Braddock Place, Near N. Payne and Madison
The “heart of Parker-Gray” isn’t something you hear often. But perhaps some would agree one would want to include the 900 block of Wythe as part of that designation. The Alexandria Black History Museum is located there and across the street lies the Charles Houston Recreation Center.
And I had always heard that Parker-Gray School was located on the Rec Center site. It was, but there’s more to the story than that, a fact I uncovered the other day.
Walking on N. West Street past the Braddock Road Metro station, I turned to head into Braddock Place, a set of offices that some of the metro riders walk through. Passing by the fountain, I recalled walking there some years ago, pleasant memories because of the shade and the attractive landscaping.
But as far as finding any plaques, I thought to myself, I’m going to come up empty today.
Passing back by the water fountain, I saw a square shape on the brick arch. Don’t get too excited, it’s more than likely just a numbered way finding sign, a false alarm I’ve felt before. And remember, there was not much history made here.
Seeing the plaque come into focus, I did get excited. There’s shapes and relief!
Turns out, there is history on that spot, one that we have to look back on now and then to remind us of the discrimination black citizens faced every day.
Parker-Gray School opened in 1920 at the Wythe Street location. It served students in grades one through eight. At that time, there was no high school in the city of Alexandria for African-Americans, so those students had to board a bus, travel to 12th and D Northwest in the District, and walk to either Dunbar or Armstrong.
In the 30s, the Parker Gray School expanded to include high school. After graduating its first class in 1936, the High School moved into a new building at 1207 Madison, the first black high school in Alexandria (the plaque may not be spot on for the old site, but they placed it close and it does get good visibility). The Parker Gray elementary school on Wythe was renamed Charles Houston Elementary School.
Integration was finally made possible in 1964. Black high school students attended Alexandria’s George Washington, T.C. Williams, and Francis C. Hammond. In 1965, Parker-Gray High School changed to a middle school and served students from 1965 to 1979. In the early 80s, the school was torn down and the Madison Street townhomes were built.
The Charles Houston elementary school (Wythe) closed in 1968 and was torn down in the 70s. In 1976, at that site, a rec center was built. It was demolished in 2007, and the new Charles Houston Rec Center was built.
After I finished up my survey of Braddock Place, I hustled over to the Alexandria Black Museum. They gave me the brochure that helped me understand the various phases of Parker Gray School. I then crossed the street and walked around the Rec Center, wondering if I would find a plaque that commemorated the Parker Gray School there, the original site.
I did find some plaques but not on the school. Finding that odd, I searched on line and found an article in the Alexandria Gazette-Packett (The Fight for Parker Gray High School by Sarah Becker
Becker notes that:
“Responding directly to the community’s heart-felt expression, developer Trammell Crow has teamed with The Parker-Gray Alumni Association to celebrate Parker-Gray’s educational history. Together they have applied for a Virginia Highway Marker to memorialize the city’s black-only High School. Trammell Crow is redeveloping the property at 800 N. Henry Street, a property adjacent to the facility’s 1950 site.”
The Parker-Gray neighborhood is changing. We’ll soon forget what stood where, but we can not forget the people who lived there during a time of segregation.
Please pause one day, read the plaque, look around, and remember the inequalities those students and citizens faced each and every day of their lives. As much as any one place, the heart of Parker-Gray can be found in their struggles and their stories.