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Tuskegee Airmen Visit Laurel Grove School

Franconia and the Tuskegee Airmen have little in common except advancements in African American culture and overcoming racial segregation. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American aviators in World War II, and Laurel Grove School on Beulah Street was the first African American school in the area.

A visit to the school by the East Coast Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen on Saturday, Feb. 8, shed light on their plight in a segregated military.

Airmen George Millard and Jim Pryde were at the school with second-generation Tuskegee Airman Col. George Henry, sharing a historical perspective.

"They did accomplish a lot standing up for their rights," Henry said.

Millard recalled going over to England on the Queen Elizabeth, where they put the Airmen in the most vulnerable place on the ship.

"We knew what we had to do and we did it," he said. "They put us down on D deck, that was the lowest part of the ship."

Millard was ground support, and Pryde was a radioman and gunner. Neither flew on actual missions, but all the African Americans who worked with the program at the Tuskegee School in Alabama were considered "Tuskegee Airmen," according to Henry.

"All these people are included when I say Tuskegee Airmen," he said.

Henry, who acted as a spokesperson for the Airmen, started out with a video about the Airmen, which explained much of the historical background. His talk included the discrepancies in the HBO movie about the Airmen. One scene, for example, had an Airman take an airplane and "buzz" a field, but in the movie, the Airman got caught and committed suicide.

Although the particular Airman was subject to discipline, "he did not commit suicide," Henry said.

All three were decked out in their red sport jackets with patches distinguishing their place in history. At the time, Pryde wasn't aware of the history he was engulfed in.

"We were just doing a job that all the other Americans were doing at the time," he said.

Saralyn Wasserman lives in the area and came to the presentation at Laurel Grove School out of curiosity.

"I thought it was good, I just wanted to learn more," she said.

Phyllis Walker-Ford, the president of the Laurel Grove School board of directors, enjoyed the historical presentation. She has been actively involved in creating a history lesson about the school that her ancestors helped build to educate African American children. The school operated from 1883 to 1933,. but the records are hard to decipher.

"We think it started in 1883," Walker-Ford said.

BACK THEN, the whole area was known as Carroll Town and was founded in the 1800s by former slaves from Hayfield and West Grove Plantations. A historic marker will be erected on Kingstowne Parkway to commemorate the settlement, according to the president of the Franconia Museum, Sue Patterson.

"The Carroll Town marker is in, and it will be put up in March," she said. A ceremony will commemorate the event in April.

School board member Christian Braunlich was also at the Tuskegee Airmen presentation. He's been involved with the school research and shared some information he uncovered.

"Back then, the School Board actually noted 69 cents for cleaning supplies," he said.

Christine Tollefson, administrative assistant in Supervisor Dana Kauffman's (D-Lee) office, is a driving force in the Franconia Museum. She has been working with the museum for two years. At its first story swap, which is an opportunity for locals to pass down some history, Deacon Baker put the center of Carroll Town near the Banks property off Old Telegraph Road, right behind Hayfield View.

"Carroll Town was a completely new thing for us," Tollefson said.

"The white community didn't know about it," Patterson said.

Walker-Ford's goal is to include the Laurel Grove School on the Lane Elementary School agenda for the fourth grade Virginia history lesson. She hopes to bring the students in for a hands-on lesson.

"We should have the first school visit in late March, early April. They'll be able to sit in these desks and go through the lesson of the early 1920s, what it was really like to go to a one-room school," she said.

Walker-Ford has been in contact with six former students of the school. Two live in Washington, D.C.; one in Dale City; one in Silver Spring; and two in Clifton, where she lives.

After the Lane School lesson, "hopefully we'll work with other schools across the county," she said.