The Other Alexandria: The yesteryears of the Seminary community

The Other Alexandria: The yesteryears of the Seminary community
Courtesy photo Earnesteen Thomas Terrell Toms (left) with her husband, Herbert Toms. Earnesteen was born and raised in the Seminary community.

By Char McCargo Bah

Long ago during the Civil War and after, many African Americans migrated to the Seminary area called Falls Church. They bought land, built houses and raised their children in that rural community of Seminary. Their families intermarried with other African American families that were in the community. After many generations, the people in that community all became related to one another in some way or another.

The community built a church called Oakland Baptist Church, which is now located on King Street, in the late 1880s and they built an elementary school. By 1920, that part of Falls Church was incorporated into the City of Alexandria. Due to urban renewal, families moved out of the community – some left for job opportunities, while others joined the military. Those who left often returned to the community to visit the families that stayed.

This past summer, members of two of the families that left returned to Seminary for a special event at the Virginia Theological Seminary. They were descendants of the Simms and Thomas families: Steven Simms, Charles Toms and Brenda Terrell. Steven is a cousin of Charles and Brenda. Their mothers, Mary Elizabeth Thomas Simms and Earnesteen Thomas Terrell Toms, were sisters who were born and raised in the Seminary community.

Steven remembered how close his family was. Their household consisted of the grandfather, Steven’s parents and his eight siblings.

Steven reminisced about his family in Seminary.

“My grandmother had a very generous heart. She brought me a red bike that almost weighed about one hundred pounds. I used to clean that bike every day. I even registered it at the police station,” Steven said.

Unfortunately, one day when he parked the bike outside, someone stole it. He walked up and down the neighborhood looking for it, but he never found it. That incident broke his heart, he said.

After Brenda and Charles’ mother left the community, Earnesteen left the Seminary area. Brenda would come to Seminary during the summer to see the Terrell and Thomas families. She said Seminary was a rural place in the 1950s and the 1960s.

Brenda said she still has fond memories of her grandmother, Mary Elizabeth. Her family believed that she was their grandmother’s favorite grandchild. Brenda admired her grandma for her belief in respect, honesty and responsibility.

Though Charles was the youngest in his family, he remembers the stories he heard about his grandmother from family members. According to Charles, his grandmother laid the foundation for their family.

“Our elders created a bond that has continued to this day. We all received a lot of love,” Charles said.

Many of the Seminary families lived in multiple-family and multi-generational households. During hard times, the families pooled their resources together to help one another survive. One thing Charles remembers most about his family was the undeniable love the elders had for their younger family members. The elders worked hard and recognized everyone’s potential, Charles said.

The Simms and Thomas families have lived in the Seminary community for many generations. Daniel G. Simms Sr. lived in the Seminary area before 1880; the Thomas family came to Seminary slightly later than the Simms family.

After John Samuel Thomas came to Seminary, he landed a job with the Virginia Theological Seminary and Episcopal High School. He became interested in the ministry while working at the seminary, and he later migrated to Washington, D.C. to become a minister. One of his daughters married Daniel G. Simms III, and the other married Herbert Toms. His grandchildren now carry on the memories of the Seminary community’s yesteryear, when the majority of the African American families owned their own property.

Today Seminary is a different place for these cousins, but they will always remember the history and memory of their community. It was a vibrant and progressive community of long ago. Today you will find John’s descendants in Maryland and the southern part of Virginia. However, for most of these families, Seminary is the place they call their home.

The author is a freelance writer, independent historian, genealogist and Living Legend of Alexandria. You can visit her blog at for more about The Other Alexandria.