Keeping the Memory Alive: Development into a Museum
After the Laurel Grove School was closed by the school district in 1932, it went unused until sold at auction back into the Walker family during the 1950s. It was converted into a two-bedroom residence and remained under the ownership of the Walkers until Fairfax County decided to build a Metro Park on the Jaspers’ original thirteen acres in the 1990s. As part of the increased suburbanization of Northern Virginia at the time, these sites could have easily been destroyed and forgotten. But the developers contracted to build the Metro Park was Fried Companies, Inc. Mark and Barbara Fried felt that the site had historical significance without knowing the whole story and worked with the great-granddaughter of William and Georgianna Jasper, Phyllis Walker Ford, to save and better understand this place’s story. Walker-Ford had been living in Silver Spring, Maryland for decades until she came back to Virginia to take care of her elderly aunts, Winnie, Geneva, and Alma. She had not grown-up hearing about her family’s history and significance in the community at all. In fact, she hated history as a young person and how can you blame her when she was likely taught a limited, traditional narrative at the segregated Luther Jackson High School in the early 1960s. But the Fried Companies brought the site’s importance to the forefront and advocated for it to be saved. Walker-Ford has a testimony on the company’s website:
"When I first sold a tract of land to the Frieds, I could never have imagined the relationship that developed. They learned about a one-room schoolhouse on the property that was built in the 1880s by a community of freed slaves. My great-grandparents were members of that community. Most developers would have torn the school down, but the Frieds insisted on restoring it. It's now a museum, where local fourth graders come to learn about Virginia history. What they did was wonderful."
The Frieds provided the opportunity for the community that had remained in Franconia to come out and share their stories of their time at the school. They went against larger trends of erasure that all too often affect Black communities, and provided the space to turn Laurel Grove into a site of memory as it remained a site of resilience throughout its long history.
Learning her family’s history through the restoration and research processes that followed in the early 2000s changed the course of Walker-Ford’s life. She had no intention of coming back to where she grew up, but she ended up being the director of the Laurel Grove School Museum and its accompanying Association up through today. Over time, her initial apprehension at the thought of people being interested in local Black history, her history, was replaced by a humble drive to share this vital story. She, the Laurel Grove Association, and several other historians, educators, and researchers felt the best place to share this history was in Fairfax County Public Schools. They began the museum project by creating curriculums to fit with existing Virginia standards of learning in history for different grades, particularly the fourth, fifth, sixth, and eleventh grades, culminating with field trips to the Laurel Grove School Museum. They piloted this program with Lane Elementary School which is right down Beulah Street from the old schoolhouse, and they continue these lessons and field trips today, with the most recent one happening from March 14-17, 2023.
Personally, I would have loved to have taken a field trip to Laurel Grove School Museum when I was in elementary school. It provides an opportunity to connect the larger forces and moments of Black American and Virginian history to the building you’re in. The faces and biographies of former students on the small, hand-made wooden desks, the shackles on display in a case. It makes these big histories feel even more real because it happened right where these kids are growing up. Their title for the parallel curriculum project could not have been more accurate – “Laurel Grove School: Using Local History to Make History Come Alive.”
Phyllis Walker Ford had and has a large part in the continuing legacy of Laurel Grove School and Franconia History in general. She contributed not only to this site’s development into a museum, but also served as president of the Franconia Museum in the early 2000s, writing outreach newsletters in Historic Franconia Legacies, and served on the Fairfax County History Commission from 2009 to December 2022. She remains an advisor to the Commission. Walker-Ford carries out her family’s legacy every day by continuing their mission of education and service. Though she did not plan it this way, her roots run deep, and Northern Virginia should be thankful that she is telling and adding to this rich history of Black life in Franconia.
 “Our Approach: Development Is Complex. Our Approach Is Simple” (Fried Companies, Inc., 2014 2009), http://www.friedcompanies.com/approach.htm.
 Phyllis Walker Ford, First Interview with Phyllis Walker Ford, Audio Recording, April 4, 2023.
 Elizabeth Schy, "Parallel Curriculum Model," in Teaching with Laurel Grove School, Item #10, https://chnm.gmu.edu/laurelgrove/items/show/10 (accessed February 1, 2022).