History Viewed Through the Eyes of Descendents

History Viewed Through the Eyes of Descendents

Gum Springs museum offers personal view of black history in Virginia

Tucked away in a building on Fordson Road is a snapshot of history, one that shouldn’t be missed.

For curator Ronald L. Chase, the Gum Springs Museum has been a labor of love since 1996 when it first opened. “I first started with the Gum Springs Historical Society in 1984; I was a charter member. My goal was to have a museum.”

Chase started asking people for items to display; however he himself had been collecting for years and already had many of the items.

He had artifacts from the original Bethlehem Baptist Church. He had china from Mount Vernon and Gunston Hall and he had pictures of the Browns, one of the original families of Gum Springs. After all, John, Sam and Thomas Brown were his great-uncles, and Walter Brown his maternal grandfather.

Almost everything is linked to Gum Springs, but Chase also includes periodic exhibits on black history in general. He also invites speakers to come to the museum; next month, Frank Schubert, author of “Buffalo Soldier,” will be the featured speaker, and sometime in the near future, an African-American doll-maker will come in to do a demonstration.

The museum has limited hours, but tours can be arranged at other times.

CHASE PERSONALLY CONDUCTS every tour, giving visitors the benefit of his background and his interest. It’s not often that a museum curator has first-hand knowledge of his exhibits.

The tour begins with the person who started Gum Springs: West Ford, who lived as a freed slave in Virginia for almost 50 years; whose lineage can be traced to one of the Washingtons, although which Washington has yet to be determined. Ford inherited land from the family of George Washington and then allowed it to become a refuge for freed and runaway slaves during and after the Civil War.

This brief history of Ford will only whet one’s appetite for more information. Was he really the son of George Washington? Why was he able to live as a free black man for almost 50 years? Where is his body and will they ever do any testing to determine his true lineage?

The tour continues with the Gray family. John Gray started the first business in Gum Springs; the building which housed his general store still stands across from Kinder Care on Parkers Lane.

LEARN ABOUT the Odd Fellows, a group started by African-American men who weren’t allowed to join the Masons. Find out more about the Holland family, who came from Woodlawn and settled in the area now known as Holland Road.

Look at original pictures of the first schools that taught African-American children, including the one that used to reside in the museum building – the Drew Smith Elementary School.

Look at photographs from one of the May Day celebrations at the Drew Smith School and hear more about its stern principal.

Learn how Gum Springs became a depot where many newly-freed slaves came to be reunited with their separated families, or to settle as newly emancipated people.

Talk to Chase about how the African Americans of Gum Springs began building homes and developing the life of their independent community.

With the help of the Freedmen's Bureau and the Quaker community, Gum Springs’ residents established means of economic survival through farming, in the lumber industry, and in the trades they had learned as slaves.

The small community prospered and grew. Today, Gum Springs has over 2,500 residents, many of whom are descendants of the original families who lived here in the beginning.

The proud history of Gum Springs is preserved through its community, through the Gum Springs Historical Society and through its museum.

Where & When

The Gum Springs Museum is located at 8100 Fordson Road in Alexandria. The museum is open 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and 6-8 p.m., Monday-Friday, and from 1-3 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays. More information is available online at www.gshsfcva.org, or by calling 703-799-1198.