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Daughter digging for her roots discovers hidden history in Virginia woods

Posted at 10:04 AM, Feb 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-04 23:29:05-05

CAROLINE COUNTY, Va. -- Along a lonely stretch of Caroline County, hidden in plain sight, a history class awaits in the woods and Kimberly Morris is leading the lesson.

The Richmond woman has been digging for her roots. That work pulled her to a small abandoned building that Mother Nature has reclaimed.

“I wouldn’t have even imagined that anything like this was still standing here,” Morris said. “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."

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A ramshackle building to some, but to Morris, it is a diamond in the rough.

“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.

The Old Dawn School was built about 1899. One of four places of learning in the area for descendants of people who were enslaved at nearby North Wales and Meadow plantations.

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“It is incredible. I know a lot of people don’t get a chance to go back in time and go back in history to find things like this,” Morris said.

Morris' father Isiah attended this two-room schoolhouse in the 1930s.

“So to be able to just stand here and touch and see is incredible,” Morris said.

No one knows the exact date when students left for good, but time and the elements have not been kind.

Morris fears the worst if nothing is done.

“No. Don’t tear this down,” Morris said. "This is my family’s history. My family’s history. So I want it to stay.”

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Morris turned to Preservation Virginia. The group nominated Old Dawn to Virginia's Most Endangered Historic Places program.

Elizabeth Kostelny the non-profit’s CEO said if buildings like this aren’t saved we lose a little bit of our identity as Virginians.

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“It needs attention,” Kostelny said. “Maybe it is time for it to be preserved now that it has been rediscovered. These places that we bring attention to on our Endangered list really fill out that story of Virginia.”

Preservation Virginia’s Will Glasco said stabilizing the building, which sits on private land, was key before any long-term plans could be determined.

“If you didn’t know what you were looking for you could drive right by and have no idea,” Glasco said. “Even though it could use some TLC and needs some work there is a lot to love here and a lot that can be saved.”

Glasco hoped neighbors would rally to save the building.

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“A lot of times you come to a place like this and you can feel the energy,” Glasco said. “This building wasn’t just about teaching students 100 years ago. It is about teaching people today as well. It still has a story to tell. This is another chapter in the story of Civil Rights.”

This new chapter of the old school began with a woman searching for her roots.

“Old Dawn wouldn’t necessarily be on our radar without Kimberly bringing it to our attention. She is incredible,” Glasco said.

Morris said it was time to shine a light on a place left in the dark.

“Hopefully all of the ancestors are holding it together because it is still standing after all of this time,” Morris said.

With any luck, the sun may be rising on Old Dawn yet again.

“It is our history. It is our history and if something was to happen here we all lose. Nobody would know about it," she said.

If you would like to nominate a building to Preservation Virginia’s Endangered Places list this year the nomination process lasts through this month. You can submit a nomination here.

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