'It is the most amazing feeling to find a gem like this. It was like a beautiful surprise standing right in the middle of the woods,' she said.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 17, 2022.
When Kimberly Morris began working on a book about her family going all the way back to when her ancestors were enslaved in the 1800s, she had no idea she was on track to uncover an incredible piece of history. The genealogy hobbyist's search for her roots led her to a dilapidated wooden, one-room schoolhouse in the woods of Virginia's Caroline County that has been reclaimed by Mother Nature in the years since her father attended the school. "This is my family's history," Morris told The Washington Post about the over a century-old small abandoned building with a torn-up floor, precarious roof and missing windows.
Kimberly Morris, a genealogy hobbyist, found the segregated schoolhouse her father attended decaying in the Virginia woods.— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) February 16, 2022
Now it is on the way to being saved. https://t.co/N6iLItxHNA
"I wouldn't have even imagined that anything like this was still standing here," she said in an interview with WTVR CBS 6. "It was one of the biggest discoveries in my whole research journey. Actually, for it to be as old as it is incredible that it is still standing. It is the most amazing feeling to find a gem like this. It was like a beautiful surprise standing right in the middle of the woods." According to Morris, her father, Isaiah Morris, attended the segregated school in the 1930s alongside other students who were descendants of enslaved people in the Richmond area.
Daughter digging for her roots discovers hidden history in Virginia woods https://t.co/ylX7PVljFR— Courtney Haynes (@cas_sands) February 6, 2022
"My great-grandfather and my great-grandmother were born into slavery, and my great-great-grandparents were also slaves," she revealed. The ramshackle building sat hidden in plain sight in a wooded area in the community of Dawn, Virginia until Morris discovered it while researching for her book. "Here I was, looking at an important piece of my father's past," she said. "I couldn't believe that the school he went to as a little boy was still standing."
Morris revealed that she'd wondered about the school for years as her dad often reminisced about it before he died in 2017 at age 87. "I remember him talking about living in the country and walking in the woods to get to school every day and how much fun he had going there with his cousins," she said. "I always wondered what the school looked like."
Morris, who works in the finance industry in Richmond, finally got a chance to lay eyes on the Old Dawn schoolhouse—as it was known in the early 1900s—when in late 2020, one of her elderly relatives recalled the name of the rural country road leading to it. Meanwhile, an older cousin informed her that she lived merely 20 or so minutes from the road near the school. "I set off to look for it, and I was amazed to find it in 30 minutes," said Morris. "Because the trees were bare, it was easy to see from the road." She immediately knew it was the schoolhouse from her father's childhood as it was on the road her cousin told her to take, was exactly as her relatives had described it and were also the only structure in the area.
"It was an emotional moment to realize that it was still there after all these years," Morris said. "I pictured my dad playing with his cousins and sitting outside to eat his lunch. All that history came home. I cried some happy tears when I saw that little building in the woods." Through her research, Morris also learned that the Old Dawn School is an important part of Virginia's Black American history. According to Sonja Ingram, associate director of preservation field services for Preservation Virginia in Richmond, it is one of several historic schools in southern Caroline County for Black students who were descendants of enslaved people.
Thanks to Morris' discovery, the 20-by-30-foot wood-framed school is now on the way to being preserved. "It needs to be stabilized or it's going to fall in," she said. "Now that I've found it, I want to see that it's cared for." Morris turned to Preservation Virginia, a privately-funded organization that selects about 10 historic buildings in Virginia to preserve through its Endangered Historic Places Program every year. "We're really happy that Kimberly brought this to our attention," said Ingram. "She's passionate about it, and you can tell [the school] means a lot to her. When she talks about history and her ancestors, her eyes glow."
"The little school my dad went to in the 1930s produced [horse] grooms, farmers, railroad workers and mill workers who all contributed to making Caroline County what it is today," said Morris. "The building deserves to be saved." Ingram explained that the Old Dawn School was probably built in the 1910s, about a decade before educator and presidential adviser Booker T. Washington campaigned to improve the quality of education for Black children in the South. "At the time, the public school system was segregated and they were supposed to abide by a 'separate but equal' policy, but it was not equal at all," she said. "A lot of these early Black schools were built by people in the community who often paid for a third of the school in many cases. The schools are symbolic of the struggles Black families had to go through during that time to educate their children."