To the editor:
After living in the Boston area for many years, I returned to Alexandria about six years ago. Having an opportunity to witness the tremendous growth of the city has been a phenomenal experience.
I have walked down streets I frequented as a child of color with a sense of nostalgia that is sometimes overwhelming. I can still hear some of the voices I recall from my youth as I pass homes that are so familiar and yet so foreign.
I still remember some of the catchy rhymes that my father sang as we walked on “The Hill” to visit relatives and friends. I can still feel my hand in my mother’s as we walked and enjoyed the sights of the route chosen for the evening. We so often strolled from North Alfred or North Fayette streets to “The South Side.”
I look back upon my youth in Alexandria with pride and an understanding of the many gifts I received as a resident. Our first home was a two-bedroom apartment on the 300 block of N. Alfred St., and it was in this insular neighborhood that I learned what it meant to be a good neighbor and understanding friend. As a child, we had many of the vital conveniences we needed within walking distance.
These conveniences included: Ms. Blue’s drugstore, Ms. Bracey’s florist shop, Dr. Ladrey’s office, Dr. West’s office, attorney Brown’s office, a grocery store, Meade Church, Ebeneezer Church, Ms. Dorothea Campbell’s home and beauty salon, the American Legion, and a movie theater. I could walk to St. Joseph’s for church and school. Dr. Durant, Dr. Taylor, attorney Tucker and the Third Baptist Church also played important roles.
I attended Girl Scouts at the Hopkins House with Ms. Ruth Wright and Ms. Francis Burke. They mentored us and provided positive role models for African-American girls in the community.
For the longest time — though degraded by segregation — I thought this was all I needed to have a happy life. In some ways it was. This struggling community survived in spite of moratoriums, unfair laws and financial red lining.
I guess you could say that I lived in what is known as the Parker-Gray area when I grew up. We lived along Alfred Street until I was about 12, and then we built a new house along North Fayette Street.
I attended St. Joseph’s School and St. Mary’s Academy and continued to grow as the result of each experience. My parents, the Oblate Sisters of Providence and the Josephite Priests taught me about God and left me with a strong foundation. They insisted upon hard work, character development, acceptable behavior and an understanding of respect for elders.
As a young girl, I never thought of public housing in a derogatory sense because we knew and respected people who lived there. They simply wanted a place they could afford to live while raising their families. Times have changed, but this basic need for affordable and livable housing remains.
I have not lived along Alfred Street or Fayette Street for many years, but the experiences gained on both blocks will live within my heart wherever I go.
You see, the Parker-Gray area is not just a construct of the mind. It is as real and vibrant in the minds of many as it was years ago. This is true for those who lived there then and for those who live there today. It is still home. It is home with all of its flaws — a place for imperfect people in an imperfect world.
When I visit Alfred Street, I become that little girl with pigtails riding my first bike. When I visit Fayette Street, I recall the tears that flowed from my mother’s eyes when she opened the door of our new home.
I see the friendly faces of the people who told me that all the little children who came through there were special. I hear the phone ringing, a neighbor telling my parents that I should not have been in someone else’s yard, climbing their tree. I feel the excitement when I walked to Johnson Pool on opening day.
It is with these experiences as a backdrop that my heart swells as we approach another anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. It seems that the former Carver Nursery School — also known as the American Legion Post 124 building — will be saved and remain an important part of the history of the Parker-Gray area. Mr. William Cromley, with encouragement from certain community members, will be the catalyst for positive change in Alexandria.
A landmark of significance for all residents will be preserved and continue to exemplify the important role African-Americans were forced to play during turbulent times. The Carver Nursery School provided educational access and the American Legion post served as a refuge for soldiers of color returning from World War II. When the building is complete, all of us will have a reason to celebrate.
- Gwen Day-Fuller