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When people think of Loudoun County, they usually conjure up images of fox hunts and thoroughbred horses.
But the Virginia county has a long and fascinating African American history. One of the best-preserved gems of that history is Willisville.
Long before the settlement got its name, enslaved people lived there. And, unusually, they lived among free black people. After the Civil War, Willisville easily transitioned to a self-governing village of black tradespeople, who soon built a school and house of worship.
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Carol Lee Willisville Resident and President and Chair; Willisville Preservation Foundation
- Jane Covington Motion Loudoun County-Based Preservationist and Board Member, Willisville Preservation Foundation
- Dulany Morison Chair, The Mosby Heritage Area Association and Board Member, Willisville Preservation Foundation; @jsmheritagearea
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll meet a local mother who just completed a grueling cross-country ski trek across Norway, all for a good cause. But first, Loudoun County, Virginia conjures up images of wineries, horse farms, and fox hunts. It's rich African-American history gets less attention, but a key piece of that history is garnering more interest lately, thanks to today's guests.
KOJO NNAMDIThey are champions of Willisville, a rural town of 23 people with roots that stretch back to the decades before the Civil War. Recently their village won a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Here to talk about Willisville's history and what remains of it is Carol Lee, a third-generation Willisville resident, and the president of the Willisville Preservation foundation. Carol Lee, thank you for joining us.
CAROL LEEThank you for having us.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Jane Covington Motion, a preservationist and a board member of the Willisville Preservation Foundation. Jane Covington Motion, thank you for joining us.
JANE COVINGTON MOTIONThank you.
NNAMDIAnd Dulany Morison's the president of the Mosby Heritage Area Association and a board member of the aforementioned Willisville Preservation Foundation. Dulany Morison, thank you for joining us.
DULANY MORISONOh, thank you for having us.
NNAMDICarol Lee, before we start talking about Willisville's history, can you give us the basics? Where is it? How big is it? What does it look like?
LEE(laugh) Well, it's not too big. Like you said, it's 23 residents. It's in a rural area of Loudoun County, dirt road.
NNAMDI(laugh) Why am I not surprised? But go ahead.
LEE(laugh) A nice little quiet village.
NNAMDIFor those who don't know, what is the national -- and this question is for you, Jane Covington Motion -- what is the National Registry of Historic Places, and what does being on the registry get you?
LEEGreat question. The National Register of Historic Places is the nation's list of the most prominent places in America. And there's been a big push recently to include, as should have always been there, African-American history on the register. So we are very proud to have Willisville now on the register.
NNAMDIIn particular, what could being on the register mean for Willisville?
LEEIt means nothing in terms of affecting owners' property rights. So they retain all their rights to own their home, demolish their home, should they choose. We hope they choose not to, but to sell, and enjoy all property rights. It is honorific, and so other than that, it is a great honor.
NNAMDICarol, what did your application to the National Register look like? What did you have to show?
LEEThe history of Willisville, the information that we found --
NNAMDIA lot of documents?
LEEA lot of documents. A lot of documents. (laugh)
NNAMDIThat you had to put together?
LEEWell, Ms. Jane did, yeah.
NNAMDIWell, I hear -- I hear that a gospel concert --
NNAMDI-- was somehow involved in this, in getting Willisville on the register. How did that work?
LEEWell, we had to raise money to do this, so we had a gospel concert from local people that was on the program, and it was very successful, very successful.
NNAMDIYou were able to raise money?
LEEYes, more than what we needed, so ...
NNAMDIWell, your family, Carol, has lived in Willisville for three generations. When did you grow up there, and what was growing up there like?
LEEMy mother moved there in -- when she was small, in 1935. That's when my mama and my grandparents moved there.
LEEGrowing up there was nice. (laugh) When we were little, we didn't know nothing else existed, but it was nice, you were protected. You could be outside, and --
NNAMDIWhat was the population like when you were growing up there?
LEEMore than now.
NNAMDIOkay. More than the 23 residents.
LEEYeah, more -- more -- yes, more than that, yes.
NNAMDIWhat made you start researching Willisville's history, and why did you decide that it should be on the National Register of Historic Places?
LEEI started researching it researching it because I did family. Once we finished with family, we decided to -- a cousin and I, we decided to do the homes in the village. And to be on the National Register, that's Dulany (laugh) has come and let us know about that, and how could we, you know, be a part of that, so.
NNAMDIGrowing up in Willisville in the middle of the 20th century, what was your experience of racism?
LEEAs I said, we weren't exposed to that. We really weren't. We were in the village, we didn't go out --
NNAMDIYou felt protected --
NNAMDI-- in lots of respects. Jane Covington Motion, you're a Loudoun County base preservationist hired more than a year ago to work alongside Carol and others to delve even deeper into Willisville's history. What makes the village so interesting to you?
MOTIONOh, goodness, what a great question. There's so many journals and stories, oral histories, of Willisville, that there was a lot to dive into. Carol had done a lot of the preliminary work, as she said, going into the family's history. African-American research is very difficult to do. Obviously the enslaved were not allowed to read or write or to learn to read or write. So we really depended on the diaries of the adjoining land -- white adjoining landowners.
NNAMDIDulany, you are a white man whose ancestor owned the plantation that was interdependent with the settlement that ultimately became Willisville. Today, when many Americans say they have yet to fully grapple with our country's history of slavery. I'm wondering if that idea figures into your interest in Willisville.
MORISONWell, I would say that when the project began, it didn't originally play a significant factor. But as it continued to evolve and I would engage more with my own family history and its relationship to Willisville, that certainly reinforced my desire to be a supportive entity, to bring this community and village the well-deserved recognition.
NNAMDIYou grew up near Willisville and in addition to your work with the Willisville Preservation Foundation, you chair another preservationist group. Tell us about that group.
MORISONSo the Mosby Heritage Area Association, our mission is preservation through education. And our organization represents a five-county state-designated heritage area in Northern Virginia, and we work to highlight all the history that has taken place in the heritage area, from Native American to the 20th century.
MORISONAnd we do so through school programming. We go into schools and teach local history. We also have special events throughout the year, and historic homes, and bus tours and book talks. We also advocate for the preservation of the historic landscape of the heritage area.
NNAMDIJane, both enslaved and free black people lived in Willisville before the Civil War. How we do know that?
MOTIONWe know that through two different documents. Well, maybe more than that. We know that there was a fellow named Henson Willis, and we know that through the Dulany diaries. And we've also seen that in land tax records and personal property tax records.
NNAMDIHow unusual was that? How unusual was it for free and enslaved black people to live near each other before slavery was abolished?
MOTIONIt wasn't absolutely -- it wasn't the only case, but there are few cases only because the white owners were worried about having the enslaved and the free living side-by-side, just in case someone might run off together.
NNAMDISomehow might get the idea of leaving.
NNAMDIDoes anything remain in Willisville that dates from the period before the Civil War?
MOTIONThere does. There's the Willis House, which we believe was built by Henson Willis, or possibly the Setons, who owned the property where he lived. Maybe -- let me think, maybe there are three or four houses that still remain, highly modified, so that they are livable to today's standards.
NNAMDIHere now is Sylvia, who is in Lorton, Virginia. Sylvia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SYLVIAYeah, I just wanna say that, you know, I'm from Purcellville, Virginia, and -- which is about 10 miles away, and we always went to Willisville, you know, to play with Carol and her family and her friends. (laugh) And her mother, who's I guess somewhere close to 90 years old, you know.
NNAMDICarol is nodding her head "yes." You're pretty accurate there.
SYLVIAYeah. My friend lived in Willisville, and he went to the schoolhouse, a two or three-room school, right there, before they passed integration, and then he went to Banneker School. But I'd also like to mention there is a black church there, which has services every Sunday, and real small, but really quaint. And we love -- we visit that church often.
NNAMDII appreciate your call, Sylvia. Thanks so much for your call. Carol, she mentioned the school, the Willisville School. It was built in 1868 and expanded in 1932. Tell us a little bit about that school. Who built it, and were you ever a student there?
LEENo. (laugh) I'm not that old, but I'll let Jane tell you, to start off with the history of it.
NNAMDIThe history of the school?
MOTIONThe original school was log, one room, built by the Freedman's Bureau, who was designated to help African-Americans get back on their feet after emancipation. It was built as a church and a school, so it was a place of worship on Sundays and for education every other day of the week.
NNAMDIDid you have siblings, who went to that school, Carol?
LEEI did. My mother went there, and all of my aunts and uncles. My older sisters went and brother went, but I was much too young.
NNAMDIYou were too young to go to that school.
NNAMDIJane, how did the free black people of Willisville make a living? How did they earn a living?
MOTIONThey were tradesmen. We believe that Henson Willis, he was listed as a mechanic, and we believe that he worked at the nearby Clifton mill. So he would have been a very valuable man to have around town.
NNAMDICarol, one of the 60 buildings in the Willisville historic district happens to be your home. When was it built?
LEEIt's not my home, it's the property for which my new home sits on.
LEEYeah, I bought the property. The home was so in bad shape that we had to tear it down, and I rebuilt on the land.
LEEI rebuilt on the land.
NNAMDISo you're not the original home, but you're in the original location.
LEERight, I'm in the original location.
NNAMDIJane, what happened to the school after the Supreme Court decision in Brown versus Board of Education in 1954? That decision declared racial segregation in public education unconstitutional. So what was the fate of the school after that?
MOTIONWell, luckily, it was auctioned off into private hands, and it is now a residence. So we're sad that there's no longer education within the village, but certainly glad that that beautiful structure remains.
NNAMDIOkay. You mentioned the name Henson Willis. So tell us about some of the other buildings like the Willis House, and who was Henson Willis.
MOTIONHenson Willis, we don't know how he gained his freedom, but he appears in several diaries. He had a relationship with the Dulany family. He lived on Seton property, which is an adjacent farm, and he built a one-room log house in about 1840. That's about all we know. He had two wives, he had children who grew up in the village.
NNAMDIWas Willisville named for Henson Willis, or was it always called Willisville?
MOTIONObviously, we assume it was named for Mr. Willis. He was obviously a prominent man in the community. He was the first buried in the old Willisville cemetery. But before about the 1890s, the village had no name. It was referred to as "near Clifton," which was near the mill.
NNAMDIThe Clifton mill.
MOTIONThe Clifton mill.
NNAMDIAh, okay, so you were -- before you were Willisville, you were just "near Clifton." (laugh)
LEEWe were near somewhere.
NNAMDIHow about the Warner House? From when does it date and who might have lived there?
MOTIONThe Warner House has been difficult to date, but there's several other historians, who put the date around 1840, 1850, so before the Civil War. It is set apart from the village, so we assume that it had a little bit of a different role than for the free or the enslaved. Possibly a farm manager lived there, for the Seton family.
NNAMDIThere are three historic cemeteries in Willisville. What do we know about them and who is buried there, Carol?
LEEOne is the old Willisville cemetery, and it's about 43 that we have found that's buried there, from death certificates and headstones. There's another cemetery which you just spoke about, the Warner House.
LEEAll of those -- that family is buried there.
LEEThe other cemetery is connected again to the Warner House, which is the person, who bought the Warner House, which she is -- which she is, she was a schoolteacher at the old schoolhouse. She is still living. She's 93 years old.
LEEShe went there as a student, and she taught there.
LEEAnd then she -- when the schools got integrated, she taught in the Banneker school.
NNAMDIJane, you have noted that certain characteristics of the cemeteries we've been talking about shed light on the people who lived in Willisville more than a century ago. Tell us about the tombstones and about the yucca plants.
MOTIONThe yucca plant identifies an African-American cemetery. It's an evergreen, and it is very hardy, so it will last for centuries. The tombstones in the Willisville cemetery are marked, which is very rare, for -- not unusual, but rare, for African-Americans of that time period. Clearly, money was tight after the Civil War, and so to have a limestone carved tombstone was a real show of wealth.
NNAMDIDulany, your family goes back generations in Loudoun County. Tell us about the Dulany family plantation.
MORISONWell, our family first moved to this area of southwestern Loudoun in about 1811. And in 1833, they purchased Wellburn Farm, which is just down the road from Willisville. And our family actually has the good fortune to still have that within the family, and we're now -- the seventh generation of our family is running the farm there. And so we've -- our roots are fairly deep in this area.
NNAMDIThere's Wellburn Road, a dirt road about two miles long, and the main route through Willisville. You feel that it should remain a dirt road. Why is that?
MORISONWell, so this -- we do feel that way, because it's a contributing structure to the neighborhood there of this sort of time capsule of these, you know, beautiful, rolling horse fields, old houses. You have Willisville, you have horse riders, people walking their dog, people going on just walks themselves. And it is a major part of the rural experience in this very historic part of Virginia.
NNAMDICarol, do you agree with -- that the road is better left unpaved?
LEEI do agree. The houses sit pretty close to the roads. If the road was paved, we would have more than dead pets. (laugh) With the speeding going down through it, and you know.
NNAMDIDulany, even though Willisville is now on the National Register of Historic Places, is there anything that could stop the owners from selling homes within the district, and razing them?
MORISONWell, technically they are -- property owners are free to do that. But we hope that this designation will be -- give us some footing to stand on as we sort of campaign or encourage them and encourage others to support the heritage and not do that.
NNAMDIThere's a chance that Loudoun County may give Willisville the status of an independent village. How would that happen, and why would that be a good thing?
MORISONWell, if they were to achieve that, which we certainly hope they would, they would be able to have speed limit signs, signage to the village. They would have a voice in the Loudoun County discussion with the supervisors, and they certainly could advocate for themselves much better.
NNAMDICarol, you say that one of the things you love about Willisville, because at some point you had moved away --
NNAMDI-- and then you moved back again. Why'd you move back?
LEEFor the security, (laugh) the quietness, I'm a country girl.
NNAMDIAnd you are afraid that now that it's on the National Register of Historic Places, tourists might be coming, poking around, and spoiling the tranquility. Are you concerned about that?
LEENo, no, no.
NNAMDIOkay. You can handle it if tourists come (unintelligible) .
LEEI think so.
NNAMDIYou can handle it if the peace and quiet is disrupted?
LEEI think so.
NNAMDISo that people come through -- Carol Lee, she's a third-generation Willisville resident. She's also the president of the Willisville Preservation Foundation. Thank you very much for joining us, and good luck to you and Willisville.
LEEThank you for having us.
NNAMDIJane Covington Motion is a preservationist and a board member of the Willisville Preservation Foundation. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Dulany Morison is the president of the Mosby Heritage Area Association. He's also a board member of the Willisville Preservation Foundation. Dulany Morison, thank you for joining us.
MORISONThank you, it's been an honor.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break, when we come back, we'll meet a local mother who just completed a grueling cross-country ski trek across Norway, all for a good cause. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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