In a Pocket of Prince William

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 12, 2006

When Toni and Ronald Moore were relocating from Georgia to the Washington area five years ago, they looked for a place similar to suburban DeKalb County, a popular, affluent, predominantly black community outside of Atlanta.

Instead of choosing Prince George's County, the nation's wealthiest black-majority county, the Moores ended up in mostly white Prince William County. Yet they say they do not feel like outsiders. They are surrounded by other middle- and upper-middle-class blacks who have bought homes costing as much as $600,000 in new subdivisions dotting southeastern Prince William.

"We have our own little back yard here," Toni Moore, a 37-year-old hospice nurse, said of the black residents of her neighborhood, called Southbridge.

The Moores are part of a wave of African Americans moving to an area just off Interstate 95, south of the Potomac Mills shopping center and north of the Quantico Marine Corps Base. How this area turned into a black community almost overnight is partly a story of how hundreds of people from near and far discovered Prince William, transforming some of the county's schools, churches, stores, demographics and even its politics.

The creation of majority minority communities such as Southbridge also shows how the diversity of Washington suburbs sometimes turns up in unexpected places. There are large numbers of Koreans in Annandale, Filipinos in Manassas, Salvadorans in Langley Park, Indians in Gaithersburg and Ethiopians in South Arlington.

In Prince William, the way the newcomers found out about Southbridge and other subdivisions was an organic process, occurring subtly and without fanfare. The catalyst was longtime black military families living along the I-95 corridor who traded up to homes in the new subdivisions. After that, word spread across the region about southeastern Prince William.

Pockets of western Prince William were settled by freed slaves, but historically the county has not been seen as especially welcoming. For some African Americans, there is still a stigma associated with Virginia, said Charita Barnes, 40, a real estate agent.

"Let's be honest," she said, "Black people don't just move to Virginia."

Barnes lives in Forest Park, one of the few choice subdivisions in a corner of Prince William anchored by the Cherry Hill peninsula on the Potomac River. The growth of the black population there has contributed to a 147 percent overall increase since 1990 in the number of blacks in Prince William, which is nearly 19 percent black.

The affluent black newcomers are contributing to a makeover of the county's image from Northern Virginia's country cousin to a more sophisticated community of million-dollar homes, upscale shops and, soon, its first full-service hotel -- near Southbridge.

"Obviously, the county has become increasingly diverse at the same time it has become increasingly affluent. We have become attractive to everyone, regardless of their race or ethnicity," said Sean T. Connaughton (R), chairman of the Board of County Supervisors, who is white and lives in Triangle near the new majority-black subdivisions.

In Toni Moore's neighborhood, signs of change are everywhere. The local elementary school, River Oaks, is 53 percent black. At Graham Park Middle School and Potomac Senior High School, black students are the majority. The number of black barbershops in the area has quadrupled in the past decade. And First Mount Zion Baptist Church has become one of the area's largest black churches, with 3,300 members.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company