Members and friends of the historic Gum Springs community gathered at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate on Saturday, Nov. 18 to celebrate the 190th anniversary of the community’s founding by West Ford (1875-1863), who was formerly enslaved on the estate.
Gum Springs is the oldest historically Black community in Fairfax County and one of the oldest in the nation. The event was sponsored by the Gum Springs Historical Society and attended by about 100 people, including descendants of West Ford as well as local officials including Sen. Scott Surovell, Del. Paul Krizek, and newly elected Mount Vernon School Board member Mateo Dunn.
Ron Chase, president of the Gum Springs Historical Society and founding director of the Gum Springs Museum, opened the event by saying, “It is important to recognize the ingenuity of the early leaders who laid the foundation for this historic community. The founder, West Ford, and the original families — the Browns, Grays, Chases, Kings, Hollands, Fergusons, Smiths, Jaspers, and Taylors — to name a few, were its building blocks. However, after 190 years, Gum Springs is now facing a fight for survival against constant pressure from developers who seek to change or even destroy this historic community.”
He introduced keynote speaker Dale Green, professor of architecture and historic preservation at Morgan State University and descendent of several notable African American historic figures including the founder of Morgan State, a Historically Black College or University (HBCU).
Green gave a moving talk about how understanding the past struggles and accomplishments of a people shapes who they are and inspires them to continue the struggle. He said celebrating a 190th anniversary demonstrates the “epic victory of your survival and is a testimony to the legacy to your founder, West Ford.” Noting that most historically African American communities are no longer in existence, he outlined the challenges to keeping such a community alive in the face of overdevelopment, stereotyping and distortions of its history.
For Gum Springs, he said, recent challenges included its fight for a county historic overlay district to preserve its history and against county transportation plans that could substantially increase local density and pedestrian safety. He also noted a 2022 New Yorker article on whether George Washington was West Ford’s father, as claimed by many descendants, that he said contained errors that mischaracterized the community,
“This anniversary reminds us that our history is our power,” he said. “Those who do not learn their past will never know their own power. The courage and tenacity of our ancestors have led us on our way.”
Recent efforts to ban books in schools and censor teachers have threatened our history and our strength, he said.
“They say they want to muzzle educators to prevent discomfort and guilt. What they fear is that by learning their history people will understand their power; that we come from a long line of titans and visionaries.”
Erasing our history threatens our future because the “courage and tenacity of our ancestors have shown us the way forward, Green said. He called education, especially about history, the Underground Railroad of our day to lead us out of bondage.
Green encouraged the audience to continue to “document the journey toward justice over four centuries of denial, discrimination and degradation.” West Ford, he said, “challenged what it meant to be three-fifths of a man” by establishing a place for his family to grow in freedom. By building on the dreams and accomplishments of ancestors, each generation can “stand on the shoulders of giants” and thus see further into the future.
He encouraged the audience to fight for funding to preserve their heritage and make the authentic story of Gum Spring known to descendants and the larger community.
Del. Paul Krizek announced that he has secured $200,000 from the state this year for the Gum Springs museum, but it requires a $100,000 match from the County for a total of $300,000.
Surovell, who was recently elected the new Senate majority leader, spoke of a growing recognition by the county and state of “issues we have avoided for centuries.”
He noted that Mount Vernon Estate, which had ignored Gum Springs for years, recently held a moving wreath laying at its slave cemetery and is now allowing the historical society to rent its facilities for this dinner. He also pointed to the recent installation of local historical markers for West Ford; Ona Lee Judge, who escaped slavery at Mount Vernon plantation; and Annie Lee Harper, who was a plaintiff in a successful Supreme Court case on voting rights in 1964.
Surovell recalled that his grandmother used to tell him how their Jewish family relocated from New York to Mount Vernon District, where they were not welcomed by most of the local white population. They joined the NAACP and fought to desegregate schools and help Gum Springs get the roads and sewers that every white neighborhood already had.
“We need to appreciate and love our community for all that it is,” Surovell said.