Preserving local black history
The little half-acre cemetery with 75 graves, in the shadow of a five-story office building with shiny turquoise windows, is barely visible to drivers whizzing by on Fairfax County’s six-lane Beulah Street.
Cement tombstones with hand-lettered inscriptions have been worn down by time. On one, the name “Moses Harris” is barely legible. Another, bearing a cross, notes the passing of “Mr. Edgar Harris, BORN May 15th 1876 and DIED May 19th 1961.”
Much of Northern Virginia’s history has been paved and built over by ever-expanding development. But several residents are determined to not allow time and neglect to conceal the scars and successes of the area’s African Americans.
“We must remember those who made today possible,” said Phyllis Walker Ford, director of the Laurel Grove School Museum, which is housed in the only surviving “colored” one-room schoolhouse in Northern Virginia, next to the cemetery.
Segregated school endured
The white wooden building, once flanked by a laurel grove, is an anachronism today next to Franconia’s MetroPark commercial complex. Built in 1884, it sits on land owned by Ford’s formerly enslaved great grandparents, William and Georgianna Jasper.
When Jasper was granted freedom in 1846, Ford said, “He purchased land less than two miles from where he was enslaved. Whites and blacks lived side by side and got along.”
Ford’s ancestors deeded the land to the Fairfax County school district for purposes of building a school. But the county didn’t build the school; local African-American families did.
Fairfax County, which supplied one cord of wood per year to the school, closed it in 1933 and auctioned its contents. In 2000, the Jaspers’ descendants sold the remaining 13 acres to the Fried Companies to build MetroPark.
That’s when developers Mark and Barbara Fried unraveled the land’s history during a title search. They decided to establish an association to restore the school as a museum.
Ford, a retired human resources professional, works as the museum’s director, raising funds to preserve the school’s legacy and offer educational programs.
Ford grew up in the area and rode 20 miles each way daily to attend segregated schools. She graduated from Luther Jackson, then Fairfax County’s “black high school.” Ford’s parents and brother are buried in the cemetery beside Laurel Grove School Museum.
To Ford, Laurel Grove School represents her ancestors’ passion to be educated citizens.
“It’s important to understand all of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and the people’s resilience to find careers and have a successful life. The school’s motto was, ‘Get an education and everything else will fall into line,’” she said.
The Laurel Grove School Museum is open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, call (703) 313-4690 or visit laurelgroveschool.org.
Saving Gum Springs
Ron Chase, director of the Gum Springs Historical Society and Museum, is a fifth-generation resident of Gum Springs, the oldest African-American community in Fairfax County.
Tucked in next to U.S. 1 in the Mount Vernon area, the community was founded in 1833 by West Ford, a man formerly enslaved at Mount Vernon [no relation to Phyllis Walker Ford]. It has endured for 186 years.
“I look at how phenomenal Gum Springs was and what it means to history, being able to survive and the sacrifices people had to make,” he said.
The names of Gum Springs notables in photographs on the museum’s walls roll off Chase’s tongue easily: Samuel Taylor, a runaway enslaved man, started the area’s first church and school; Annie M. Smith was a teacher in the community; Saunders B. Moon was a principal.
The museum spotlights residents’ determination to get an education, despite the odds. Like the Laurel Grove Museum, it’s housed in a former black school, Drew Smith Elementary, built in 1953. Chase himself attended the school until the 1960s, when Fairfax County fully desegregated its schools.
As a “history keeper,” Chase manages the museum’s collection, which includes everyday items such as washboards, dishes and Civil War shot from “skirmishes nearby,” Chase said.
Now Chase is trying to save Bethlehem Baptist Church, founded in 1863, whose pastor wants to replace the historic church with a modern building.
The church, Chase said, “represents the amazing struggle and sacrifices of African Americans,” and its loss “would destroy Gum Springs.”
Alexandria’s lynching victims
MacArthur Myers also grew up in Gum Springs and remembers houses without indoor plumbing heated by coal-burning, pot-bellied stoves.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the poll tax (a Jim Crow-era prerequisite to vote) unconstitutional in 1966, his family rejoiced, he said. “My mom was dancing.”
A graduate of Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School, Myers puts his civic energies into the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of African American History, Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Virginia, and the Alexandria Black History Museum. He helped create the city’s African American Heritage Trail along its Potomac River waterfront.
“Alexandria is one city with many stories,” he said.
Myers is working with the national nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative to memorialize two local lynching victims: Joseph McCoy, hanged from a lamppost at Lee and Cameron Streets in 1897, and Benjamin Thomas, hanged in 1899 on a lamppost at Fairfax Street near King Street.
He’s seeking descendants of these men, collecting soil at the lynching sites, and advocating for city markers. Myers is also advocating for a marker to honor Private William Thomas, an African American draftee and the first Alexandrian killed in World War I.
Teaching history in period costume
A Bristow resident with a master’s degree in history, Marion Ransell Dobbins-Cohen interprets slave life in period costume.
Dobbins-Cohen is the executive director of the Aviation Institute of Maintenance in Manassas, but in her free time, she’s an interpreter at Prince William County’s Ben Lomond Regional Park.
And at Monticello in Charlottesville, she “cooks” cornmeal hoecakes, cabbage, chicken, squirrel and possum using replica slave rations.
A seventh-generation Northern Virginian, Dobbins-Cohen grew up in the then-black community of Merrifield, now the glitzy Mosaic District.
During her childhood, “those communities had dirt roads and no sidewalks,” Dobbins-Cohen recalled. “If it had a dirt road, you knew you were in a black community.”
As a child, Dobbins-Cohen loved Sundays, when grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins gathered at her grandmother’s home. After lunch, her grandmother mesmerized them with family lore, describing how her enslaved mother cooked in one pot and lived in a cabin with a dirt floor that turned to mud during rainstorms.
When a fourth-grade teacher assigned students a Virginia history essay, Dobbins-Cohen was eager to be first to read hers about her ancestors’ enslavement. She said she felt snubbed when the teacher “turned whiter than white” and called on Dobbins-Cohen last, right before the bell rang.
From then on, Cohen said, she was determined to dedicate her life to African American history. “I’m going to give voice to people who have no voice, and people are going to listen.”
Dobbins-Cohen, raised by her African American parents, learned 15 years ago that her biological father was white. “I went to sleep one night as an African American and woke up the next day mixed,” she said.
Intrigued, she tracked down his family lineage to Barnstable, Massachusetts, in the 1640s. (He died before she could meet him.)
By scouring Virginia records, Cohen confirmed that her African American forebears helped establish local black communities during Reconstruction. Her great-great grandfather, James Lee, owned land in Falls Church, where a community center still bears his name.
Segregated library now a museum
As a child growing up in Washington, D.C., Audrey Davis created museums in her bedroom and charged admission to friends and family. At age 13, she secured her first internship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
Davis has devoted her last 25 years to the Alexandria Black History Museum, serving four years as its director.
The museum is housed in the former Robert Robinson Library, built in 1940 for blacks as the city’s response to a sit-in by five African American men protesting the segregated Queen Street Public Library.
As museum director, Davis oversees a collection of books, videos and documents on African American life as well as 22 “Sites of Conscience” paintings of African-American historic sites by Sherry Sanabria.
Davis cherishes a signed Frederick Douglas autobiography, manumission documents, and photographs of the 100-year-old Parker-Gray High School, a black school demolished in 1984.
She credits her parents for her interest in history. Her father, a Washington, D.C., public school administrator and history professor at Northern Virginia Community College, took her to local historic sites.
Her grandfather, Arthur P. Davis, was an English professor at Howard University and the first black American to receive a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University in 1942.
In 1941, he co-edited The Negro Caravan, an influential anthology of Harlem Renaissance writers. He introduced her to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Toni Morrison.
Davis, who majored in art history and wrote her University of Virginia master’s thesis on 18th-century British theatrical portraiture, does not avoid sensitive issues.
The museum displays reminders of the country’s injustices, including late 19th century figurines of Aunt Jemima and other items now considered racially insensitive. She is planning programs on sexual abuse during slavery and the sexual exploitation of African American men.
“So many things in African American culture have been destroyed,” Davis said. “I can help people learn about their history and culture. My job is to grow the collection and provide a forum for issues of concern to all Americans.”
The Alexandria Black History Museum, 902 Wythe St., is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call (703) 746-4356 or visit alexandriava.gov/BlackHistory.
For tours of black historical sites in the area, visit manumissiontours.com.
Correction: The print edition of this story misstated the name of the man who founded Gum Springs, Virginia. His name is Samuel Taylor, not Samuel Tucker. In addition, Ron Chase is a fifth-generation Gum Springs resident, not fourth-generation.