Saving the Slave Quarters

Saving the Slave Quarters

Just off of Evergreen Mills Road, at the edge of a sod farm, sits the Arcola slave quarters. The building is one of only five stone slave quarters still standing in the United States and it is the only structure in existence in Loudoun County.

As the Planning Commission decides how the Route 50 corridor and Arcola will be rezoned to allow for more development, a campaign is in the works to preserve the site of the slave quarters and turn it into a historical destination for tourists and students.

"To have a structure like this in the county is very unique," said Steve Torpy, assistant director of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services. "We would love to see it open [to the public] as soon as we possibly can."

The Arcola slave quarters was the home of slaves who worked on the James Lewis farm in the early 1800s. It currently sits on 4.5 acres of land owned by the county that also houses a farmhouse that dates back to the 1930s. The original Lewis farmhouse was destroyed in a fire.

Buchanan Partners, a development company that is spearheading the creation of a 400-acre Arcola Center, which will provide businesses and recreation for the people of Arcola, is also taking on the task of restoring the slave quarters.

"We got involved because we consider it an important part of the county and our project," Nicole Morrill, vice president of project management for Buchanan Brothers said. "We want to see how the two can complement each other."

FOR ALL INVOLVED the most important aspect of the slave quarters is the new perspective it can bring to the county's history.

"This is a part of Loudoun County history that has been lost," Arlene Hill, chair of the Friends of the Slave Quarters‚ Archival and History Committee, said. "In order to tell the true history of Loudoun, the site has to be preserved."

The Lewis farm was the home to 32 slaves at the height of its production, Hill said. Originally covering 800 acres, the farm was split between Lewis' 10 children at his death. Many of the people who were once enslaved at the Lewis farm continued to make their lives in Loudoun County after gaining their freedom. Many of their descendants still make their home here, something Hill said is vital to documenting the true history of the county.

One of the main goals of the slave quarters project is to take an oral history from the slaves' descendants and record the stories that have been passed down through their families.

"We are documenting as much as we can," Hill said. "But that is the thing with an oral history, there are no documents."

For Torpy it is important to have a great deal of interpretation at the slave quarters site so that visitors understand what really happened there.

"We want to tell the story of the slave quarters, of the slaves the lived there," he said.

Hill has found that between 1800 and 1860, 25 to 33 percent of the county's population was African-American and that their stories have not been properly told.

"How can you tell the true history of a place with that much left out?" she said. "We have a great opportunity here. If it is lost I don't know where we would get the history from."

RECORDING THE oral histories is the first step towards creating the comprehensive historical site that everyone has in mind, Torpy said.

"From that we can start developing the type of program that we want to do," he said.

Everyone involved in the project envisions the slave quarters being a place where school groups can come and learn about the African-American history of Loudoun County and where they get hands-on experiences as to what slavery was like.

"We see everything from holding special events there, to school field trips, to visitors just coming out to spend the day," Torpy said. "It will be a living history."

As the area around the slave quarters is developed, it will become important to set the site apart from the houses and businesses that will surround it.

"It is all about coming up with a sustainable plan," Morrill said. "There will need to be parking, for school buses, a picnic area and restrooms. We don't want the building to be so close to the development that you can't see what it once was."

Those involved want to use the farmhouse that sits on the property as a place to hold classes and seminars for school groups and a reception area for tourists.

"We want that to be an education center," Hill said. "We want to have classes for the schools that teach them about the African-American history of Loudoun."

The immediate goals of the project are to stabilize the slave quarters so people will be able to walk in and around it safely. Currently, the quarters are supported by beams in order to prevent further deterioration.

It will take approximately two years for the slave quarters to be fully stabilized, Morrill said, about the time that Buchanan Partners plans on breaking ground for the Arcola Center.

"It's not just the facility that is important," Torpy said. "It's saving the history and the stories of the people who once lived there."