Front row, from left: Char McCargo Bah and Gwen Brown-Henderson. Back row, from left: Christa Watters, James Henson and Audrey Davis.
Alexandria currently has its first black mayor, its first black city manager, its first black city attorney, its first black Circuit Court judge and its first black police chief — not to mention the first black president in the White House. But the strains of race relations continue to haunt the city, whether it's the division brought about by the George Zimmerman trial in Florida or the racial divide among Alexandria churches that takes place every Sunday morning.
The struggle for civil rights is not over, and yet standing at the dawn of the 21st century it's clear that the stories of how the movement took shape in Alexandria is an inspiring tale of perseverance and hope. That's why a group of authors came together to write "African Americans of Alexandria, Virginia: Beacons of Light in the Twentieth Century." The book was compiled by an editorial team of heavyweights in Alexandria: Char McCargo Bah, Gwendolyn Brown-Henderson, Audrey Davis, James Henson Sr. and Christa Waters.
"This book weaves a story — too long untold — of Alexandria's black community," the authors write in an epilogue to the book. "We wanted to give each individual his or her due, even as we are aware that the picture we paint here is incomplete."
The project began as a series of short narratives compiled by members of the Charles Houston Ad Hoc Naming/Narrative Committee appointed by the city to recognize the achievements of people in everything from law and medicine to arts and religion. By the time members of the committee finished gathering the narratives, they realized they had collected something special — an important slice of Alexandria history, told through the prism of personal stories and life experiences.
"So a small group of us decided to continue the project and turn it into a book," explained the authors in a preface to the book. "The individuals included here were people worth emulating. They did not shy away from community involvement even though many worked at more than one job."
THE THEME OF THE BOOK is "beacons of light," an indication that the subjects illuminated the city in a way that changed the course of history. All of the individuals highlighted served as change agents in Alexandria, ushering the way to a better life for future generations. For some, the goal was supporting their families or helping their community. For others, it was fighting for equal rights in the classroom or at the voting precinct. Most of them lived through the tumultuous transition from segregation to integration.
"The African American community of Alexandria had a rich and varied social life lived parallel to the other community, but their stories were rarely brought to public recognition," writes Mayor Bill Euille in the introduction. "This book remedies years of oversight of their achievements."
Some of the subjects in the book became known throughout the world, such as Tuskegee airman Rutherford Hamlet Adkins, the first African American to earn a doctorate from the Catholic University. Other individuals featured in the book are ordinary people who found themselves at a critical crossing, such as school cook Blois Oliver Doles Hundley who joined other parents in a 1958 lawsuit demanding their children be admitted to all-white schools.
"We are in danger of forgetting some of these people," said Henson, who is also working on a book about his family history. "I don't think we should forget them, and this book is one way for us to remember people who were beacons of light to the African-American community and the city."
MANY OF THE PEOPLE will be familiar to readers in Alexandria because buildings and institutions bear their names. Civil rights lawyer Samuel Tucker has an elementary school named for him. Civic activist Ruby Tucker has a family center that bears her name. Dr. Oswald Durant is the namesake of a community center next to Jefferson-Houston School that also serves as a voting precinct. Speaking of voting percents, Dr. Henry Ladrey is honored at the Ladrey Senior Building, which is also a polling place.
"Some of these people you may already know about, people who made huge contributions," said Davis, who is the acting director of the Alexandria Black History Museum. "But the book also features people who made very quiet contributions but changed their communities in positive ways."
One hurdle for the authors was putting together a collection of biographical sketches for people in a community where record keeping was often not reliable. In several cases, the team had to conduct genealogical studies to determine basic facts such as a date of birth or marriage records. Fortunately the Barrett Branch Library has a collection of black newspapers that chronicled educational or sporting achievements.
"I'm glad to see some of this rich history finally put into print," said former Alexandria School Board Chairman Ferdinand Day, who is featured in the book. "It shows a real sense of dedication on the part of the people who put this book together."