Separate, But Self-Determined: Black Education & Community in Occoquan

Joyce Russell

Joyce Russell's yearbook photo from her third year at Gar-Field High School. Russell was the first African American student to integrate secondary schools in Prince William County.

Image Source: Joyce Russell Terrell, A Blues Song of My Own (Signal Mountain, TN: CASI Publishing, 2009), 117.

Joyce Russell was thirteen years old when she awoke to the sound of gunfire at her home. A few hours prior, the Russell family had celebrated the announcement that Joyce, her brother Cameron, and sister Deborah, would be allowed to integrate two Prince William County Schools in the fall of 1961. The attack on their home outside of Occoquan, Virginia was an escalation in the level of violence they were already being subjected to; previously, threats had only come in the form of anonymous phone calls.[1] Although Brown v. Board had been decided seven years prior, the events at the Russell household that summer night proved that attitudes of racism and bigotry continued to permeate the region.

While this event stands out as perhaps the most violent to befall a member of the Black community in the area, it is unfortunately not the only incident of discrimination in local residents’ pursuit of education. From the very beginnings of Virginia’s public school system, African Americans living in and around the incorporated town of Occoquan struggled against repeated moments of oppression and injustice. This digital history project aims to map out how those residents operated within a discriminatory educational system, with a specific focus on the community’s response to early exclusion, trivialization at the hands of the county, and consolidation. This latter event is particularly important due to ongoing conversations about school closings and Black community resistance, as referenced in the December 2022 edition of the Educational Researcher.[2] That article will help inform the histories presented here.

Black School Closings Aren't New

The authors of this article organize historic Black school closings into 5 distinct waves of targeted attacks. These efforts at interrupting African American progress produce dire consequences, including the destabilization and destruction of Black communities.

Additionally the geographic concepts at the center of Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds will aid in the examination of cycles of oppression and resistance in the Black community at the center of this project.[3] Existing narratives about African American history in Occoquan prioritize two sites: a Baptist church and a successful store. While it’s remarkable that these stories of Black accomplishment have survived, this overemphasis on feel-good accounts mutes the broader history of these two sites, in addition to the histories of the larger Black community in the area. Just as McKittrick viewed the Green Hill auction block as “much more than a well-constructed stone object,” the use of her theories in this project will enable a fuller viewing of spaces that still exist, as well as sites that no longer stand.[4] Furthermore, McKittrick’s emphasis on challenging traditional narratives supports an idea that is central to this project: the rigid boundaries of Occoquan’s historic district have led to limited interpretations of Black history in the area. Some Black residents (like Joyce Russell) did not live in Occoquan proper, but traveled into the town on a daily basis for worship; other individuals did live within the historic district, but attended school outside of the village because no schools for Black children existed within the town.

Map of Occoquan Boundaries

Most historical interpretations regarding Occoquan, Virginia are set within the town’s boundaries. This approach restricts the ability to produce complex stories about the area. Perhaps most importantly, it also leads to the exclusion of elements that make up the region’s vibrant Black history; many African American institutions and individuals existed just outside Occoquan’s limits.

This map spotlights three of those sites. When Ebenezer Baptist Church was organized in 1883, it was one of the first African American churches in the area; Ebenezer’s cemetery however, sits more than one mile away in Woodbridge. Summit School was the first and only primary school in the Occoquan district available to Black children, also located over a mile away from Ebenezer. Finally, when Joyce Russell and her family were attacked, their residence was a five minute drive from their place of worship - Ebenezer Baptist in Occoquan.

Image Copyright Prince William County & Pictometry. Polygons by author.

Yesterday's Schools

Much of the information included in this project draws on Phinney's research on individual schools in the county; Chapter 8, "A Segregated System," has also been an invaluable resource.

Photo by author.

Finally, this project will draw on research conducted by Lucy Walsh Phinney in Yesterday’s Schools, a rigorous examination of the history of primary schools in Prince William County.[5] Here too, McKittrick’s ideas come into play: examining Black sites of education from the perspective of the families who built and attended them reconsiders the meaning attributed to these places by historians like Phinney.[6] Overall, the goal and hope of this project is to more accurately represent the stories of Black education in the Occoquan area, while contributing to a historical record that more proportionally features Black lives next door.

By Stephanie Martinez

[1] Joyce Russell Terrell, A Blues Song of My Own (Signal Mountain, TN: CASI Publishing, 2009), 83-87.

[2] Jerome E. Morris, Benjamin D. Parker, and Luimil M. Negrón, “Black School Closings Aren’t New: Historically Contextualizing Contemporary School Closings and Black Community Resistance,” Educational Researcher 51, no. 9 (2022): pp. 575-583,

[3] Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 68.

[4] McKittrick, 66.

[5] Lucy Walsh Phinney, Yesterday's Schools: Public Elementary Education in Prince William County, Virginia, 1869-1969: A Social and Educational History of a Rural County in Virginia (Richmond, VA: R. E. F. Typesetting & Publishing, Incorporated, 1993).

[6] McKittrick, 68.

Prev Next