrial and agricultural lessons into their curriculum. But the agenda was different for African-American students. Exposing his era’s racial assumptions, one northern philanthropist made clear the reason. He argued that black persons “will willingly fill the more menial positions, and do the heavy work, at less wages.” This would leave whites “the more expert labor.” His recommendations to African Americans included: “Avoid social questions; leave politics alone; continue to be patient; live moral lives; live simply; learn to work.” Not all northern philanthropists agreed. Some hoped to dismantle white supremacy and viewed education as a tool for social change. Many more, however, took the course of Rockefeller’s General Education Fund and promoted industrial education. The Peabody and Slater Foundations did more than promote; they withheld support if black schools did not teach industrial skills.
Southern segregationists, intent on keeping black people in subservient roles, sided with the extremists. The Fairfax Herald mocked any “ambition to make classical scholars . . . of the negro race.” If blacks were provided books, the editors questioned, who would do “the hewing of the wood, the drawing of the water, and the hoeing of corn.” Not surprisingly, African Americans scorned such messages. They argued that they sent their children to school for intellectual development and a chance to progress, not to learn skills that would keep them beholden to whites. At least one Virginia teacher reported that if parents heard that industrial lessons were planned, they would keep their children at home.
The contest between academic and industrial education was not settled within the black community, however, as demonstrated by the debate between two prominent African-Americans who adopted different strategies to promote progress and equality. Former Virginia slave Booker T. Washington embraced industrial education and a message of hard work, discipline, morality, and service. To move forward, African Americans must accept segregation, avoid political confrontations, work diligently, and gain economic independence. This, he contended, would win white approval. To gain essential skills, Washington called for training in agriculture, domestics, and industrial labor. He started Tuskegee Institute to provide such a forum and encouraged his students to master a trade. W. E. B. DuBois—the first black person to gain a doctorate from Harvard University, founder of the Niagara Movement, leader of the NAACP, and writer for the NAACP newspaper The Crisis—countered Washington’s conciliatory views. Instead, he argued that black people should not bow to segregation but should fight for civil and political rights. He championed African-American rights to higher education and pushed for the development of a talented leadership—the “talented tenth”—to overcome discrimination.
Disputes between Washington and DuBois blurred on the local level. While some children stayed home when industrial lessons were taught, others opted to can vegetables and cane chairs. In practice, teachers taught both academic and industrial subjects and children learned to read, write, sew, and saw. One of the places that showcased both was the county fair. At separate venues, black and white children displayed their achievements in the midst of great excitement and fanfare. During the first decades of the twentieth century, Fairfax County white fairs featured “a brass band, balloon ascensions, comic knife throwing, high-wire walking, health demonstrations, an automobile parade, precision drills, parachute drops, moving pictures, Punch and Judy shows. . . and the prize-winning produce and livestock of the county’s farmers and future farmers.” Reports of the “Colored” Fairs were similar, featuring in 1914, “a full complement of side shows, including the merry-go-round, pony rides and a splendid drill by the uniformed ranks of colored Odd Fellows accompanied by a band of music which discoursed excellent pieces. The exhibits of agricultural produce, of domestic handiwork, fruits and preserves, horses, ponies and cattle, made splendid showing.”
Fairs fostered school pride, as students created school banners and marched in parades. To generate competition and rally community support, the School Board gave schools a holiday and paid teachers to attend fairs with their classes. “One of the high points while at Fairfax was ‘school day’ at the County Fair. We always had a frantic time training children to march in the parade which was composed of all schools in the county, led by the county officials and each teacher was expected to march at the head of her class,” recalled white schoolteacher Lillian Millan, “We also spent a good deal of time and effort preparing an exhibit as there was a special building for the schools and lots of competition from all over the county.” In 1914, not long after the organization of the Fairfax County Colored Fair, County School Superintendent Milton Hall encouraged school participation by appointing an industrial teacher for Mount Vernon District to “teach the children handicrafts for the Fair.” Gunston School student Gladys Bushrod recalled that an industrial teacher helped students make items for the Fair. And she remembered that every year the schoolchildren would go to the fair together, leaving Mason Neck at 4:00 a.m. in a horse-drawn wagon. Georgiana Jasper Walker supported the Fairfax County Colored Fair monetarily and her children and other students at Laurel Grove remembered the events and competitions. Some recalled winning ribbons.
“Colored Fair Association” programs from 1916 and 1924 indicate that students could enter a variety of industrial and academic competitions for cash prizes. Contests in the domestic arts called for baskets, hats, photograph frames, embroidered and crocheted items. Agricultural exhibits featured garden vegetables, canned fruits, and poultry and livestock. Contestants vied for prizes of up to five dollars. To demonstrate their academic proficiency, students wrote essays on “What Good Roads will Mean to Virginia” or created a “Map of Fairfax County locating the Colored Public Schools and Fair Grounds.” Others submitted an illustrated poem, a list of words most often misspelled, an illustrated paper on simple fractions, or a sample of their best penmanship. Winners earned between twenty-five cents and one dollar.
Contest categories revealed local concerns about transportation and scholarly concerns about spelling and mathematics. Most hinted at what was being taught in both black and white schools. At least one essay on “The House Fly and the Importance of Its Extermination” signaled public health concerns that became a national priority during the Progressive Era. This attention to health at the county fair bolstered other health campaigns in the schools. The flu epidemic of 1918 heightened the need to educate school children about the importance of cleanliness and sanitation. In 1919, the Chairman of the Red Cross, R. Walton Moore, started a new public health program that included talks in schools on sanitary toilets, dental dispensaries, and parasite detection. One of the health campaigns that Laurel Grove participated in was a 1927 contest for “colored schools of the county” over “which sold the largest number of tuberculosis seals.” Laurel Grove came in second in the small schools division and was awarded $2.50.
Some literary contests listed in the 1922 “Colored Fair” program targeted African-American concerns and signaled that black educators taught American literature and history courses that included more than Longfellow and Washington. One dollar went to the best prose interpretation of a Paul Lawrence Dunbar poem. Fair officials awarded another dollar for the best essay on “The Life and Works of Harriett Tubman.” These contests indicate that Fairfax’s black schools retained some control over the curriculum, functioned as a place for instilling racial pride. These also points to one likely reason why students years later recalled their time at Laurel Grove with such fondness.
Students explained that their nostalgia for the school was largely because of the warm communal spirit they felt as members of an all-black school. It offered refuge from the Jim Crow world that continually told black children that they were inferior. Segregated fairs did the same. Though celebratory events, county fairs bore the marks of a segregated and racist society. Certainly, this was evident by the fact that they were separated based on race. It was also written into the Dunbar and Tubman contests. More pointedly, the KKK played a strong role in the white fair, even serving as the “drawing cards,” according to county agent Harry B. Derr. Not surprising, as the KKK hosted ceremonies, brought in the Klan band, gave away gold, and shot off fireworks at the fairs’ “Klan Days.” In 1924, Klansmen came in automobiles and executed the rites of their order in front of an electric cross. Thousands flocked to watch and celebrate.
During the 1920s, Jim Crow segregation marked every black child’s school experience across the south. This held true in the separation of schoolhouses and county fairs as well as in the careful demarcation of space that defined everyday public life. For each child, the lessons at times were obvious. One man reported that the first few days of every school year were spent erasing the slurs that white children wrote in textbooks that they knew would be handed down to their peers in black schools. Few certainly could miss verbal taunts and visual cues that marked segregationist attitudes. Neither could they easily miss the KKK displays of racial hatred. In 1924, the Fairfax Herald reported that “members of the Ku Klux Klan from Fairfax and Herndon’ joined other klansmen from the capital area for another ‘spectacular initiation on a hill above Rosslyn.” The newspaper stated that ‘the light from the cross and from the candles carried by the klansmen were plainly visible from Washington and the surrounding country.” E.B. Henderson, because of work as an educator and NAACP leader, received so many angry phone calls that he had his number unlisted. One letter to him, signed by the Klan, threatened that they would wake him, “and after you have been gagged, you will be born to a tree nearby, tied, stripped and given thirty lashes on your ETHIOPIAN back.”
Laurel Grove residents did not report threatening phone calls or letters such as the ones that E.B. Henderson received, escaping, according to oral accounts, much of the racial strife that other parts of Fairfax County experienced. Students also expressed some contentment with their small space. Though a white school was within two to three miles of the Giles’ farm, Marguerite and her sisters still walked ten miles each day to attend Laurel Grove. Years later, she said that she had no idea how the white Pohick school differed from hers, but, she reported, she did not feel deprived. Since she did not know what the white children had, she said there was nothing to miss. For the former students who looked back at their days at Laurel Grove in the 1920s, the little community school offered a warm space of friendship and harmony.
In 1929, when Wilbert Woodson became the county school superintendent, there were 64 schools, 30 of which contained but one room. Many still did not have plumbing. Enrollment stood at 4,742. Teachers numbered 168 and drew an average yearly salary of $779. During the 1930s, school buildings continued to tell the story of discrimination. Most black schools remained tiny. Laurel Grove, valued at $600, had not changed. The exception was Gum Springs. To accommodate its eighty students, the community built a larger school in 1907 and four teachers staffed the building that was worth $4,900. Still, the school fell far short of neighboring high schools: Woodlawn was worth $44,000; Mount Vernon $93,000, and Fairfax $185,000. Annual per capita expenditure for whites was still double that of blacks.
To improve instruction and give more students access to better facilities, Superintendent Woodson consolidated the elementary schools. By action of a special meeting of the School Board in 1932, Williams and six other students were the last to attend Laurel Grove. According to the district’s black supervisor, the student number had decreased because families, drawn by the promise of a better living in Alexandria and Washington, were moving out of the community. Now, the children who remained had to travel to Gum Springs for lessons. The School Board denied entreaties for public transportation.
“Get an education and everything will fall in line.” For many Laurel Grove students, education made a difference. But, it did not guarantee success. Many still faced jobs of menial status in agriculture or on the railroad. Williams, who completed seventh grade in 1932, wanted to continue her education, but her father had neither the money nor the transportation to help her. So she worked as a domestic for two dollars per week. For those dollars, she cleaned, washed and did “just about everything.” She had every other Sunday off. For a short time, she attended night classes, but this was a difficult schedule to keep and since she needed the money, work won over school. At 60 though, she earned her GED.
For those who had the financial means to go to high school, few possibilities existed. Black students still had no county high school to attend and travel to Manassas Industrial School in neighboring Prince William County or to Dunbar, Phelps Vocational Center, Cardozo, or Armstrong in Washington, D.C. was difficult. Not until 1954—the same year that the United States Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional—did Fairfax County build a high school for its black students. Luther P. Jackson High School opened many years after white students had access to neighborhood high schools and long after E. B. Henderson formed a chapter of the NAACP and started agitating for improved educational opportunities for African Americans. The school serviced the entire county until 1965, when desegregation was finally instituted in Virginia.
For most students, Laurel Grove School provided their only educational opportunity. Jasper’s family proved the exception. At least four of his grandchildren continued their education in Washington and became teachers. Winnie and her sister, Geneva, stayed with relatives to gain access to Armstrong H.S. Then they went to St. Paul Normal and Industrial School in Lawrenceville, Virginia, graduating in 1934. They returned to Fairfax County and taught for several decades. Eventually both obtained their Masters in New York City. Winnie Spencer continued to share Laurel Grove’s motto with her students, and she proudly reported that one of her students, whose parents were illiterate and impoverished, became a college president.
Today, interested individuals can see the schoolhouse as it likely existed in the 1920s. In 1999, the newly created Laurel Grove School Association refurbished the building and established it as a stop on the African-American Heritage Trail. It stands as a monument to a group of determined individuals who created and sustained a place of learning during an era of harsh discrimination and testifies to the belief in and liberating power of education as a strategy for uplift. Though Laurel Grove’s motto promised more than it ever could fulfill and frustrations sometimes upset dreams, the school, nevertheless, offered a sanctuary and shield for black children during the nightmare of segregation and equipped students with literacy, numerical skills, black pride, and a sense of self-worth. In doing so, it created yet one more chink in the racist system of Jim Crow.