Years since it was first established, we still embrace the opportunity to celebrate Black History Month and the culture, local heroes of the civil rights movement and the struggles they endured. Yet, we should also recognize every day how the rich history of African Americans helped shape the City of Alexandria we live in today and make this part of our ongoing conversation.
In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford, a former Alexandrian, officially recognized Black History Month as he called on all Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Decades later and the history and legacy of African Americans are still underrepresented in textbooks, classrooms and in many museums.
The truth is that the preservation of African American historic sites remains more limited than other historical settings. Preserving these sites is important as they help us remember and learn from the hardships endured during a dark time in our history. As abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”
It is not easy to reflect on the affliction of African Americans who passed through 1315 Duke Street in Alexandria in the 1800s. This building served as the headquarters for The Franklin and Armfield Slave Pen, one of the largest slave trading companies in the United States. Thousands of enslaved African American men, women and children passed through this site between 1828 and 1861.
It now stands as a National Historic Landmark and was purchased by the City of Alexandria in 2020 to become part of its museum system. Today, the Freedom House Museum serves to educate future generations as it captures the harsh reality of the domestic slave trade along with the courageous stories of African Americans who survived and continued the fight for equal rights.
As we observe Black History Month in Alexandria City Public Schools, our theme is “Celebrating Legends, Building Legacies.” The history of the Parker-Gray School offers both, even as it is symbolic of an era of segregation. This school was born out of the community outcry over two unsuitable and poorly maintained schools that African American children had been crammed into for years in Alexandria. While the segregated school still fell short of offering an equitable education when compared to schools for white children, it did provide schooling through eighth grade, with high school grades added a little more than a decade later.
While the buildings that were part of Parker-Gray may no longer stand, the legacy of the people who passed through its doors have become a treasured part of our history. This school helped produce doctors, judges, a brigadier general and the first African American to be elected to chair a public school board in Virginia: Ferdinand T. Day, who attended Parker-Gray through eighth grade.
There is no doubt that our city has undergone an evolution since its early days that takes it from a racist past to the diverse community it is today. If we truly want to achieve racial equity, it is necessary to not only look back at our past but to learn from it in order to continue on a path of change. As we celebrate Black History Month, National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman provides a message of hope in “The Hill We Climb.”
“We are striving to forge our union with purpose.
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
And so, we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.”
When the poet’s words become our new reality, then we may not need just a month to celebrate Black History, because it will take its rightful place in American history every day.
The writer is superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools.