Where We Live

Founded With Links to the Founding Fathers

Siblings Ruby and Joseph Saunders.
Siblings Ruby and Joseph Saunders. "There was no place for blacks anywhere, but we had this," Ruby Saunders said of segregated times. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

By Janet Lubman Rathner
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 27, 2007

Just off Alexandria's busy Route 1 corridor sits Gum Springs, a neighborhood with a special link to the region's Colonial history.

Gum Springs, which consists mostly of blocks of modest 1940s ramblers sprinkled with the occasional new high-end house, was founded in 1833 by West Ford, a former slave with ties to Mount Vernon, George Washington's home just a little more than five miles away.

Ford began life as a slave for the family of Washington's younger brother, John Augustine Washington, and his wife, Hannah Bushrod Washington. Ford, who was of mixed race and whose father's identity has not been confirmed, spent his childhood at Bushfield plantation, their home in Westmoreland County. John Augustine Washington died in 1787, and his will provided for keeping Ford together with his mother, Venus, and her parents.

"Upon his wife's death, [they] were to be given to whichever of his and Hannah's children that Hannah might choose, probably a means of ensuring that they remained in the family, rather than being sold away," said Melissa Wood, media relations associate at Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens.

Hannah died in 1801, and her will stipulated that Ford be inoculated for smallpox, taught a trade -- he became a carpenter -- and freed when he turned 21. A year later, Martha Washington died and Hannah's son, Bushrod, inherited Mount Vernon.

Bushrod made Ford overseer, a position he retained after he was freed. When Bushrod died in 1829, he bequeathed 119 acres to Ford, who in turn sold the property for $350. With the proceeds, he bought the 214 acres that make up Gum Springs.

Founded 30 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Gum Springs became a destination for runaway and freed slaves. Many had worked at Mount Vernon and some were related to Ford. With assistance from Quaker abolitionists, they found work in the trades and the agriculture and lumber industries.

Today, descendants of these families can still be counted among Gum Springs' 2,500 residents.

Convenience and family ties are among the reasons longtime homeowners cite when asked why they live in Gum Springs. The community is within walking distance of many establishments, including Mount Vernon Plaza, with a grocery store, a pharmacy, a post office, a restaurant, and office supplies and hardware businesses, and the Gum Springs Center, where there are a barbershop, a photo store and a convenience store.

There are at least five churches within Gum Springs' boundaries: The long-established Bethlehem Baptist and Woodlawn United Methodist churches have been joined in recent years by at least three other houses of worship. Residents can also walk to the Gum Springs Community Center, which offers after-school and senior services programs. The center's west wing houses the Gum Springs Historical Society and the Gum Springs Museum, which has six rooms of photos, china and other community memorabilia.

"Where we're located, you can get to anything. It's good," said Ruby Saunders, 68, a direct descendant of West Ford.

A retired chemist and educator, Saunders was born in Gum Springs and has lived there off and on since. When she was young, the area was still rural. "We picked strawberries growing in little areas where the springs were flowing, and there was fishing. Everybody knew everybody," she recalled.

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