After living in the Boston area for many years, I returned to Alexandria about six years ago. Having an opportunity to witness the tremendous growth of the city has been a phenomenal experience. I have walked down streets I frequented, as a child of color, with a sense of nostalgia that is sometimes overwhelming. I can still hear some of the old voices of my youth speaking as I pass homes that are so familiar and yet so foreign. I still remember some of the catchy rhymes my father said and sang as we walked on the Hill to visit relatives and friends. I can still feel my hand in my mother’s hand as we walked along enjoying the sights of the route chosen for the evening. We so often walked from North Alfred or North Fayette to “ The South side.”
I look back upon my youth in Alexandria with pride and an understanding of the many gifts I received as a resident. Our first home was a two-bedroom apartment in the 300 block of North Alfred Street and it was in this insular neighborhood that I first learned what it meant to be a good neighbor and an understanding friend. As a child we had many of the vital conveniences we needed within walking distance. These conveniences included Ms. Blue’s Drugstore, Ms. Bracey’s Florist. Dr. Ladrey’s Office, Dr. West’s Office, Attorney Brown’s Office, a grocery store, Meade Church, Ebeneezer Church, Ms. Dorothea Campbell’s home and beauty salon, the American Legion, a movie theater and I could walk to St. Joseph’s to church and school. Dr. Durant, Dr Taylor, Attorney Tucker and Third Baptist Church also played important roles. I also attended Girl Scouts at the Hopkins House with Ms. Ruth Wright and Ms. Francis Burke who mentored us and provided positive role models for African American girls in the community. For the longest time, though degraded by segregation, I thought this was all I needed to have a happy life and in some ways it was. This struggling community survived in spite of moratoriums, unfair laws, and financial red lining.
I guess you could say that I lived in what is known as the Parker Gray area when I grew up. We lived on Alfred Street until I was about 12 and then we built a new house on North Fayette St. I attended St. Joseph’s School and St. Mary’s Academy and continued to grow as the result of each experience. My parents, the Oblate Sisters of Providence and the Josephite Priests taught me about God and provided a strong foundation. They insisted upon hard work, the development of character, acceptable behavior and an understanding of respect for my elders. All of this happened in the 16th census tract.
As a young girl, I never thought of public housing in a derogatory sense because we knew and respected people who lived there. People who lived there then and now simply wanted a place they could afford to live and raise their families. Times have changed but this basic need for affordable and livable housing is still a basic need for all citizens.
I have not lived on Alfred St. or Fayette St. for many years but the experiences gained on both blocks will live within my heart wherever I go. You see, the Parker Gray area is not just a construct of the mind. It is as real and as vibrant in the minds of many as it was years ago. This is true for those who lived there then and for those who live there today. It is still home. It is home with all of its flaws, imperfect people in an imperfect world, and everything else we hear about it.
When I visit Alfred St., I am that little girl with the pigtails riding my first bike. When I visit Fayette St., I can still remember the tears that flowed from my mother’s eyes when she opened the door of our new home. I can still see the friendly faces that told me that I and all the little children who came through there were special. I can still hear the phone ringing telling my parents that I should not have been in someone’s yard climbing their tree. I can feel the excitement I felt when I walked to Johnson Pool on opening day. These were the people who sheltered me from the cruel realities that were no further away than King Street. Parker Gray is not a construct of the mind. It is real!
It is with these experiences as a backdrop that my heart swells as we approach another anniversary of Brown v. The Board of Education. It seems that the Carver School/ American Legion Post 124 building will be saved and remain an important part of the history of the Parker Gray area. Mr. William Cromley, with encouragement from certain constituents from the community, will be the catalyst for positive change in Alexandria. A landmark of significance for all Alexandrians will be preserved and continue to exemplify the important role African Americans were forced to play during turbulent times. The Carver School provided educational access and the American Legion Building served as a refuge for soldiers of color returning from World War II. When the building is complete, all Alexandrians will have a reason to celebrate.