City of Alexandria, VA
Charles Hamilton Houston Memorial: History
The site of the Charles Houston Recreation Center is significant in Alexandria’s history as the original home of the Parker-Gray School, located in the Parker-Gray Historic District. In 1920, the Parker-Gray Elementary School was constructed on the southern end of the block, facing Wythe Street. The new public school was constructed for the education of African American boys and girls, replacing the deteriorating and inadequate Hallowell (girls) and Snowden (boys) schoolhouses. The new facility was named for John F. Parker and Sarah J. Gray, beloved African American teachers and principals in those two schools. Initially, the school served grades one through eight. African American students who could afford to continue their high school education traveled by bus to Washington, D.C., or went off to boarding school.
In 1932, the Parker-Gray High School became Alexandria’s first African American high school. Its first four-year high school class graduated in 1936. Over time, the school gained a reputation for its dedicated teaching staff who, despite the constraints of segregation, were able to provide a positive learning experience. Over the years, increased enrollment created a need for larger quarters for the high school. In 1941, concerned citizens began to petition for a new facility and eventually appealed to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for assistance.
NAACP lawyers, led by Charles Houston, conferred with city, state and federal officials. An attorney with a national reputation, Houston used his influence and knowledge to aid the Alexandria African American community. On May 31, 1950, the new Parker-Gray High School, located at 1207 Madison Street, was dedicated. Sadly, Charles Houston died on April 22, one month before the dedication. In appreciation for all his hard work to obtain the new school and to help with other issues vital to improving Alexandria’s education system, the former Parker-Gray School was renamed the Charles Houston Elementary School.
Charles Houston’s legacy was far reaching. As Dean of Howard University Law School, Houston influenced a generation of civil rights lawyers. He was a master tactician and successfully argued the Missouri ex. Rel. Gaines v. Canada case before the United States Supreme Court in 1938. The Gaines case, the first to establish the principle of equality of education, paved the road for the landmark decision in 1954 of Brown v. Board of Education. Fittingly, the victorious lawyer in the case that ended racial segregation was Houston’s protégé, Thurgood Marshall. Ten years later, integration of Alexandria’s public schools was achieved.
See below for more information on Charles Hamilton Houston.
Click Here for more information on Parker-Gray.
Charles Hamilton Houston
born September 3, 1895, Washington, D.C.
American lawyer and educator instrumental in laying the legal groundwork that led to U.S. Supreme Court rulings outlawing racial segregation in public schools.
Before Brown: Charles H. Houston and the Gaines Case, essay by Douglas O. Linder, professor of law at University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Law
From the University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Law web site
Charles Hamilton Houston Residence
Location: 1744 S Street, NW
Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950) was born in Washington, DC to Mary Hamilton Houston, a teacher and hairdresser, and William Houston, an attorney. His childhood home was 1444 Swann St., NW. He entered M Street High School (now Dunbar High School) at the age of 12 and graduated at age 15. Graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst College in 1915, Houston returned to Washington and taught English at Howard University until 1916. From 1917 to 1919, he served as second lieutenant in France during World War I. He graduated cum laude from Harvard University Law School with a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1922 and later received the Doctor of Juridical Science at Harvard. In 1924 he returned to Washington, where he joined the faculty at Howard University Law School and his father's law firm.
The Parker-Gray neighborhood is an important African American community in Old Town Alexandria. Influences in its development came from a variety of sources including the slave trade, retrocession of Alexandria by the District of Columbia, the Civil War, segregation, civil rights protests and the eventual integration of the Alexandria public school system.
The current street pattern of the neighborhood was shown on maps as early as 1798. By 1810, a small enclave of houses was home to a group of free African American families, though most of the land remained open until the 1860s. Because the city was a part of both Virginia and the District of Columbia for the first half of the nineteenth century, free African Americans from other parts of Virginia migrated to Alexandria to escape laws that made it difficult for them to remain in the commonwealth. Along with the former slaves who had been freed or had purchased their own freedom came recently escaped slaves.
For many decades, the land was used primarily for military purposes. Sometime before 1791 and prior to the area’s residential use, a gun powder mill or magazine was built. The facility remained in place until 1818. Beginning with the War of 1812 and continuing until the Civil War, the land was also used as a military parade ground. During the war, when the City was an important military center for the Union Army, the Army made extensive use of the vacant areas as sites for encampments, hospitals, stables, and several large food-production facilities from which bread and other items were shipped to soldiers in various battlefields. The military-run bakery that occupied an entire city block was believed to be the largest in the world at the time. Known as the Government Bakehouse, it consumed 400-500 barrels of flour a day and had 200 employees producing 90,000 loaves of bread a day.
Alexandria and the Slave Trade
The result of these changes for the African American community was that large numbers of enslaved individuals were no longer needed in local agriculture. Rather than freeing them, many local land owners began to either hire them out to in-town employers or sell them to slave traders who in turn sold them to other individuals in the south, where cotton farming was on the rise. Being sent south usually meant being permanently separated from other family members.
Although Alexandria had a well-established reputation as a regional slave-trading center by the mid-nineteenth century, it also had an important community of free African Americans. Slave owners who did not sell their slaves through the markets sent some to live in urban areas where they were hired out to various employers. This made it possible for some of them to find second jobs, working in the off hours to earn money to buy their freedom.
The recently freed individuals, however, were caught in a rapidly evolving political dilemma prior to the Civil War. During the time that it was a part of the District of Columbia (1791 – 1846), Alexandria was a refuge for African Americans including some individuals who had recently escaped slavery. In this period, the degree to which Virginia laws applied or could be enforced in the city was not clear. For example, Virginia passed a law in 1805 making it illegal for freed slaves to live anywhere in the state. Attempts were apparently made from time to time to enforce this law. This and other factors complicated the situation. Being hired out could make it possible for an enslaved individual to earn money to purchase his freedom. However, the influential Quaker community pressured its members to avoid business dealings with slave owners which, in turn, made it more difficult for the “bondsmen” to achieve freedom this way.
The question of whether Virginia’s or the District of Columbia’s laws applied to African Americans in Alexandria was one issue that led to an appeal to the federal government to remove Alexandria from the district, which they did by passing special legislation in 1846. Only a few short years later, in 1850, the federal government passed the second “Fugitive Slave Act.” From the late 1840s until the beginning of the war, Alexandria’s free black citizens lived a precarious existence. As an example of the problems that occurred with the retrocession, a school that had existed since 1812 to educate the children within the African American community ceased operation in 1847 because suddenly it was no longer a matter of interpretation whether Virginia laws against educating black residents applied in Alexandria.
During the war, however, Alexandria once again began to develop a growing African American community, comprised largely of individuals who had formerly been enslaved and had begun to move into the city from surrounding areas.
In 1877 other owners of larger tracts included brothers George and John Seaton. George Lewis Seaton, (1822–1881) was born third of 11 children to free black parents. Seaton’s mother Lucinda was born a slave to George and Martha Washington and was freed by Martha when Lucinda was an infant. George Seaton went on to become a prominent master carpenter and builder, and one of the wealthiest African American residents of Alexandria at the time. He built the house at 404 S. Royal Street and lived there from the early 1870s until his death in 1881. Another house he built may be seen at 323 S. St. Asaph Street. Seaton also established a prestigious civic career including serving as a state legislator during Reconstruction. He founded the local Black YMCA and constructed the first public schools for black students, the Snowden School for Boys and the Hallowell School for Girls. Seaton also served on the jury during the trial of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Among the other leading citizens of the Parker-Gray area in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were educators, clergymen, business owners and veterans. Some were former slaves or the children of former slaves, and some were among the first African Americans in the city to serve as elected officials.
Thomas and Sarah Foster lived at 221 Patrick Street with their eight children in the 1870s and 1880s. Thomas was a former slave. The two oldest sons, George and Lorenzo Foster, were Buffalo Soldiers who served in the 10th U.S. Cavalry in the Great Plains and the Southwest. George had enlisted in the United States Colored Troops in 1863 and was one of the first African Americans recruits to serve in the Civil War.
Meade Chapel Protestant Episcopal Church
In 1871-72, the congregation set out to create a “colored Sunday School,” apparently in recognition of the need for such an institution among African Americans living in the area. In a November 1872 report, parishioner John Janney Lloyd, a member of Alexandria’s prominent Lloyd family, reported to the vestry “that quite a number of colored persons had expressed a desire that we would furnish a suitable place to be used as an Episcopal Church for colored persons.” The vestry responded to this request in the spring of 1873 by making the church building available to an all-black congregation.
In March 1873, Anna Maria Fitzhugh of Fairfax County (an aunt of Robert E. Lee’s wife Mary) offered a parcel at the corner of Princess and Columbus Streets as a new location for the church. The move was announced in the Alexandria Gazette on April 9, 1873, but no reference was made to race. A week later, when the intention that the church serve an all-black congregation became public, the neighbors began objecting. Although an attempt was made to appease the neighbors by announcing that they were looking for another site, the church was relocated by the end of April 1873 to the parcel Mrs. Fitzhugh had provided. The 1870 building was jacked up and moved on rollers from the Cross Canal basin to the new site on Columbus Street. Christ Church used this series of developments to re-frame itself as an all-white congregation, transferring the membership of the African American congregants who attended church in Old Town to the new Meade Chapel location.
Other Important Churches
St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church was created by a group of African American members of the city’s original Catholic parish, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church. The Third Baptist at 919-921 Princess Street and Ebenezer Baptist at 907-909 Queen Street were both constructed in the 1890s. In 1870, while serving as the pastor of Third Baptist Church, Rev. George Parker became the first African American to be elected to Alexandria City Council.
One or two modest-sized dairy processing plants, including the Comico Products Corporation’s “Milk Products” facility, were opened. The neighborhood contained a large hay and feed warehouse, the ca. 1918 building of the Hooge Grain and Feed Company, serving farmers who came to town for supplies. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the neighborhood had a number of other businesses closely connected to agriculture, including a vinegar-processing plant, several horse-related businesses including livery stables, and at least one meat-packing plant – the Armour and Company Wholesale Meats.
Growth in the neighborhood was also influenced by commerce located a few streets away which employed many of the residents. This included a textile mill, the Alexandria County Courthouse, the Alexandria Canal which connected Alexandria to Georgetown, and Portner’s Brewery founded in 1862. After the war, Portner’s became one of Alexandria’s most important manufacturing concerns. It also created a large demand for bottles. Three glass factories were built in Alexandria between 1890 and World War I. The factories became the city’s main industries for a period, employing the area’s blue collar workforce and sustaining the city in the same decades that many of the neighborhood houses were being constructed. The presence of the city’s largest employers so close to the area appears to have been a major factor in its growth.
African American Businesses
The locations of bakeries and confectionery shops in the neighborhood were identified as landmarks of the African American community. Mills Bakery, located at 921 Oronoco Street was in business from about 1888 to about 1910 and a confectionery shop called “Jimmie’s Place,” was located at 728 N. Patrick Street in 1936. The Alexandria Home Bakery was located at 521 Henry Street. An article from the Alexandria Gazette says that “Jackson’s Home Bakery was one of Alexandria’s best known black-owned businesses during the 1920s and 30s. Old friends here can’t remember Mr. Jackson’s first name. He was simply Baker Jackson, a great salesman: ‘You could just be talking to him, and he’d sell you something.’ ”
By the 1950s, the neighborhood had commercial businesses oriented to travelers passing through on U.S. Rt.1, including carry-out shops, gas stations, and automobile dealerships. The Blue Silver Diner at the corner of Henry and Wythe Streets (now Blue and White Take-Out) came to Alexandria as a pre-fabricated metal building in 1951 from Orlando, Florida, where it was manufactured by the Silver Coach Company. Initially owned by a Greek American family, it was later sold to African American owners.
Businesses Owned by White Merchants Serving an African American Clientele
In 1947-1948, a second “blacks only” theater was built, just a block away at the corner of N. Fayette Street and Queen Street. The Carver Theater (later called the King’s Palace) was also designed by John Zink. The Carver had seating for 700 in an auditorium that was decorated with murals. The building is now home to the Antioch Church of Christ. The Capitol Theatre and the Carver Theater defined prominent corners in the Queen Street business district, the core area for African American commerce.
Fraternal Societies and Recreation Facilities
Nationally, the fraternal lodge known as the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks in the World (IBPOE) was created about 1900 when African Americans attempted to join the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks and were refused. They formed a parallel national organization and started chapters in many cities. Alexandria had a strong IBPOE lodge and by 1904, the lodge members had built their original building at 227-229 N. Henry and by 1932, they had greatly expanded and remodeled it. Over the years, the building was the scene of performances by a number of nationally known African American entertainers.
Other private institutions within the district established by African Americans include an American Legion Lodge, William Thomas Post 129, at 224 N. Fayette Street. The lodge was chartered in 1931 and is named for the first African American from Alexandria killed in World War I. In the segregation era, it was the only American Legion lodge in the city open to African Americans. A Masonic lodge, Lincoln Lodge #11, at 1356 Madison Street occupies a small house and has a bronze plaque on the building’s façade which says “Alfred S. Hamilton Building” in honor of a past member to whose memory the building was dedicated in the 1980s.
The Alexandria Boys and Girls Club (originally known as the Alexandria Boys Club), at the corner of N. Payne Street and Princess Street, was created in 1936 as a philanthropic project. Dr. Robert South Barrett, Jr., who is also credited with designing the building, was the son of Robert South Barrett, a prominent Alexandria minister, and Kate Waller Barrett, a philanthropist and social worker. He also gave the Queen Street library to the city as a memorial to his mother.
Robert Robinson Library (Alexandria Black History Museum)
On March 17, 1939, Samuel Wilbert Tucker, a local African American attorney, and George Wilson, a retired army sergeant, went to the library and asked for an application to get a library card. They were told that African Americans were not to be issued library cards at this facility, as the two-year-old library had been created as a facility for “whites only.”
Samuel W. Tucker was born in 1913 at 916 Queen Street. Like many others, Tucker had to travel to Washington, D.C. to earn his high school degree. In 1933, at age 20, he graduated from Harvard University and returned to Alexandria. Although he did not earn a law degree, he studied the law on his own and passed the law exam the same year that he graduated from Harvard. He was admitted to the bar in 1934.
Tucker, who lived near the new Kate Waller Barrett Memorial Library, decided to take action toward integration. He trained five African American male youths for a defiance of library rules and regulations. On August 21, 1939, they entered the library peaceably, one at a time, and asked for a library card. Each was refused. According to Tucker’s instruction, each man went to the stacks and selected a book to read. Taking the book to a table, each read his book quietly, as the library staff was thrown into a panic. The librarian, Catherine Scoggin, asked them to leave but the five stayed seated, remaining courteous as they had been prepared by Tucker. Scoggin left the library and alerted the city manager who, in turn, called the police. The five youths continued to read quietly until the police arrived and arrested them for disorderly conduct.
After an initial hearing in which Tucker and the city attorney offered opposing arguments, the youths were released until they could be tried. The case was put off indefinitely, with a series of continuances, and was never actually resolved. However, it placed the white community on the defensive, as reflected in the press coverage that followed. The event got national publicity, but only briefly because international news was unfolding in Europe, as Hitler invaded Poland just a few days after the sit-in.
Samuel W. Tucker practiced law in the Parker-Gray area for many years. After serving in the infantry in World War II, he participated in litigation over desegregation against more than 50 school boards in the 1950s and 1960s.
Schools were the earliest known African American institutions to develop within the Parker-Gray neighborhood. Although the state of Virginia passed laws against educating African Americans, there were opportunities to provide education before the laws went into effect and at times when enforcement was lax. However, the changing situation gave the schools a precarious existence until after the Civil War. The earliest schools were held in private homes in various parts of the city at least as early as 1809. Schools were conducted by African Americans and by whites and some were provided free of charge. A few schools primarily conducted evening classes and may have been designed to teach reading and writing to adults rather than children.
At the end of the War of 1812, the African American community created its own parallel to the Washington Free School, a school that had been endowed by George Washington. The classes for African Americans were held on the third floor of the Alexandria Academy Building at 604 Wolfe Street, about five blocks southeast of the Parker-Gray Historic District. That same year, the academy purchased land at 218 North Columbus Street to start a school for girls in the white community. The shell of the building at 218 N. Columbus Street is still standing, incorporated later in the nineteenth century into an Italianate design for a lodge facility. The school at the old Academy Building went out of operation in 1847, as did many other small schools that had been operating in other locations in the city, casualties of the city’s retrocession to Virginia.
Hallowell and Snowden Schools
Hallowell School was funded directly by the Freedmen’s Bureau. Each school was set up with a board of trustees. In the case of the Snowden School, it is known that all members of the board of trustees were African American. Hallowell School was located on N. Alfred Street between Princess and Oronoco Streets (407-415 N. Alfred Street) and Snowden School was located on S. Pitt Street between Gibbon and Franklin Streets in the southeast quadrant of the city. In 1870, the two schools officially became part of the city’s public school system.
Parker-Gray Elementary School
Henry T. White, the principal at Snowden, became the first principal of Parker-Gray Elementary School. Prior to that, he was also the only man to serve as principal of Hallowell. White lived at 511 Henry Street beginning about 1903, but moved 1012 Pendleton Street about 1910, where he lived until his death in 1950. Born a slave in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, in 1862, he taught at segregated schools in other parts of Virginia before coming to Alexandria. In his seven years as principal at Parker-Gray Elementary School, followed by seven more years of teaching there, he faced great challenges in a crowded facility that relied on charitable parents and neighbors within the African American community to provide supplies when the public school system did not always provide everything the facility needed.
Parker-Gray High School
In 1950, recognizing that the education of the African American community should include more than elementary instruction, the city built a new high school several blocks west on Madison Street in the “Colored Rosemont” neighborhood. The name “Parker-Gray” was transferred to the new all-black high school. To recognize the contributions of the civil rights attorney who had fought for the new high school, the city renamed the building the Charles Houston Elementary School.
The city schools remained segregated by law until it was overturned in 1965. Up to that time, Parker-Gray High School was the only school offered for African Americans to complete the higher grades. After the end of segregation, 11th and 12th grade students at the high school were sent to T.C. Williams High School. The Parker-Gray High School building was then used as a middle school facility, but only for a few years.
Both the elementary school and high school buildings were demolished in the 1970s. In 1976, on the former site of the Parker-Gray Elementary School and Charles Houston Elementary School, a recreation center was built. This building was demolished in 2007 to make way for the new, state-of-the-art Charles Houston Recreation Center, which opened in February of 2009. Although the school buildings are no longer standing, their presence secured the African American identity of the neighborhood.
Information provided here is adapted from the Preliminary Information Form Submitted for National Register Nomination, January 2008 found on the City’s Planning & Zoning Web Site, and from “A Remarkable and Courageous Journey: A Guide to Alexandria’s African American History,” Alexandria Convention & Visitors Association.