The Robinson Legacy in Education, History

The Robinson Legacy in Education, History

When Gentleman Jim Robinson was raising his family in a small home along Route 29, prior to the Civil War, little did he know that house would one day become a part of history.

He also had no idea that his descendants would become prominent members of Fairfax and Prince William counties and, someday, leave their own marks upon the area. But that they did, and some artifacts from their home are even on display in the Manassas Museum.

In February 1989, Gentleman Jim's greatgrandson, Bladen Oswald Robinson — who liked to be called "B. Oswald" Robinson — donated furnishings from the house, dating from about 1825-1850.

"They include a cradle dating to the 1840s, a candle dipper and a still," said Manassas Museum Curator Roxana Adams. "They're all very old and quite wonderful."

B. Oswald also donated Laundry kettles, a kitchen pump, a musket, Dutch oven, "spider" kettle (so named because of its legs), pewter pot, glass items and tools.

The house stood on part of the large tract of land owned by the Robinson family. The property ran all the way from the present Newgate Shopping Center at Routes 28/29 in Centreville, west down Route 29, past the Robinson House in the Manassas National Battlefield Park, and south to Compton Road in the Mount Olive vicinity.

Over the years, the home was improved and, in 1888, the Robinson family added another chimney. Other additions followed, through 1926, as the small structure served as home to many members of the family.

Mary Howard Robinson was married to one of Gentleman Jim's grandsons, McKinley, and they were among the last Robinsons to live there. McKinley's mother Rose left the home to him in her will, and he and Mary moved into it in 1928. They eventually became the parents of four daughters, and three of them were born in that house.

In the late 1930s (although some historians mark the date as 1924), the federal government purchased the house as part of the Manassas National Battlefield Park. But the Robinsons were allowed to continue living in their home and, as late as 1991, Mary and McKinley's daughter Constance, then 90, resided there.

Mary and B. Oswald were cousins. His grandfather was Gentleman Jim's son Bladen, and his parents were James and Edna Ratcliffe Robinson. B. Oswald. In the early 1990s, at age 80, he lived near the Robinson home, in a stone house of his own in the Battlefield Park. And as a young boy plowing fields in the Bull Run area where he grew up, he often unearthed weapons, medals and the remains of Civil War soldiers who'd been buried in shallow graves.

B. Oswald led a distinguished life, spending more than 40 years in Fairfax County Public Schools — first as a teacher and then as principal of Louise Archer Elementary School in Vienna for 22 years. He was at the helm of Archer during the early 1960s when that once all-Black school was integrated. Indeed, his efforts helped make integration a success in this county. He retired in 1970 and died in January 2002.

Other descendants of Gentleman Jim's still make their home in the local area. Geraldine Ellis lives on Ordway Road in Centreville, where some of the Robinson acreage remains; and Helen Alexander resides in Centreville's Bull Run community. Mary Robinson Ewell, Gentleman Jim's great-greatgrandaughter, now lives in Manassas, but was raised in what's now Centreville's Lee Overlook community, off Route 29.

Ewell's greatgrandmother, Jemima Robinson Harris, gave land she'd inherited from her father (Gentleman Jim) to Fairfax County to build a black school across from where London Towne Elementary now stands.

"It was three rooms with a wood stove," recalled Ewell. "I went there my first year of elementary school in 1951." That site is now the location of the Assembly of God Church.

As for the original Robinson home, vandalism resulted in a fire and, on July 27, 1993, the blaze destroyed most of the building. However, the home's foundation still stands.

After its demolition, archaeologists discovered more than 1,000 artifacts. These included papers dating from 1827-1860 and containing Gentleman Jim's official mark that served as his signature. They're currently being stored in Maryland by the National Park Service.

Meanwhile, the Robinson family has continued on strong, generation after generation. In 1987, more than 700 of Gentleman Jim's descendants came from 20 states, Germany and Great Britain for a family reunion at the Robinson house. It was the first time they were all together.