On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks (1913-2005) sat down on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. When the driver told her to give up her seat to a white passenger, she refused. Her simple act of protest against “Jim Crow” laws (named after a fictional minstrel character that stereotyped African Americans) reverberated across the country. Parks’s protest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott that lead to a repeal of the law requiring so-called “separate but equal” seating. She, so rightly so, became an inspirational giant.
In their own small way, the protest of others are a part of the Civil Rights story. Long forgotten are two stories with connections to Alexandria.
Fifty years before Parks’s seminal moment, another African American woman made headlines in Washington, D.C. when she refused to comply with one of the first Jim Crow laws in Virginia that required segregated seating on public transportation. Six years after the United States Supreme Court ruled that states could enact separate but equal laws (Plessy vs. Ferguson), Southern states hammered out legislation that separated whites and “coloreds” in every aspect of public life.
On the evening of May 2nd, 1902, L.M. McDonald, a black teacher in Washington, D.C., hopped on one of the electric streetcars that served passengers in Washington and northern Virginia. Six years earlier, the Washington, Alexandria and Mount Vernon Electric Railway Line had ushered in a new era of transportation. Between its terminals in downtown Washington and Mount Vernon, the streetcars made stops in (modern day) Arlington, Del Ray, Old Town Alexandria, and Fairfax County.
With the sun slipping behind the wooded hills in Arlington County, the streetcar McDonald had boarded in Washington reached Virginia soil by way of the Long Bridge. Riders of today’s Yellow Line that crosses the Potomac River parallel to the 14th Street Bridge are crossing the river at about the same place where the Long Bridge connected the commonwealth and the nation’s capital.
McDonald had taken a seat in the portion of the car reserved for white patrons. The conductor told her they had arrived in Virginia, and that the new law required she sit in the back of the car. McDonald refused, saying she had paid her fare.
The train made its way to Alexandria, stopping at Royal Street and King Street. The conductor, last name Dobie, turned McDonald over to the police. Mayor Simpson imposed the minimum fine of $5, and noted it was the first infraction of the law. McDonald told the Mayor “he would have to lock her up until her counsel in Washington could be communicated with.”
The Alexandria Gazette, The Washington Post and several other newspaper filed reports. The Post’s said,
First Arrest for Violation of Virginia “Jim Crow” Law. Negro Woman Refused to Take Seat Assigned Her on Mount Vernon Line.
The story of McDonald’s arrest and her protest had the potential to gain legs, but a month later it was overshadowed by the arrest of Mary Custis Lee (1835-1918). Mary was the daughter of Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) and Mary Anna Custis Lee (1808-1873). She was born in the columned mansion lying conspicuously on those Virginia hills overlooking Arlington National Cemetery and the nation’s capital. Her mother’s biographer described Mary as “always the most independent” of the Lee children. A globetrotter, she traveled to more than 20 countries.
The conductor told Mary she would have to remove herself from the back of the car and move up to the whites only section. One can imagine Lee raising an eyebrow and looking at the conductor with disdain. “Of all the nerve,” she was surely thinking.
When she was brought to the police station at Market Square, Alexandrians quickly informed the police who they had in custody. Mary was promptly released.
As James Worley points out, Jim Crow laws were first established in the North. Most northern whites shared with Southern whites the belief in the innate superiority of the white race over the black. But he also reminds us that it was in the South where the intensity of oppression and degree of violence and sadism was the worse.
It’s easy to distill the Jim Crow era down to a few images of “Whites Only” and “Colored” signs. African Americans, however, fought back every step of the way. Great writers such as W.E.B. DuBois made a difference with their written words that confronted racism.
In 1917, African Americans got an unexpected ally in their cause for raising awareness about race and inequality from another writer. His name was Paul Kester (1870-1933). Born and raised in Ohio, he showed an early passion for the dramatic arts. In a career that spanned forty years, Kester penned more than two-dozen plays and five novels, which found stages on Broadway and in London. One critic wrote that Kester “has an unerring gift of character delineation.”
Perhaps wanting a more pastoral and genteel place to live, Kester moved to Virginia after the turn of the century. It seems he developed a taste for historic mansions. Along with his brother, also a writer, and his mother, who founded the Cleveland School of Art, Kester purchased Woodlawn in 1901. The Georgian brick beauty (c. 1805) lies hidden from Route 1 some five miles south of Alexandria on land once owned by George Washington. In 1799, Eleanor (“Nelly) Parke Custis (1779-1852), Martha’s granddaughter and George’s step-granddaughter, married Lawrence Lewis, George’s nephew. Martha and George gave Nelly and Lawrence a spread of land west of Mount Vernon. The couple built a plantation home there (1805) and named it Woodlawn. One The Critic (Volume 48), liked them, calling it “one of the most beautiful properties in Virginia.”
The Woodlawn website notes that the Kesters extensively renovated the house. The changes they made were not pleasing to purists, as they were historically inaccurate.
Perhaps feeling the need for even more solace and wanting views of the Potomac River, the Kesters moved six more miles southward and bought Gunston Hall in 1907. Once again, big name history was attached to their purchase. George Mason (1725-1792) built the mansion in the Georgian style in 1759. It is one of the oldest dwellings in northern Virginia.
Kester loved his new home, for is quoted in The Washington Post as saying,
“Going inside of Gunston with its simple exterior, always reminds me of opening a jewel box and discovering all the exquisite things inside.” (April 22, 1934)
Tragedy befell the Kesters when Vaughan, a successful novelist in his own right, died in 1911 at Gunston Hall. Perhaps desiring to distance themselves from the location of his untimely passing (Vaughan was 42), Kester and his mother sold Gunston Hall in 1913 and moved to Alexandria.
They bought Belmont, an Italianate-style mansion overlooking Alexandria (modern day North Ridge neighborhood). Virginia historian Jean Beiro described the house as having “cluttered charm.” Designed by Alexandria architect, Benjamin F. Price (Corn Exchange Building at 100 King Street), the tall brick beauty was built by Richard B. Lloyd sometime after he returned to Virginia from the Civil War. Lloyd’s daughter married Cassius F. Lee, Jr. The couple moved in and named the estate Belmont Farm. (St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School, an Episcopal preparatory school, uses the Lloyd House for administrative purposes)
In 1917, Kester’s fourth book, “His Own Country,” was published. The working title was “The Black Crusade”. The post-bellum story starts off in Weyanoke, now a census-designated place about a dozen miles east of Richmond and along the James River.
What rich tapestry the author had to choose from. This part of the Tidewater holds more than its fair share of historic mansions, with some 300 years old or approaching that milestone.
Weyanoke is overshadowed by the neighboring plantations. The Weyanoke Society, however, keeps its historical importance alive. The stories they tell make up some of the deepest roots of our country. In 1619, about 20 enslaved Africans on board a ship landed at Point Comfort (modern day Fort Monroe). They were taken from Hampton to a spot along the James River occupied by the Weyanoke Native Americans. Governor Yeardley hid the Africans on his tobacco plantation. This group were not the first Africans in the colony, but some historians believe they are the first to have lived together in a community.
Kester’s novel leads off with a conversation between a Colonel Washington and his friend, Rev. Mancure Braxton. The big news is the sale of Comorn Hall. As a novelist, Kester had plenty of large country homes to choose from, such as the Lee’s Stratford Hall in the Northern Neck, and many others along the tidewater rivers where tobacco plantation homes stood like castles.
The protagonist is a Doctor J.C. Brent, a black physician from Montreal and married to a white woman. He sends a letter to Col. Washington, with down payment instructions included. Washington and Braxton are curious about who Dr. Brent is, why he knows so much about Comorn Hall, and are worried what trouble a rich Northerner might stir up.
Wealthy, Brent is married to a white woman. Arriving from Montreal, they purchase “Comorn Hall,” an estate in Weyankoke.
Alexandria appears in Chapter 30. Dr. Brent has lunch with the President. A big stink is made in the press. This is a reference to Booker T. Washington’s lunch with President Roosevelt in 1902.
Fresh off his lunch at the White House, Brent attends a Negro convention in Washington. A small church in Alexandria invites Bishop Comfort to speak. When he realizes he will be too busy, the Bishop asks Doctor Brent to fill in.
Brent and his wife get on a streetcar in Washington. Their plan was to visit Mt. Vernon and then stop in Alexandria for the speaking engagement.
After boarding the streetcar in Washington, the conductor asks Brent to move to the back of the car. He refuses. The conductor calls up to Alexandria.
“You have a cop on the corner of King and Royal. Look out for us when we come by.”
The police escort Brent to the police station. There he was “surrounded by a group of the most respectable negroes of the town. In half an hour, he was in the home of the most prosperous colored man in Alexandria.”
It’s hard to know what impact Paul Kester’s novel had on Jim Crow in Virginia. “His Own Country” got mixed reviews. Writing in Watson’s Magazine, “A.L.L.” said, “the subject matter has been handled in the masterly style for which Mr. Kester is becoming famous.”
Tipping the scales with almost 700 pages, one wonders if book club members finished the behemoth. No doubt many southerners did not appreciate what Kester had to say. Had Lynyrd Skynryd been around back then, they would have sung him their song, “a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”
What we do know is that the 1918 film “Birth of a Nation” reached a much wider audience. The silent drama film, hailed as a pioneering movie that changed the history of American cinema, gave, as Blight puts it, “the message that emancipation had been America’s greatest and most dangerous disaster.” In his book, Melvyn Stokes writes the film was a “spectacle of unfettered racism.”
In the 1920s and 1930s, violence continued across the South. More than 3,400 were killed by mobs, an average of slightly more than one a week. Author Philip Dray points out it was not until 1952 that a full year went by without a reported racial lynching somewhere in the United States, most often in the Deep South.
It’s said that Paul Kester was shy. With his pen, however, he spoke like a lion. When he was asked if he was afraid World War I would overshadow his novel, he said this.
The Race problem is always with us, and as my story deals in a serious way with its more serious aspects, I do not think it can be untimely. New phases of this great problem come up from day to day -- but the problem itself is as old as history -- very likely it will remain a problem to the end of history.
Racial differences and the prejudices resulting from them have always confronted practical statesmen. The old method of dealing with them was by conquest, subjugation, or extermination. Such methods are now obsolete. Better ones must be found. Understanding must precede intelligent action along any lines, and my reason -- perhaps I would better say my justification -- for writing His Own Country has been my hope and belief that it would bring some little considered phases of this menacing and mighty problem more clearly before the minds of readers who live remote from it, yet whose consent is necessary, as it should be in a democracy, to any adjustment of settlement of living conditions where the races are existing side by side. (The Bookman magazine, 1918).
Jim Crow was a wall that came down one piece at a time. Each act of chipping away might have seemed to make little or no difference at the time, but in the end, the barriers fell.
With her pride and his pen, L.M. Robinson and Paul Kester did their part to dismantle the laws that tried to keep the races apart. As we deal with the current state of race relations, it’s important to remember the steps others have taken.