Inspired by “Street Smarts/Nuggets from the Neighborhoods,” a weekly series published in The Washington Post’s Magazine, as well as “A Remarkable and Courageous Journey,” a splendid tour de force guide put together by the City of Alexandria, we came up with this “Black Alexandria Freedom Trail.”
Beginning symbolically at the southern edge of the city at the new Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, the trail takes a seemingly odd turn away from the river before finding its way to the Parker-Gray neighborhood and ending there at the Charles Houston Rec Center. Gentrifying fast, but holding on as tight as it can to its storied past, Parker-Gray is Alexandria’s historically black neighborhood and twin sister to Old Town.
Narrowing down this trail to just six sites involved some very tough choices. Black history permeates the seaport city, a 265-year-old saga that has never been fully told. We hope this whets your appetite and that you seek out the Alexandria Black History Museum for further information. And what luck, it’s our penultimate stop.
What more appropriate place could a freedom trail in Alexandria start than this hallowed ground? On their journey towards their own freedom, thousands of self-emancipated and freed “contraband” black Americans poured into Alexandria during the Civil War. Over 1,500 of these souls were buried here in a neglected square plot of land on Old Town’s southern edge.
The memorial, christened in September with descendants in attendance, might seem a little sparse to some. There’s a lot, however, to be taken in here. Most impressive is the “Wall of Remembrance,” whose information was taken from the Gladwin Record. Looking at the accompanying bronze map, one also gets a great feel for where the black neighborhoods developed.
Veering off to the west, and reaching the outskirts of Old Town, our second stop appears to have led us away from the historic footprints of black Alexandria. That is true in some ways, but this park helps make a point we should never forget. The history of Alexandria is intertwined between black and white, and drawing boundaries is ultimately futile.
A marker in this park makes this point by saying:
From the establishment of Alexandria in 1749 to the present time, African Americans have been a vibrant part of this city’s history. The City of Alexandria would not exist in its present form were it not for the economic, social, and cultural contributions of African Americans both slave and free.
At first glance, this 8-acre park that rubs shoulders with the edge of the Carlyle neighborhood, and offers quiet strolls past Hooff’s Run, doesn’t appear to be historic. No worries. Built on a graveyard once owned by the Black Baptist Cemetery Association, Alexandria’s black past comes flooding back here. Spend some time reading the scores of names etched on a trio of bronze trees (“Truths That Rise from the Roots Remembered” sculpted by DC-based Jerome B. Meadows). Take in three exquisite bronze markers. A nice bonus is a booklet of information protected from the elements with a stylish bronze holder. On your way to the next stop, be sure and visit the Edmonson Sisters sculpture at 1600 Duke Street. Their saga took them from Alexandria to New Orleans and back, and as freedom fighters, they were on the Pearl when it slipped away from Washington in 1848.
3. Freedom House, 1315 Duke Street
Alexandria has ghost tours galore, but nothing in the city will haunt you like this museum, one of just three National Historic Landmarks in Old Town. Using an operation that included three ships and was the largest in the antebellum South, slave dealers Isaac Franklin and John Armfield sold thousands of enslaved humans from their office in this townhome. The museum shares the building with the Urban League of Northern Virginia, history makers and shakers in their own right. A bonus is an interpretive marker on the corner that tells the story of L’Ouverture Hospital and the Shiloh Baptist Church.
You won’t find any historical markers on upper Queen Street, but this memorable stretch, which includes homes dating back to the 1880s, churches, barber shops and small businesses, is, arguably, the heart and soul of the neighborhood. Uptown once pulsed with activity here, a segregated, but thriving community. At the center of it all was Sgt’s Restaurant at 1125 Queen Street, a lively nightclub. The venerable small corner spot is now home to an Ethiopian Café. Out on the corner you might meet the local fellows who will tell you about Jim Crow, the hey days of the neighborhood, and the exodus of those who called Parker-Gray home for many years.
902 Wythe Street (Parker-Gray Way)
Led by the esteemed Dr. Audrey Davis, the Alexandria Black History Museum is a treasure and a treat. The twin A-frame building holds two exhibits - “Secure the Blessings of Liberty,” the permanent exhibit located in the former Robert Robinson Library, and the changing exhibit gallery in the Parker-Gray room. It currently tells the story of the Contrabands and Freedmen. Researchers will want to check out the Watson Reading Room next door. Special events at the museum tell the on-going stories of African Americans in this part of the region and their unique roles in American history.
The museum building itself is living history. After the famous sit-in at the Queen Street library in 1939, the city built a library for African Americans here at the corner.
Built on the site of the legendary Parker-Gray School, the Charles Houston Rec Center serves as a buttress, if you will, a community gathering place that marks one of the lines between the part of the neighborhood that is re-developing at a frenzied pace and the residential parts that are protected by the historic district designation.
Walk inside this modern and attractive building and you are instantly captured with several impressive historical markers. One tells the story of Houston, a true Civil Rights pioneer who, as a lawyer, worked tirelessly to dismantle “Jim Crow” laws as they applied to education. Past the sliding doors are two walls-worth of historic photos. Turn right to find the “Alexandria African American Hall of Fame,” which honors the contributions of more than five dozens individuals.
After stepping back outside, hang a right and grab a bite to eat at the Blue and White Carry Out at the corner with Patrick Street. It’s a tiny old shack, but soulfully good with rich character, and showcases a vivid mix of old time and new residents. It’s all happening in a neighborhood that watches the tall yellow cranes with both excitement and trepidation as the soul of Parker-Gray lies in the balance.