By Katy Cannady, Alexandria (File photo)
To the editor:
Whatever we do about the Ramsey Homes, we should avoid distorting an important moment in American history. Those houses were built in the era of segregation and Jim Crow, but they were not a part of it. They represent in fact a very important step toward equality of opportunity.
Until World War II created a serious labor shortage — as well as a serious housing shortage in urban areas — the workforce was very segregated. African-Americans were relegated to working in low wage, unskilled jobs — all without any modern benefits, job security or decent pay.
Jobs in manufacturing that no African-Americans could have hoped for before the war were opened to them. In a time of housing shortages for everyone, good wages are not enough to attract workers. The African-Americans needed for the war effort would not have come to Alexandria without assurances of having homes for their families, thus the Ramsey Homes came into existence. They were not built as temporary housing.
That was true for the Cameron Valley homes built along Duke Street at the edge of the College Park neighborhood. They were poorly constructed, flimsy wooden structures, never intended to last for long. Their first occupants were white defense industry workers. Just like the Ramsey Homes, they were sold to the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority after the war. Later, ARHA sold them for development, keeping only a few public housing tenants in what is known as a scattered site.
Everyone should understand that all ARHA tenants at the Ramsey Homes will get federal housing vouchers to find housing wherever they are able to while construction goes on. These vouchers are for so little money that most of them will be used in other jurisdictions because lower rent housing has been dwindling here for many years.
The Ramsey site is indeed well located near public transit and shopping. Unfortunately, the building design ARHA has presented to date is so dense that it lacks even the minimum of required open space at ground level. Instead, open space is located on the roof of their proposed nondescript three-story building.
We are going to put families with children in such a building? It would be so much better to save one of the historic Ramsey Homes, with a suitable historic plaque on it and provide a little more open space. A delay, even of a year, is worthwhile if we get something we can be proud of and that people can enjoy living in.