By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
In the back-and-forth between supporters and opponents of lights at the T.C. Williams High School stadium, proponents often ask: Why would you choose to live next to a football field if you didn’t expect lights? The neighbors’ answer goes back to a long and often complicated history.
The city took its first official step to lighting the football field when the planning commission voted 5-2 last week to recommend approval of the project. On Saturday, the proposal heads to city council for a final vote.
From the beginning, the Parker-Gray stadium modernization project has provoked staunch opposition from the neighbors whose homes border the school. The group has actively fought the proposal every step of the way, alleging the city is breaking a verbal promise that it would never light the field that was reaffirmed in writing in T.C.’s 2004 DSUP #2002-0044, during the high school modernization project.
The neighbors say the promise took place in the 1960s when T.C. Williams High School was built, but their history in the area and their complex and often fraught relationship with the city dates back even further.
“It’s not just a NIMBY thing. For me, it’s about the history of this neighborhood. It’s about my ancestors,” Andrea Mackey, one of the residents, said. “Stop treating us like garbage. And when I say us, I’m talking about my family, every ancestry that’s been here since 1865.”
Ky Lewis, Mackey’s husband, said there is a widespread lack of understanding about this neighborhood’s backstory among Alexandrians.
“You have a lot of conscientious people in this city,” Lewis said. “You really do. And let me put it this way, I don’t know the percent, but I know there are a lot more of them who would be sympathetic to our concerns if they know the whole story, are fully aware.”
Seminary and the Fort
The story of the families in the Woods neighborhood, along Quaker Lane, Woods Avenue and Woods Place, dates back to the Civil War. Following emancipation in 1865, the 1870 federal census was the first to record the names of former slaves.
That 1870 census recorded a large number of African Americans living in what was then referred to as the Seminary neighborhood, which was located along Braddock Road, King Street and Quaker Lane near where the three roads intersect. The plot of land where T.C. Williams now sits falls within this area.
Up the hill, another neighborhood emerged at the same time with a large African American population. This neighborhood was called the Fort and was situated on the remnants of a Civil War fortification known as Fort Ward.
According to “Finding The Fort: A History of an African American Neighborhood in Northern Virginia, 1860s-1960s” by Krystyn R. Moon, two factors contributed to the decision among newly freed African Americans to live in these areas: access to land and the availability of jobs in agriculture and at the nearby Fairfax Seminary and Episcopal High School.
Many of those who now live on the border of T.C. Williams can trace their family names back to that 1870 census.
“Her great-great-grandfather’s address was Fort Ward,” Lewis said of Mackey. “Her grandmother and great-grandmother, their address was Seminary, and another one of our ancestors originally bought property in Seminary and then subdivided it and gave it to us too.”
Many of the residents of the Woods neighborhood behind T.C. Williams have similar connections to the area and several of them share common relatives. Six households descend from the Wanzer family, including Mackey, and several others trace back to the Terrell family, including Frances Colbert Terrell, president of the Seminary Civic Association. Terrell said there are 17 households in her neighborhood that descend from the post-Civil War, first-time homeowners in the area.
Those who are old enough to have lived in the Seminary neighborhood before T.C. was built in 1965 look back fondly on the sense of community that had been established.
“In those days, black communities were warm,” Arminta Wood, a 92-year-old descendant said. “It was just a family of people. They all were not related, but they were really just a family. And all that was not appreciated, I don’t think, by anybody except us.”
Wood recalled families taking care of each other when they got sick, sharing home-cooked meals and watching out for each other’s children.
Terrell joked that as a kid, she couldn’t get away with anything because the neighborhood was so tightly knit.
“I could be over on King Street, and if I did something wrong, by the time I got home, my parents are standing there waiting to punish me,” she said.
In the Fort and Seminary neighborhoods, families commonly subdivided land amongst themselves and passed homes down through the generations. A century after these black neighborhoods were established, however, the communities were threatened by a school and a park.
Residents in the Seminary neighborhood had their land taken by eminent domain to make way for T.C. Williams High School in 1965. Residents of the Fort were driven out over the course of a decade from 1955 to 1965, ironically, so that the city could establish the Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site in commemoration of the Civil War, according to Moon.
While many were eventually forced to relocate to other parts of the city, the residents of Seminary didn’t give in without a fight and negotiated for the construction of 29 homes adjacent to the high school.
The school board officially chose the Seminary neighborhood as the site for a new high school, despite the plot of land being undersized, at a special meeting of the school board on Jan. 16, 1961, according to school board minutes. At the time, city documents and the press referred to the area as Mudtown.
According to a 1963 Alexandria Office of Urban Renewal brochure, the city chose Mudtown because the health department ruled that 73 percent of the 48 buildings on the site failed to meet the requirements of city codes for residential occupancy. The brochure listed substandard conditions such as lack of public water, sewers, paving and fire protection as factors of condemnation.
Newspaper articles from the 60s similarly disparaged the neighborhood.
“Mudtown, a Negro community of about 40 families which is surrounded by white neighborhoods, has been a target for improvement or elimination for years,” reads a Washington Post article from Sept. 29, 1960.
Other articles refer to the site as “rundown,” “deteriorated,” a “slum” and an “eyesore.”
Residents who lived in the neighborhood, however, remember it differently.
“To degrade it, they called it Mudtown,” Wood said. “The houses were not in any order here – you know how people in the country are when they have some land, but they were neat little houses, kind of self-built, but they served their purpose. … It was a lovely neighborhood. The yards were clean. They had flowers planted. It was just sweet. Anybody was at home in this neighborhood.”
Wood said the lack of city amenities was the fault of the city, not the neighborhood.
“It was a blame-the-victim sort of situation,” Wood said. “The city’s responsible for all those services that we did not have.”
Despite the lack of utilities and haphazard layout, Seminary was one of the few neighborhoods in Alexandria at the time where African Americans owned land, according to Lewis.
“These people were middle class,” Lewis said. “These were the people who owned their homes. They weren’t in the projects down in Old Town. They were some of the first people from their community to actually own their homes. … This was a big deal. They owned a home in the City of Alexandria. We had lawyers, we had dentists, we had teachers. … Relatively speaking for their demographic, they were very middle class.”
When residents learned their neighborhood had been condemned and was subject to eminent domain, they sought the help of the “Secret Seven,” a group that championed African American rights during that time period.
The Secret Seven
The Secret Seven included Col. Marion Johnson, Edward Patterson, Melvin Miller, Nelson Green Sr., Lawrence Day, Ferdinand T. Day and Fr. John Davis.
Gwen Day-Fuller, Ferdinand T. Day’s daughter, said the group formed during the civil rights era to stand up for African Americans on a variety of issues from desegregation to housing. She said each of the seven worked in different fields and had diverse areas of expertise, such as law, education and business.
“They were the leg to supporting the African American community,” Day-Fuller said. “They were just involved in a variety of issues, pretty much anything that came up in the African American community. They analyzed, they took a look at it, and they tried to see how they could be helpful. That was their main goal, just to make sure there was a voice for our community during that time.”
After the city had selected Seminary as the site for the high school, the Secret Seven organized meetings to negotiate a compromise for the residents in exchange for giving up their land. The seven reported the results of these meetings at weekly civic association meetings at Oakland Baptist Church, Wood said.
“They did some serious negotiations,” Wood said. “The city would propose something and the Secret Seven would come back, and they wouldn’t accept it so there was very serious negotiation, and finally I guess the city decided that they couldn’t succeed in eliminating this neighborhood.”
During negotiations, the city set aside six and half acres for construction of the 29 homes for displaced residents, a project that became known as the Mudtown Urban Renewal Project. The project was one of the first urban renewal projects to take place in Alexandria, following the establishment of the Alexandria Housing and Redevelopment Authority in 1939, according to Moon.
The press touted the project as a major accomplishment and beneficial to the residents whose land was being taken. City Manager Albert M. Hair Jr. was quoted in a Jan. 8, 1964 Washington Post article saying that the project was “the beginning of the end of this kind of living for people in this day in Alexandria.”
Lewis argued that the urban renewal wasn’t a giveaway, but a compromise in exchange for keeping national civil rights protests away from Alexandria.
“At that time, they were going to bring in national figures to protest,” he said. “That’s why this was a compromise. They were about to make a big stink. And around the country, you had a lot of civil rights activities going on, and they were escalating. They didn’t do it because all of sudden they were like, ‘You know what, we like you.’ [They] saw our country basically going up in flames. That’s what was going on. People have to think of the times.”
When construction began, 39 families and 13 individuals were relocated from the Seminary neighborhood, according to an Aug. 15, 1965 Washington Post article. Once the urban renewal project was complete, the displaced residents were given priority to purchase the new brick ramblers, but only 16 families returned, according to the article.
The rest of the houses were sold to other African American families, including two landowners who had been displaced from the Fort, according to Moon.
The city paid the displaced residents for their former Mudtown properties, but the sums the city paid for the structures they decided to condemn weren’t comparable to the price of the new homes, according to Terrell.
“The money that they got as the value of their homes was nowhere near the cost of the new urban renewal homes,” Terrell said, “so they were not able to buy the new homes that were built. A lot of the community just moved out of the community because they had to look for somewhere else to live.”
Some of these residents continued to struggle to find places to relocate because of the cost and the cultural environment of the 60s.
“Alexandria in the 1960s was a segregated city, with African Americans fighting to obtain equal access to public spaces, housing, education, and the vote,” according to Moon. “Although African Americans and their white supporters had minor success in fighting segregation during this period, housing continued to be a major point of contention as inadequate public housing and residential racism persisted.”
In addition to building the 29 homes, the city’s alleged promise to never light the stadium was another result of the Secret Seven’s negotiations, according to Terrell. This promise is the current Seminary residents’ key argument against the stadium modernization project. It’s also the basis of a lawsuit filed against the city and school board by six households in the neighborhood.
The residents’ names are familiar ones on public hearing speaker lists, community engagement attendance sheets and the lawsuit against the city and school. All of their public opposition, residents said, is fueled by a long history of mistreatment from the city.
Lewis said one of the things that bothers him the most is the financial aspect.
“You essentially have people just being generationally robbed,” he said. “This is prime real estate. And it seems like every time they make a move for the good of the community, this particular community ends up poorer. How much would land be worth up at Fort Ward right now? … With the amount of land they had, there are people that would be millionaires right now.”
In addition to the value lost as a result of forced relocations in the past, neighbors say the addition of lights to the stadium will further devalue their properties.
“We are going to be bombarded with noise, traffic, lights and plus our homes are being devalued,” Terrell said. “Your property is the biggest asset that you have, and they were taking that from us even, so we just decided that we couldn’t do anything, we didn’t seem to be making any progress on our own, so it was best to get a legal perspective.”
The neighbors filed the lawsuit against the city and the school board in the circuit court of Alexandria in August. At this time, there is no trial date scheduled. Since the judge has not issued an injunction to halt action on the project, Alexandria City Public Schools will seek approval from city council at the public hearing on Saturday.
To residents, the process represents the continuation of a century and a half of mistreatment. This moment is particularly emotional for residents with roots that span generations, like Mackey.
“I’m trying not to be emotional about this but it’s so difficult,” Mackey said. “They just really did not give a damn about the people that lived there. ‘They’re insignificant’ [was the mindset], and we still feel very insignificant now because it’s just been insult after insult.”