Profiles in courage

Profiles in courage

By Erich Wagner (Photo/Erich Wagner)

Memorializing the achievements of Alexandria’s black residents in text is long overdue in the mind of one of the city’s most celebrated symbols of the civil rights struggle.

“It pays tribute to many who have not yet been recognized in our history,” said Ferdinand Day, the city’s first black superintendent of schools, while talking about a newly released book chronicling the community’s icons.

“It brings forth the fact that all of us, Democrat and Republican, black and white, Christian and Jewish and Muslim, came together to make Alexandria great,” he said.

“African Americans of Alexandria, Virginia: Beacons of Light in the Twentieth Century” — released earlier this month to great praise — was written by local historians Char McCargo Bah, Christa Walters, Audrey P. Davis, Gwendolyn Brown-Henderson and James E. Henson Sr. The authors have sold nearly all of the 1,500-copy first edition, and publisher The History Press has already ordered a second printing.

Henson said that the idea for the book came up while working with other residents on naming rooms in the Charles Houston Recreation Center after 63 prominent black residents.

“Bah came to the project with so much gusto and so many ideas,” Henson said. “She finally realized when we wrote the 63 bios, we had a gift here. It was larger than putting them in a building.”

Bah, who also works on genealogy at Freedmen’s Cemetery, said it was important putting the local black community’s history on paper.

“We have a lot of history, but [until recently], nothing was in print,” Bah said. “I mean, I was born and raised here, and I didn’t know about most of the people I was writing about.”

And she was amazed by the response to the book idea.

“We submitted a proposal to The History Press, and usually the turnaround for a proposal is six weeks,” Bah said. “But it was accepted after four days.”

Walters said the book was entirely a volunteer effort by the authors. The royalties will go to the Office of Historic Alexandria, earmarked for a future black history project.

Bah said that with the book wrapped up, she’s kicking around ideas for a new project that she plans to launch in the fall.

“African-Americans have been here as early as the city was built,” Bah said. “[But] people don’t know, so we want to make others aware of history.”