Market Square has always been at the hub of activity in Alexandria. Today we can stroll through on a Saturday morning, lattes in hand, buying fresh strawberries, apples or daffodils from farmers hawking their wares. Two hundred years ago, Market Square housed peddlers selling very different goods: Slaves were bought and sold there.
A visitor walking into the gymnasium portion of the Nannie J. Lee Memorial Recreation Memorial Center this month might be startled by a shocking sight: On display there is a model of a segregated water fountain, complete with a “no coloreds” sign. Though we all know such things once existed, actually seeing the fountain is jarring.
In our enlightened 21st century, with a black president of the United States and black mayor of Alexandria, it is tempting to view Black History Month as an unneeded anachronism. We are, after all, all Americans. Additionally, in this era of poisonous politics we need to focus more on what unifies and less on what divides us. And yet, our experience as Americans is not all the same. Some of us can remember those separate water fountains, which were injurious and demeaning to those told they were not worthy of drinking with whites. Even if we didn’t experience it first-hand, all of us know people who lived through the indignities of segregation.
While, fortunately, the horrors of slavery are in our distant past and the injustices of segregation are fading, we must never forget that those things happened in our great country indeed right here in our very city of Alexandria. We study history in order to better understand what came before and in order to avoid repeating the worst mistakes of the past.
Black History Month is an opportunity to remember the wrongs of the past, to commemorate the steps taken by courageous people to right those wrongs and to spotlight American heroes who not only survived but somehow thrived against all odds. The study of black history in America was advanced in the early 1900s by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, son of former slaves who earned a Ph.D. from Harvard. Woodson was disturbed to see that history books largely ignored the contributions of black Americans and founded the Journal of Negro History and later Black History Week, which eventually became Black History Month. The second week of February was chosen for Black History Week because it contains the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Our own city contains a tremendous amount of black history, good and bad. In addition to Market Square, the building that housed the Franklin&Armfield Slave Office survives at 1315 Duke St. Also, two prominent colonial businessmen whose businesses survive as museums, tavern owner John Gadsby and apothecary owner Edward Stabler, were on opposite sides of the slavery issue. While Gadsby relied on as many as 11 slaves to help run his tavern, Stabler bought slaves in order to free them and was a member of an anti-slavery organization. These individuals, as well as many Alexandria sites of black history are featured in A Guide to Alexandria’s African American History, published by the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association and the Office of Historic Alexandria.
If you haven’t already seen them, check out the displays in Alexandria’s recreation centers and schools that celebrate African American heroes of the past like Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, runaway slaves and anti-slavery leaders Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. While it is reassuring to know that America has righted many of the wrongs of the past in addition to having a black president we have had two black secretaries of state, two black supreme court justices and even a black governor of the capital of the Confederacy we still must not forget. We remember the bad places we’ve been in order to ensure that we never return to them.