Eight students and their mentors filed into the small yellow classroom, greeted by the woman in a high-collared white shirt, brown laced boots, cameo brooch and earrings. The students took their place at wooden benches, some sitting at plain desks, to prepare for the day’s lesson.
To remind the young African American men the importance of the educational opportunity available to them, their mentors, members of Beta Nu Boule, had arranged for a trip back in time, to visit the Laurel Grove school and see what life was like for their ancestors in a one room schoolhouse.
On Saturday, Feb. 18, Helen Latten, one of the docents at the Laurel Grove School, dressed the part of a “school mother” from the era of the school, which operated between 1882 and 1932. She started the day as it would have more than 100 years ago, with a devotion, the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.
The school, built on a half-acre of land once owned by freed slaves William and Georgiana Jasper, was one of the first schools for African American children in Fairfax County, said Phyllis Walker Ford, the great granddaughter of the Jaspers.
“They knew, in order for their children to be successful, they had to be able to read and write,” Ford said.
IN 1881, another freed slave, George Carol, cut down trees on the land and used them to help William Jasper build the school, which served the black community until 1932, she said.
“Students who went to school here were from plantations in the area,” Ford said. Pointing to white index cards on several desks, she said the names belonged to some of the students who attended the school and had been interviewed by historians a few years before, to obtain first-hand accounts of life at Laurel Grove following the Civil War, emancipation and the early years of the 20th century.
At the beginning of each morning, boys would have to bring in wood for a small pipe stove in the middle of the school to keep warm, and bring in buckets of water from a nearby spring, before the school day began at 8 a.m., Ford said. Their teacher came in from Washington every day by train and had to walk several miles between the train station and the school, located on what is now Beulah Street near Franconia Parkway.
“For most students, they stopped going to school after seventh grade, because there was no high school in the area for them to go to,” Ford said. “If they wanted to go to high school, they’d have to go into D.C. But they couldn’t tell anyone there they lived in Virginia because you had to live in D.C. to go to school there,” she said.
Geneva and Winnie Walker were the only two students to complete high school in Washington, Ford said, because their father worked for the railroad company and was able to get them train passes to go into the city every day.
THE STUDENTS at Laurel Grove have been labeled the “first generation born to freedom” by the docents at the school, Ford said, because they were the children of emancipated slaves. Their importance to the eight young men who sat in the school on Saturday was more than just serving as a reminder of how far things have come in the past 70 years.
“You have an opportunity that people who went to Laurel Grove didn’t have,” she said.
The hour at Laurel Grove was the midpoint of a day focusing on the young men’s education, which started and ended by meeting with representatives from colleges at the Alfred Street Baptist Church.
Eight men from high schools around Fairfax County are two years into a mentoring program by members of Beta Nu Boule, the Northern Virginia chapter of Sigma Pi Phi fraternity which was started in 1904 to serve African American men in Philadelphia.
“Our foundation took on this project two and a half years ago to select a group of eight young men who, at the time, were in eighth grade,” said Robert Warren, co-founder of Beta Nu Boule. “We decided we would mentor these men, keep an eye on them and keep them focused on their education through high school and college.”
The mentors are committed not only to making sure their mentees earn the grades to go to college, but that five of the students will receive $20,000 scholarships to attend a college in Virginia, Warren said.
“I am responsible to make sure my student is doing well in school. If he goes to school in Virginia, I can get to him anywhere in the state within four hours,” he said of the stipulation.
MEN IN BETA Nu Boule are all professional in some degree, whether they are doctors, lawyers or in other roles that can seen as role models for the young men. As the mentees go through high school and college, their relationships with their mentors change. If their mentor is a lawyer, but the mentee wants to study to be a doctor, other men in the group will be able to take over and the mentor will become more of a “trusted friend,” Warren said.
Halfway through the high school portion of the project, measures of success are being realized.
“When we started this, my guy was failing,” Warren said. “Now he’s got a solid C average and he’s improving every day. The question for him is no longer if he’s going to college, but when and where. “
The mentors hope their students realize their good fortune.
“To have an education laid out for you and not take advantage of it is criminal,” said Larry Gillespie, a member of Beta Nu Boule. “Our ancestors worked so hard and valued their education so much. We hope this will show the contrast, when we look at this from the historic point of view of the freed slaves.”
The men in Beta Nu Boule are trying to fill a larger void in the community, by “putting ourselves into the community to create a positive situation,” said Fred Leigh, co-founder of the organization. “There was a time when all socio-economic classes lived in the same place, but in Northern Virginia it’s hard to find that anymore. How do you create the environment that used to nurture the next generation?” he asked.
By bringing together the young men who need a “positive male role model” with professionals who can be a strong influence on their futures, Leigh said the benefits will be felt by the entire community.
“If, at the end of the four years, two-thirds of the men in our program have had the experience of a caring community, those men will go to college with a sense of responsibility for the ones coming up behind them,” Leigh said.