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Oak Grove Elementary School
An All-Black Elementary School in Pre-Integration Herndon
By Barbara Glakas
In 1869 the Virginia General Assembly authorized a State Superintendent of Public Instruction
and a State Board of Education. Fairfax County started opening public schools soon thereafter.
Like many post-Civil War counties of that time, there were two sets of schools – one for white
students and one for black students.
According to African American Landowners, Churches, Schools and Businesses in Fairfax
County, 1860-1900, one room schools served African American children around Fairfax
County, with enrollments as high as 408 in 1870 to 1,150 in 1890. The schools were commonly
referred to as “Colored” or “Negro” schools. The average school served grades through six or
seven, until students obtained access to a high school education in the 1950s. The average
school was in session for six months, with the school day generally ranging from 9:00 AM to
4:00 PM. In the 1870s, a teacher’s salary was about one dollar per day.
At different points in time, and over the course of decades, there were at least three known
schools for black elementary school students, located on the western edge of Herndon. At least
two of those schools were called Oak Grove Elementary School. There were two hamlets in
town where black residents lived -- Cooktown and Oak Grove. Cooktown was located at the
north end of Monroe Street and Oak Grove was situated between Sterling Road (Rt. 606) and the
Washington & Old Dominion railroad track, near the Fairfax and Loudoun County boundary
line. The Herndon children who lived in these two small communities, as well as some Sterling
children, attended Oak Grove Elementary School.
Sometime after the Civil War a Canadian couple, George and Cynthia Bell, moved into the
Herndon area and bought many acres of land in the vicinity of the Herndon/Loudoun border. In
a 2010 Fairfax Times newspaper article, Loudoun historian, Eugene Scheel, explained how the
Oak Grove community was formed after the Civil War. Scheel stated that in 1871, after
emancipation, the Bells subdivided a large parcel of their wooded land in eastern Loudoun
County into small 1-acre lots. These small parcels of land provided an opportunity for many
former slaves to own land and to subsequently settle in the community. A church was built in
1868. According to the website of the current Oak Grove Baptist Church, the name “Oak
Grove” was created in part due to the stately oak trees surrounding the church grounds. The
growing surrounding community was named after the church. A 2007 Washington Post article
said that by the 1950s, Oak Grove was a largely black community of more than 300 people,
many descendants of area slaves, close or distant cousins.
The Town of Herndon was incorporated in 1879. There are several documented indications that
a school for black elementary students was located in the Oak Grove area in the 1800s. For
example, a set of Herndon Town Council minutes from May of 1881 showed that the town
council approved an expense of $15.50 for wood that was furnished to “the colored school.”
Town Council minutes from March of 1882 also showed that the council approved an expense of
$15.00 for Thomas Oden for his services as a teacher at the colored school. In 1898 a survey
was conducted on a parcel of land which stretched east of Crestview Drive along the W&OD
railroad track. This survey made reference to the colored school that abutted the western edge of
that lot.
There was additional evidence of an earlier school. A 1921 a Fairfax Herald newspaper article
said that the School Board had decided to use “the old school lot” as the site for the Herndon
colored school. One local resident, who now lives on Sterling Road recalled, via oral history,
that an early one-room school was once located just yards south of the current Oak Grove Baptist
Church. Lastly, Mrs. Ada Lee, who was interviewed in 1991 when she turned 100 years old,
remembered how she attended a one-room Oak Grove School, “up Crestview Drive, just before
the railroad track near what is now the Tralee subdivision.”
It is not clear when the 1800s-era school was first established, but we know it continued to exist
up until the next school was built.
The next Oak Grove School came into existence in 1930. In 1929 a Fairfax Herald newspaper
article described how the Fairfax County School Board received a letter from the Citizens
Association of Oak Grove Colored School, stating that they acquired 1.5 acres of land, which
was next to the half-acre they already owned. The group was prepared to give the School Board
the title to the land, as long as the Board agreed that a school would be erected. Knowing that
many Loudoun students would also be attending the school, the Board appointed a committee to
discuss the question of Loudoun County paying tuition for students who would attend Oak Grove
School. That same year the Fairfax Herald also announced that M. S. Robinson was named as a
teacher at Herndon’s colored school.
A hint about the demise of the older Oak Grove School may be indicated in a quote from a 1931
Herndon Observer article which said: “The unused workshop at Floris and the school building
at Oak Grove have been given [to] the Herndon School and it is now planned to sell the lumber
in these buildings to house the gymnasium and the rooms for the class in home economics.”
Jean Brooks, who attended the school in 1939-40, recalled that the school had been built with
some Julius Rosenwald funds. Rosenwald was a clothier and businessman from Illinois who
once co-owned Sears, Roebuck and Company. He became interested in social issues, especially
regarding education for African Americans. In the early 1900s he befriended Booker T.
Washington and ultimately became a member of the Tuskegee Institute. As a philanthropist
Rosenwald endowed the Institute and a Rosenwald Fund that was established in 1917. A rural
school building program was administered by this fund, contributing over $4M in matching
funds to construct schools. Fairfax County received $400 from this fund to go toward the total
$3,670 in construction costs of Oak Grove Elementary.
In the summer of 1930, local newspapers reported that Fairfax County’s new School
Superintendent, W.T. Woodson, had received architectural plans from the state architect.
Rosenwald schools were built in accordance with specific guidelines laid out in the Rosenwald
Community School Plans. Oak Grove School would have two classrooms and would be
constructed in accordance with the Rosenwald plan, with two acres of adjacent land for privies, a
well and a recreational area. Although no photographs of this school can be found, sketches and
architectural drawings of Rosenwald two-room school plans still exist.
In the summer of 1930 the School Board awarded a contract for the construction of Herndon’s
colored school to E.E. Gillette, a carpenter and home builder who was also Herndon’s Mayor
from 1925-1929.
The two classroom Oak Grove School building opened in September of 1930. It was located
about 150 yards southeast of the current Oak Grove Baptist Church, which is now the presentday location of the cul-de-sac at the north end of Artic Quill Road.
Some area residents still remember the school. Lucinda Brooks Gormes, who walked from her
home in Cooktown to attend the school from 1947-1951, recalled that the building had yellow
wood siding and was very primitive by today’s standards. It had two classrooms with coal
stoves. A third room in the center was unheated and used either as a kitchen or a library. There
were two outhouses and a pump for drinking water. A 1931 newspaper article described how a
bid was accepted that year to sink a well at Herndon’s colored school.
The school housed students from grades kindergarten to seventh grade. There were two teachers,
one who taught grades K through 3, and another who taught grades 4 through 7. Mrs. Robinson
was one of the teachers at the school when it opened. One of the teachers acted as the principal.
The books they used were used or obsolete.
Another former student, Thomas Payne, interviewed in a 2010 Washington Post article,
remembered the trees around the school, how they were used for bases when they played games.
Payne remembered the steep embankment leading down to the railroad tracks which served as a
good barrier for playing cowboys and Indians.
Fred Washington is another former student whose family lived on Grove Street in Herndon. His
father worked for the railroad, so young Fred was allowed to ride the train and was dropped off
in front of the school, which was next to the railroad track.
James Johnson, who was born in 1921 and lived in Oak Grove in his seventh grade year,
remembers the two-room school. He said the students had to bring their own sandwiches for
lunch, but he also recalled that soup was sometimes served from the kitchen on cold days. The
school often depended on donations for such food supplies. Johnson remembered that the
school day ran from about 8:30 AM to 3:00 PM. He recalled lessons in history, geography,
civics, math and spelling. His teacher was named Julia Hall. She lived in the Chesterbrook area
of McLean, and took the train each day to get to work.
That school closed in 1952 and a new Oak Grove Elementary School was opened in 1953 at the
intersection of Rock Hill and Sterling Roads near the Loudoun/Herndon border. Although the
books in the new school were still out of date, the building's physical characteristics were greatly
improved. The new six-room brick school building had indoor plumbing, central heating, and a
room that acted as an auditorium, lunch room and clinic. The outdoor dirt play area was
eventually blacktopped in 1957.
Prior to 1954, high school students in Herndon’s black community had to travel to either
Manassas or Washington, D.C. in order to attend school. One former Oak Grove student said,
“It was frustrating to ride by several schools in order to get to one.” In 1954 Luther Jackson
High School was opened on Gallows Road in Falls Church, the first all-black high school in
Fairfax County.
The newer Oak Grove Elementary School on Rock Hill Road was built and administered by
Fairfax County. At the time Fairfax County had two separate supervisors for their elementary
schools, one for white schools and one for black schools. In 1937, the supervisor for the black
elementary schools was Mrs. Emma O. Moore.
Oak Grove Elementary School served approximately 150 black students from both Fairfax and
Loudoun counties. Both counties were still segregated at that time. The school was staffed by
black teachers and had a black principal named Mr. Earl Pulley. Mr. Pulley, who was born in
North Carolina in 1925, attended Virginia State College, moved to Washington D.C. with his
wife, and became the principal of Oak Grove Elementary school at the age of 29.
Herndon resident, Darryl Smith, who attended Oak Grove Elementary School, and who now
serves as the Chief of Police for the Purcellville Police Department, was born in the Oak Grove
area. Both Smith and Payne recalled how Mr. Pulley would set students straight with either a
stick or switch if they got out of line. Dwight Brooks, who started school at Oak Grove in 1953,
also recalled how the teachers would not spare the rod. He also remembered how teachers would
check the students’ teeth and other physical areas each morning to make sure they were clean.
Regardless, the former students expressed their respect for Mr. Pulley, the teachers, and the life
lessons the students were taught. Former students agreed that the quality of teachers at the old
and new Oak Grove Elementary Schools outweighed any outdated facilities or books.
Smith recalled that the kids in Oak Grove tended to isolate themselves within their community
because they were aware of the racism on the outside. The school served as one of the focal
points of the community, where kids not only attended school but also engaged in recreational
and social activities or just hung out. In 1957 when the nearby Oak Grove Church was destroyed
by a fire, church services were temporarily held in Oak Grove Elementary School.
Since 1930 Loudoun County made payments to Fairfax County to offset the cost of schooling
Loudoun children at Oak Grove Elementary. That changed in 1958 when Loudoun County built
Frederick Douglass Elementary School in Leesburg. It was a segregated school for black
students and remained segregated until Loudoun County Public Schools became integrated. Oak
Grove Elementary School was closed in 1964 and the Fairfax students who formerly attended
Oak Grove Elementary were moved to Herndon Elementary School which was built in 1961.
It was different, however, for Oak Grove’s Loudoun students who lived in the Sterling area.
Smith attended Douglass Elementary for one year. Sad to see Oak Grove close, Smith was
especially disappointed to have to be bussed 20 miles away to Leesburg. For the Loudoun
students of the Oak Grove community, the Douglass school was the closest black school
available for them to attend. Sterling Elementary School later became available for the Loudoun
Oak Grove children when they admitted black students in 1969.
Between the late 1960s and the late 1970s Fairfax County used the Oak Grove School building
for a variety of uses. The Fairfax County Department of Recreation & Community Services and
the Area Agency on Aging cooperatively ran a Senior Center and Nutrition Site in the building.
The Head Start Program was another program housed in the old school. Recreational activities
were also held there. Smith remembers a gentleman named Forest Johnson who organized team
sports for the area children. He organized baseball, softball, and touch football teams. The
teams played games against other recreation centers teams from Falls Church, Fairfax,
and Manassas.
The Town of Herndon bought the old school building from Fairfax County in the early 1980s.
The town put a new facade on the building and, in the mid-1980s, started using the building to
house its Police Department. Smith, who served in the Herndon Police Department for many
years, had his office in what used to be Principal Pulley’s office. At that time the department had
about 30 officers. But by the early 2000s the police department started to outgrow the building,
with over 50 police officers plus several civilian personnel.
In 2004 the police department moved out of the former elementary school and relocated to 397
Herndon Parkway, where it is still located today. The former elementary school now houses the
Town of Herndon’s Zoning Enforcement Office.
About this column: “Remembering Herndon’s History” is a regular Herndon Patch feature offering
stories and anecdotes about Herndon’s past. The articles are written by members of the Herndon
Historical Society. Barbara Glakas is a member. A complete list of “Remembering Herndon’s History”
columns is available on the Historical Society website at www.herndonhistoricalsociety.org.
The Herndon Historical Society operates a small museum that focuses on local history. It is housed in the
Herndon Depot in downtown Herndon on Lynn Street and is open every Sunday from noon until 3:00.
Visit the Society’s website at www.herndonhistoricalsociety.org, and the Historical Society’s Facebook
page at https://www.facebook.com/HerndonHistory for more information.
Note: The Historical Society is seeking volunteers to help keep the museum open each Sunday. If you
have an interest in local history and would like to help, contact Charlie Waddell at 703-435-2520 or
[email protected]