The Other Alexandria: The first coach of Parker-Gray High School

The Other Alexandria: The first coach of Parker-Gray High School
Photo/Alexandria City Public Schools archives

By Char McCargo Bah

Parker-Gray High School had many dedicated teachers that taught African American children from 1920 to 1965. Those teachers spent their time preparing their students for careers and education beyond high school. They also assisted students with other financial difficulties by, for example, buying them winter coats and gloves.

For the first 10 years of its existence, Parker-Gray had no basketball or football team until the principal, Wesley D. Elam, hired Ferris Holland in 1933 to teach general science, biology and chemistry. After Holland was hired, he realized that the school did not have any athletic activities for students. With the support of Elam, Holland volunteered to start basketball and football teams for the high school.

Even though there was no funding for athletics at Parker-Gray at that time, Holland started recruiting and training students, hoping that the school would receive some funding in the future to hire a full-time coach. He began to organize basketball and football sessions and became Parker-Gray’s first athletic coach.

The African American community quickly noticed his hard work, dedication and the time he spent helping the students. The parents and the Alexandria community began donating equipment and uniforms to the school for the basketball and football teams. Holland also enlisted other teachers to assist him with coaching. Before long, Parker-Gray began competing against other schools in Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Holland was not only an exceptional coach, but he was also a great science teacher. He often told his students in class to sit up and take good notes, and his students said that he was a quiet and unassuming man who inspired them.

Holland worked at Parker-Gray as a teacher, volunteer coach and advisor for 32 years until the school closed in 1965. After his formal retirement, he worked as a substitute teacher in Alexandria City Public Schools until 1981.

Holland was born on Jan. 14, 1899, in the Gum Springs community in Fairfax, Virginia, a historically Black Fairfax County subdivision off the Route 1 corridor. His parents were William and Elizabeth Tyler Holland. He was the youngest of eight children.

The Holland family was very active in the community and owned small businesses in the area. William Holland was a butcher. Prior to the Civil War, William’s parents were free people of color.

Gum Springs was largely segregated from the wider community, but it was self-sufficient because of the collective cooperation of its residents. The Gum Springs community had its own churches and businesses but no high school, so many families sent their children to Parker-Gray in Alexandria or to Jennie Dean Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth in Manassas, Virginia.

Holland earned his bachelor’s degree in science from the City College of New York and a master’s degree from Morgan State University in Baltimore. While Holland was living in Baltimore working on his master’s degree, he and his first wife, Annie, lived in a boarding house After Annie’s death, Holland married a widow, Alice Christine Lewis, who also worked at Parker-Gray High School. They married in 1970, when Holland was 71.

The Holland family included many entrepreneurs and educators. In the Gum Springs community, there is a street named after the Holland family for their contributions to the community. Holland died on April 8, 1990. Many people remember Holland as a dedicated teacher, mentor and hero.

For the month of February, we are honoring one of our own local people who influenced many students who attended Parker-Gray. If Holland had not established a sports curriculum in those early years at the school, Earl Lloyd, an Alexandria athlete who became the first African American to play in the National Basketball Association, likely would not have broken the NBA’s color barrier.

The writer is a freelancer, independent historian, investigative researcher, professional genealogist and a Living Legend of Alexandria. You can visit her blog at for more about “The Other Alexandria.”