To the editor:
I greatly appreciated Arminta Wood’s account of the origins of T.C. Williams High School in the July 16 Alexandria Times. It is a great reminder that not just the name of the school, but the location and its creation all symbolize racial injustice.
This is a story I have heard from many sources, including Adrienne Washington, whose family owned the home at the school’s address. I have heard the story a number of times knocking on doors along Woods Place, and I first heard it from Lillian Patterson in 2004 at a historic preservation conference that I helped organize in Alexandria, held at the church next door to the high school.
It also came to the surface in all the great work Washington, Fran Terrell and others did to tell the whole story of Fort Ward Park and their efforts to preserve the sacred burial grounds now within Fort Ward Park. Fort Ward and T.C. Williams were created in the same era, and apparently in the same way: the city threatened and displaced two African American communities.
If T.C. Williams High School was built to fulfill the promise of Brown vs. the Board of Education, then it was also going to erase a Black neighborhood in the process, one that was determined by an all-white city council to be “blighted” partly because it lacked amenities like sewer and water service the city had never provided. It was also called by the derogatory name “Mudtown,” which Patterson did her best to lay to rest in 2004.
A Washington Post article from Sept. 29, 1960 read: “Mudtown, a Negro community of about 40 families which is surrounded by white neighborhoods, has been a target for improvement or elimination for years.” The derogatory term was officially removed from city maps, documents and deeds a few years ago during Mayor Allison Silberberg’s term.
Fort Ward was more than just a civil war fort. In fact, “The Fort” was a community, like “The Seminary” community at T.C. Williams, with a church, school and store. The supposed reasoning why those families were cleared was because they did not have ‘deeds,’ and were just squatters, but in fact, many of them did have deeds, and the area cleared was larger than the original Fort property.
It was clearly an opportunity to dislocate Alexandria’s African American community. This is the same era as redlining and urban renewal that tore down Black neighborhoods where people owned houses and the city built public housing, where people did not own their homes.
As the land became the high school, as Wood stated, property owners were not paid full price for their properties because the city bought the homes for pennies on the dollar and never paid for the surrounding land. As she said, many people could not afford the “new homes” built for them. I imagine that they still might have a hard time affording their homes, given the rising prices of homes in Alexandria and the increased property tax burden.
So, when we think how we might make reparations to African Americans for systemic racism, especially right here in our own community, I think that there should be restitution for this injustice. It is time for the families that lived at “The Seminary” on land that became T.C. Williams and the families that lived at The Fort to receive the full value of their homes that were taken, though clearly more work would have to be done to locate all of their descendants.
Alexandria could be one of the first cities to offer this sort of restitution as part of a larger effort at reparations. We owe it to them, and I want to thank Wood for reminding us.
We must heal the scars of racism before we can step forward. In the process of renaming T.C. we must not only do what is symbolically right by replacing the name, we need to do right by this community that was harmed.
The late John Lewis said at the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma: “We come to Selma to be renewed. We come to be inspired. We come to be reminded that we must do the work that justice and equality calls us to do.”
Let’s do the work of justice here.
-Boyd Walker, 1986 Titan