Alexandria is a history-besotted town. From the welcome sign that touts its founding in 1749, to the regular tours that remind tourists it’s the hometown of George Washington and Robert E. Lee, to the carefully preserved historic buildings in Old Town, the city wants even casual visitors to consider the role it has played in the nation’s past.
But unless visitors dig deep, or happen across the city’s modest Black History Museum, they might not hear the story of an unsung leader in the civil rights movement, Samuel W. Tucker, who in 1939 led a sit-in at the city’s library that black residents were not allowed to use. The action forced the segregated city to open a separate library for African Americans. Tucker, who wanted full integration, was not satisfied and became one of the leading lawyers battling Virginia’s “massive resistance” response to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
Or they might not know that Alexandria natives were among the first Tuskegee Airmen and the first blacks to break into the National Basketball Association. Blois Oliver Doles Hundley, a mother of eight, lost her job as a school cook when she joined the local lawsuit in 1958 challenging school segregation. Charles Fremont West, the first black quarterback to play in a Rose Bowl, in 1922, narrowly escaped a lynch mob when his team bus arrived at the game; he later qualified for the Olympics in track and turned down a chance to play pro football in order to go to medical school.
This long-ignored parallel history is beginning to get more attention with the publication of “African Americans of Alexandria, Virginia: Beacons of Light in the Twentieth Century,” a 150-page paperback published last month by the History Press.
The book was a project by a group of residents who essentially crowd-sourced questions to the community, who contributed the names of and information about many of the 63 people featured. It’s already in its second printing, and the five authors have pledged that royalties will go to a city fund to pay for research into Alexandria’s African American history.
The authors, Char McCargo Bah, Christa Watters, Audrey P. Davis, Gwendolyn Brown-Henderson and James E. Henson Sr., discussed the book Saturday at a reading and book-signing at the same library where Tucker led the sit-in. Bah, a professional genealogist, was called the driving force behind the book; Davis is the acting director of the Black History Museum; and Henson, who seems to know every family in town, is a direct descendant of polar explorer Matthew P. Henson.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen a book on people whose stories have not been told,” said George K. Combs, the Alexandria Library’s branch manager for special collections, who oversees the archive of local history books. “It’s not black history, not white history, it’s history.”
It’s not just activists and athletes whose life stories are told; the book includes a wealth of biographical detail on ordinary people — scientists, physicians, teachers, business owners, ministers and people like John W. “Baker,” or “Pie,” Jackson, a bakery owner who made saucer-size pies that sold for 3 cents wholesale. That historical fact hit home with one of the book’s authors, she said, when she saw an $8.50 pie the same size at the Del Ray farmers market.
History informs other current issues, as well. Next year, the city plans to dedicate the 150-year-old Contrabands and Freedman Cemetery, where about 1,800 African Americans who escaped slavery are buried. At the book reading Saturday, residents also discussed a local funeral home’s plan to destroy its old obituary files, a potential trove of historical and genealogical research, and how to save them.
Bah urged residents to talk to older family members, preserve documents and photos, and learn from the past. “That dark history they did not talk about” might be something they will discuss as they age, she suggested. “Give your grandparents respect.”
The authors will be on hand for another book signing from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Harris Masonic Memorial Association, 112 E. Oxford Ave., Alexandria.