History of Alexandria's African American Community
Resources for the study of Alexandria’s African American community include books and CDs, brochures, lesson plans, Oral History transcriptions and archaeological site reports.
Early Free Black Neighborhoods
In 1790, when the first federal census was taken, 52 free blacks were recorded as living in Alexandria. The first community of free blacks formed at the southwestern edge of the city and became known as “The Bottoms.” By 1810, this neighborhood had extended to the southeast and a new community, Hayti, sprang up to the east.
In mid-century, Uptown began in the northwestern section of Alexandria. A community known as Petersburg (also known as The Berg or Fishtown) developed in an area just back from the north waterfront.
The free black population increased dramatically during the period in which Alexandria was part of the Federal city, rising to 836 by 1820 and continuing to expand until 1846 when Alexandria retroceded from the District of Columbia and once again became part of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Slavery in Alexandria
Prior to the Civil War, Alexandria was also home to one of the largest slave-trading operations in the country.
The building at 1315 Duke Street, now the Freedom House Museum, was once part of the headquarters for Franklin and Armfield, the largest domestic slave trading firm in the United States. Enslaved people were brought from the Chesapeake Bay area and forced to the slave markets in Natchez, Mississippi and New Orleans either by foot or ship. Franklin and Armfield were active from 1828 until 1836, exporting over 3,750 slaves to cotton and sugar plantations in the Deep South. Later, other firms continued trading in slaves here. A sign seen in Civil War period photographs has the name of Price, Birch & Co. During the Civil War the building and its surrounding site were used as a military prison for deserters, the L'Ouverture Hospital for black soldiers and barracks for contrabands who fled the confederate states and sought refuge with Union troops. Freedom House Museum was purchased by the City of Alexandria in 2020.
The Bruin Slave Jail at 1707 Duke Street was purchased by slave dealer Joseph Bruin in 1844 as his holding facility, or "slave jail" for slaves awaiting sale to individuals and other dealers. In December 1845, he and partner Henry Hill advertised in the Alexandria Gazette: "NEGROES WANTED: All persons having Negroes to sell will find ready sale and liberal prices for them by calling at the new establishment of BRUIN & HILL."
Harriet Beecher Stowe, in The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1854), described how she employed her knowledge of Bruin's slave jail as background for her explosive 1852 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. In The Key, she described the escape of a number of enslaved people from Washington, DC, on April 15, 1848, in the ship Pearl. They were later captured and returned for eventual sale in New Orleans. Bruin & Hill purchased a slave family known as the Edmondsons and brought them to the slave jail. According to Stowe, Bruin's daughter begged that Mary and Emily Edmondson be excluded from the group that was eventually sent to New Orleans for sale there, a group that included other Edmondson siblings. Their father, Paul Edmondson, traveled north to try and raise funds for the purchase of two of his daughters. He eventually met Reverend Lyman Beecher, Stowe's father, who raised the sum overnight. Bruin and his "large slave warehouse" are mentioned approximately 20 times in The Key. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Bruin fled Alexandria but was captured and then confined in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, DC, until the end of the war. In his absence, his slave jail was used as the Fairfax County courthouse until July of 1865.
The Bruin Slave Jail is featured on the National Park Service website, Underground Railroad: Journey to Freedom. The building is not open to the public. A statue was erected at this site in 2010 as a memorial to the Edmondson sisters and others who passed through the Slave Jail. For more information, read the archaeological site report.
The Civil War
During the Civil War, Alexandria was occupied by Union troops. Those escaping from slavery found safe haven in Alexandria because of the Union occupation. Alexandria's black population reached 5,300 by 1870, and the large numbers arriving during the war created a refugee crisis. While many found employment, other contrabands, as the freedmen were officially known, were destitute after fleeing slavery, and arrived hungry and in ill health. Many were housed in barracks, and disease was rampant. In 1864, after hundreds had perished, the Superintendent of Contrabands ordered that a property on the southern edge of town, across from the Catholic cemetery, be confiscated for use as a cemetery. Alexandria Contrabands & Freedmen Cemetery served as the burial place for about 1,800 of those who fled to Alexandria to escape from bondage. A Memorial opened on the site of the cemetery in 2014, to honor the memory of the Freedmen, the hardships they faced, and their contributions to the City.
Black regiments, commanded by white officers and
designated U.S. Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.), were quickly raised by the War
Department following the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in early
1863. Approximately 180,000 African American soldiers took up the call to fight
for the Union, comprising more than 10% of all Federal forces. Knowing that a
Northern loss could mean possible re-enslavement, freemen and those formerly
enslaved showed dedication to their country and a commitment to the freedom of
their people forever. Black soldiers were buried at Contrabands
& Freedmen Cemetery until convalescent soldiers
at L’Ouverture Hospital protested. In response to their letter in which
"We ask that our bodies may find a resting place in the ground designated
for the burial of the brave defenders of our countries flag....," the
soldiers gained the right to be buried in Soldiers’ Cemetery, now the Alexandria
Black Neighborhoods after the Civil War
Early black neighborhoods expanded, and new settlements began in the post-bellum period. New settlements included The Hill (south of Hayti), Cross Canal (located on each side of the Alexandria Canal locks on the north end of town), The Hump (to the west of Cross Canal), and Colored Rosemont south of The Hump and east of the railroad. By 1910, there was almost a continuous band of African American neighborhoods surrounding the city’s center and edging Alexandria’s boundaries. The early neighborhoods of Uptown and The Berg are still viable 21st century neighborhoods. The historic African American community known as Uptown was designated as the Parker-Gray Historic District in 1984, and in 2008 was approved for listing on the Virginia Landmarks Register. It is expected to join the Old and Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.
After the Civil War, a neighborhood known as The Fort grew up around Fort Ward, one of the Union forts built as part of the Defenses of Washington. But in the 1950s and 1960s, the City moved the residents out of the area to establish the Fort Ward Park and Museum. The City of Alexandria is working on an Interpretive Plan for Fort Ward Park to expand interpretation to include the full range of its history, especially including the African American experience and the post-Civil War Fort community. As part of this effort, archaeological investigations took place in the park between 2009 and 2014.
Immune Regiments in the Spanish-American War
During the Spanish-American War (1898), Black Virginians were part of “Immune” regiments that were raised throughout the South to provide troops who were allegedly immune to the tropical diseases that prevailed in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines and which proved to be much deadlier than Spanish bullets. The first of Virginia’s four Immune companies was organized in Alexandria at the Braddock House Hotel (now Carlyle House Historic Park).
Lynchings and the Equal Justice Initiative
Between 1882 and 1968, 100 Virginians, including at least 11 in Northern Virginia, were lynched. The lynchings were among 4,743 reported nationwide during the same period. Lynching was never a federal offense. In Alexandria, there is documentation of the lynching of two individuals: Joseph McCoy in 1897 and Benjamin Thomas in 1899. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama includes over 800 steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Community Remembrance Project invites counties across the country to claim their monuments and install them in the counties they represent. In addition to installing the pillars, EJI encourages participating communities to place a historical marker and to collect soil from the site of the lynchings, to "allow communities to gain perspective and experience that we believe is crucial to managing the monument retrieval process wisely and effectively." Alexandria is now undergoing this process.
Education and the Parker-Gray School
The Snowden School for Boys and the Hallowell School for Girls, built in the 1870s, were the first black public schools in the City of Alexandria. In 1915, the Snowden School for Boys was destroyed in a fire, but the students were allowed to attend St. Mary’s Catholic Church School which was located at the time on Wolfe and Royal Streets. In 1920, the Snowden and Hallowell schools were consolidated, and the resulting school was named the Parker-Gray School, named for John Parker, principal of the Snowden School for Boys, and Sarah Gray, principal of the Hallowell School for Girls.
The first Parker-Gray School, located at 900 Wythe Street, opened in 1920 for children in grades one through eight. It had nine teachers and the barest necessities. Members of the community provided chairs and basic equipment. For many years, African American students had to travel to Washington, D.C. to receive an education beyond the eighth grade.
By the early 1930s the school was overcrowded. A new school was established in an old silk factory at the corner of Wilkes and South Pitt streets for Negro children who lived south of Cameron Street. It was named Lyles-Crouch to honor Jane Crouch and Rozier D. Lyles. Mrs. Crouch was a principal at Hallowell School; Mr. Lyles taught at Snowden School and at the first Parker-Gray School. Parker-Gray was soon overcrowded again, so classrooms and a library were added. The first students who attended Parker-Gray for grades eight through eleven graduated in 1936. (Virginia required only 11 years of public education then.)
The community realized that a separate high school building was needed. The Hopkins House Men’s Club and other groups asked the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. NAACP lawyers, headed by Attorney Charles Houston, conferred with city, state and federal officials. Eventually, the Parker-Gray High School was built at 1207 Madison Street. It was dedicated on May 31, 1950 and remained the black high school until 1965.
In the fall of 1964, all sectors of the Alexandria school system – students, faculty, and staff – were integrated. Parker-Gray High School was closed in 1965 and black students attended the city’s other high schools--George Washington, T.C. Williams, and Francis C. Hammond.
From 1965 until 1979, the building served as a Middle School. The property was sold, and a portion of the funds was used by the City of Alexandria to renovate and extend the Alexandria Black History Resource Center, now the Alexandria Black History Museum. In the early 1980s the building was demolished, but a plaque marks the location of the old school.
Before the last home football game on October 29th, 1983, the stadium at T.C. Williams High School was dedicated as the Parker-Gray Memorial Stadium. The School Board’s decision to name the stadium The Parker-Gray Memorial Stadium was an acknowledgment of community pride associated with a high school that served this city well. A history of Parker-Gray School, published in 1976 states, "During the 1950s, the pinnacles in the evolution of Negro education in Alexandria were achieved." Many Parker-Gray alumni have excelled in the arts, in professions, in government and military service, in athletics, and in other endeavors.
Civil Rights: Samuel Tucker and America’s First Sit-Down Strike
American’s first Sit-Down Strike took place in 1939 at the Alexandria Library, ushering in the very early days of the Civil Rights movement.
Samuel Tucker was born on June 18, 1913 at 918 Queen Street.
During his youth, he attended Parker-Gray School and graduated from Armstrong
High School in Washington, DC. Attending the segregated schools left a deep an
impression on his mind that would later fuel his fire to fight for civil
rights. Following high school, Tucker matriculated to Howard University,
graduating from Howard in 1933. Tucker pursued independent legal training after
college and in 1934, he passed the bar at the age of 20. On December 27,
1934 he was sworn into office as an attorney.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Samuel W. Tucker represented African Americans in civil and criminal cases in Alexandria and Southside Virginia.
On March 17, 1939, Tucker and retired Army Sergeant George Wilson walked through the doors of the segregated Queen Street Library and requested an application for a library card. Library policy was to not issue library cards to persons of the colored race. Tucker passed the newly erected Alexandria library every day, yet as an African American he had to travel to the District of Columbia to have access to library facilities. Unsatisfied with the unequal access to educational facilities, Tucker decided to battle the system of Jim Crow through the courts.
On August 21, 1939, Tucker sent five young African American men to stage a peaceful protest at the whites-only library at 717 Queen Street in Alexandria, VA. The five men were arrested for disorderly conduct, but the charges against the men were dropped.
A lawsuit was filed in the local court to force the librarian to issue a library card to Sergeant Wilson as a taxpaying citizen of the City of Alexandria. When the case was eventually heard on January 10, 1940, the judge rejected the petition for a library card for technical reasons but affirmed that “there were no legal grounds for refusing the plaintiff or any other bona fide citizen the use of the library.”
The Virginia Public Assemblages Act of 1926 stated that both races were to be segregated within the same facility, therefore according to the law African Americans were unlawfully barred from the Alexandria Library. Within two days of the judge’s decision, two African Americans applied for library cards. Yet they were refused by being informed that a new colored branch of the Alexandria library was under construction and that their application was under consideration. This was an obvious tactic to appease them until a separate colored branch could be opened.
The colored branch, the Robinson Library, opened in 1940 and and
was used until desegregation in the early 1960s. After desegregation, the
building was used for various community service programs. Today, the Robert
Robinson Library forms an integral part of the Alexandria Black History Museum.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Tucker became the leading attorney for the NAACP in the state of Virginia. He worked tirelessly on the appeal of the “Martinsville Seven” and began his crusade to end segregation in the public-school systems. He appeared at the Supreme Court at least five times insisting that the Supreme Court increase their efforts to force states to desegregate schools. He ran for Congress twice with the intent to show that African Americans have a voice in government. Samuel Wilbert Tucker died on October 20, 1990.
On October 18, 2019, the Alexandria Circuit Court dismissed all charges against the sit-in participants. After recent research by Alexandria Library staff determined that the original judge in the case never issued a ruling and the charges were technically still outstanding, Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter asked the Court to dismiss the charges. Although the five African American residents were charged with disorderly conduct, the Court has now found that they were “lawfully exercising their constitutional rights to free assembly, speech and to petition the government to alter the established policy of sanctioned segregation at the time of their arrest,” and that “sitting peacefully in a library reading books … was not in any fashion disorderly or likely to cause acts of violence.” The Court determined that no laws had been broken and no criminal charges should have been filed.
The Ramsey Homes and Public Housing
Several low-income housing projects were built in Alexandria between 1941 and 1968. Most of the properties were first built as military housing. Many of them have now been replaced with scattered-site housing and mixed income communities. The Ramsey Homes, built in 1941 for African American defense workers, were demolished in 2018 to make way for a new community of low-income and market-rate units. The Board of Commissioners of the Alexandria and Redevelopment Housing Authority (ARHA) are redeveloping the Ramsey Homes at a density high enough to sustain a critical mass of low-income residents in order to maintain the strong social and support networks that are essential in low-income communities. Demolition of the Ramsey Homes required Section 106 mitigation as required by Federal historic preservation laws, including historical and architectural documentation, genealogical research and oral histories, interpretive signage and community engagement.
The Alexandria Black History Museum
In 1983, through the advocacy of the Parker-Gray Alumni and the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage, the Robert Robinson Library re-opened as the Alexandria Black History Research Center. At first, staffing was provided on a volunteer basis by the members of these organizations. In 1987, the Alexandria City Council placed the operation of the Museum under the Office of Historic Alexandria and provided funding for an addition to the building that was completed in 1989. Two additional properties were added to the museum in 1995. The Watson Reading Room is located next door to the Museum. The Alexandria African American Heritage Park, a nine-acre park on Holland Lane, preserves the site of a 19th-century African American cemetery.
The museum follows its mission of preserving the history of Alexandria’s African American citizens, as well as providing a forum for issues of concern to all African Americans. The Museum has become a source of pride to Alexandria’s African American citizens. With two exhibition galleries on the first floor of the museum, and artifact storage and offices below, the Alexandria Black History Museum continues to expand educational opportunities for residents, scholars and tourists.
Taking a New Look at African American History
City of Alexandria is expanding its study, preservation and interpretation of
African American history through the following initiatives.
- Including history of The Fort neighborhood in the Fort Ward Interpretive Plan
- Participating in the Equal Justice Initiative
- Purchasing Freedom House Museum and expanding its exhibits and programs
- Incorporating African American history into interpretation at all the City-owned museums