Today, the James Lee building functions as a Fairfax County community center and houses the Park Authority’s Archaeology and Collections Branch labs, staff offices and collections. However, it’s past belies a markedly different purpose and the remarkable story of activism and determination that brought needed change. It’s a story worth recounting.
James Lee Elementary School opened its doors to the Black children of Falls Church on February 6, 1948. Despite the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that declared segregation of public schools unconstitutional, James Lee operated as a fully segregated Black school until June 1966 and was one of the last two segregated schools to close in Fairfax County. While the history of the James Lee building is a stark reminder of the county’s resistance to educational and racial equality, that is not the only legacy the structure carries on today.
Prior to 1948, Black students in Falls Church attended the James Lee Colored School — a two-room frame building that lacked running water. Continuing a deep and rich tradition of social and political activism, Black residents of Falls Church petitioned the school board for over two decades to rectify gaping disparities in educational funding and facilities between the county’s white and Black schools. The construction of the new James Lee School, a six-room modern brick structure with running water and indoor bathrooms, marked a significant victory in the Black community’s struggle for educational equality.
The school’s namesake, James E. Lee, and his family were among the earliest Black landowners in Falls Church. Lee donated the land upon which the James Lee Colored School was erected. Strong proponents of economic advancement through landownership, education, and social activism, the Lee family helped form the bedrock of the free Black community in Falls Church following the Civil War. James Lee’s youngest son, Russel Lee, later donated the land where the James Lee School was constructed. Lee descendants and other county residents who attended the segregated James Lee School are still present and active in the Falls Church community today.
Author Robin Ramey is the Field Director for the Archaeology and Collections Branch, headquartered out of the James Lee Center in Falls Church.