Loudoun’s First African American Village to be Added to the National Register of Historic Places
Written by Heidi Baumstark
Roots run deep in Willisville, the tiny 19th-century rural village in Loudoun County just eight miles west of Middleburg. And it’s receiving well-deserved recognition as a surviving community settled by African Americans prior to and during the 1865-77 Reconstruction era. Through the 2019 formation of the Willisville Preservation Foundation (WPF), a nonprofit advocating to preserve its heritage, roots remain intact and strong.
On September 2, 2023, at Buchanan Hall in Upperville, family, friends, and neighbors attended a gospel concert to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the first gospel concert held there in August 2018. Both concerts were the brainchild of third generation Willisville resident Carol Lee, president of WPF. The concerts were co-hosted by Virginia Piedmont Heritage Area (VPHA), one of the region’s strongest voices for preservation in Virginia’s Piedmont and lower Shenandoah Valley.
Middleburg native C. Dulany Morison is one of 11 WPF board members who have been instrumental in getting recognition for the village; he also serves on VPHA’s Preservation Committee. Before the concert began, he welcomed guests and told a little background on WPF. “Just in time for Christmas in 2019, we got the call that Willisville was added to the National Register of Historic Places [NRHP],” he said. Later milestones include working with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to get an historical road marker placed in late summer of 2021 at the intersection of Route 50 and Willisville Road. Willisville is included in Middleburg Museum’s Rural Roads panels, which are a traveling exhibit, and Suzanne Obetz, director of the Middleburg Museum, is working with Carol Lee to get an exhibit for spring 2024. An exhibit on Willisville is also at the Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum in Sterling.
Now, the goal is to publish a book on Willisville’s history to include new information that was not in the NRHP documentation. Lori Kimball, who works in historic records for Loudoun County, was asked to work on this project, which is expected to be completed in spring 2024. The book will explore family histories related to each original land plot and the old cemetery that includes the grave of Henson Willis (1836-1873), for whom the area is named and who is believed to be the first person buried there. Morison added, “Our journey has been one of partnership, cooperation, and community. Carol Lee, our leader of WPF, continues to drive us and keeps her eye on the next step forward.” The gospel concert included songs by Chosen, a praise duo, and Loudoun Community Choir. Singing brought out the clapping of hands in worship.
Efforts to bring recognition to Willisville began in January of 2018 when VPHA (then known as Mosby Heritage Area Association) partnered with Lee, who had been cataloging the history of the village for over a decade. The goal of that 2018 concert was to raise money and awareness toward getting Willisville listed on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s NRHP. Those efforts paid off. Funds were raised to hire Jane Covington, an architectural conservator and local historical preservationist, to conduct extensive research with Lee and complete the nomination application. In December 2019, the 24-acre Willisville Historic District with its 16 structures along the graveled Welbourne Road became the first historically African American village in Loudoun County to be listed on the NRHP.
Carol’s mother, Ann Brooks Lee, born in 1927 and the mother of eight children, can be considered the matriarch of the community, having moved there in 1935. At age 96, she still lives in the same house her parents brought her to when she was eight years old; that house is right next to her daughter, Carol.
Carol’s daughter, Jennifer Williams, said, “It means a lot to have Willisville preserved; I grew up there. My grandmother taught us to take pride in who we are. She would say, ‘God always makes a way.’ We — my brother and I — want to continue the Foundation when Mom passes the torch to me.” Her brother is Dwight Grant, owner of the popular Salon Aubrey in downtown Middleburg.
Reflecting on the preservation of Willisville, Carol concluded, “God placed the right people in my life.” After the concert, a huge birthday cake was brought out for her mother who turned 96 the next day, September 3.
The strong roots in Willisville remain intact, nurtured by a community that takes pride in its heritage. A heritage that defines the village.
To donate to the Willisville Preservation Foundation, mail donations to WPF, P.O. Box 659, Middleburg, Virginia 20118. Visit VPHA at piedmontheritage.org or call 540-687-6681; to donate, visit piedmontheritage.org/make-a-donation. ML
Posted on: September 19, 2023