The first sign on the new Journey to Freedom Heritage Trails was unveiled Monday as part of an ongoing project to broaden awareness of Loudoun’s Black history.
Located on the county’s eastern border along the W&OD Trail, the marker highlights stories of Oak Grove, a community built by Black residents who purchased the land from white landowners following emancipation.
It is the first of a series of five interpretive signs planned to be erected this year to highlight Loudoun’s Black history resources. The project is spearheaded and funded by Visit Loudoun, which worked with local historians to document the sites and tell the stories.
“I think it really comes to a beautiful collection of concerned citizens who are looking at, how do we tell a broad and interpretive story of the African American experience,” Visit Loudoun CEO Beth Erickson said.
“It’s important to tell a more inclusive and comprehensive story of the African American experience in Loudoun,” said Donna Bohanon, the chair of the Black History Committee of the Friends of the Thomas Balch Library, who helped write the narrative on the Oak Grove marker. “This is just the start of a process to connect multiple interpretive signs around the county, which will encourage residents and visitors alike to engage in an important part of Loudoun’s history.”
“Oak Grove is truly holy ground. It is a place where African Americans thrived. It is a place where African Americans worked together. It is a place where mutual aid societies were born and were the lifeblood of the community,” said Pastor Michelle Thomas, president of the Loudoun NAACP and a member of the county’s Heritage Commission. “Black folks were coming together and pooling their resources to do major things. We’ve got to get back to that.”
Dwight Brooks grew up in Oak Grove and described a close-knit community. At one time the village had 60 to 70 homes, he said, but only two remain, including one built by his father in 1952 where his 95-year-old mother lives.
Standing at the marker along the former W&OD railroad, Brooks described a vibrant community, with a church, a store and a passenger shelter close to the rail line. Down the street was an Odd Fellows hall with a dance floor and bandstand, a general store and beauty parlor. Along the railroad were two boarding houses. Just like every Loudoun community, Oak Grove had a baseball team, which played its games on his grandfather’s property nearby and was, along with the church, the center of community activities.
His mother attended the village’s two-room schoolhouse before going to school in Manassas and then taking the train to Howard University. She continued to commute on the train while working for the Department of the Navy.
“The W&OD was Metro before Metro. It was what Metro wants to be,” Brooks said.
Many speakers during the Sept. 19 dedication ceremony described the community’s “resilience.” Brooks said that was his experience growing up there, as well.
“I tried to describe an atmosphere with the picture of folks being very industrious and being very committed and resourceful. That’s what I remember about the men who were in my life. They were committed. There were no sick days,” Brooks said.
The Journey to Freedom Heritage Trails signs are designed and installed with support from the Civil War Trails program. During the next phase, a QR code will be added to direct people to Visit Loudoun’s website, which will provide more information about the full trail, each site and what else visitors can do as they explore. Another goal of the program is to connect the Journey to Freedom Heritage Trails signs to other interpretive markers and trails
, creating a countywide African American Heritage Trail.
Thomas said that when she was appointed to the Heritage Commission, less than 2% of historic markers presented Black history. “We have changed that. We are changing that and in the future, we’re going to change that even more,” she said, noting plans to install 13 more this year.
County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said plans also are moving ahead to memorialize the three Black people known to be lynched in Loudoun with obelisks she hopes to have installed next February.