This was meant to be a happy story with a joyous ending -- a bit of holiday cheer blended with a snippet of local lore. It was to be a story about an exuberant lady in Alexandria whom the townspeople regard with something like mystical reverence. Her name is Annie Rose.
Everywhere we went, when we asked a question about local history or the black community, the name Annie Rose immediately surfaced. "Ask Annie, ask Annie Rose, she knows all about those things. "
So, off to Miss Rose's Old Town home we went. We had been warned to expect a joyous -- "sometimes overly so" -- and effusive person, but we found instead an elderly woman anguished by the recent changes in her community.
They call her Miss Rose, Miss Annie Rose. She is the grande dame of black history in Alexandria, a frail trinket of that city's past who has been known to lighten many a wintry afternoon.
But not today. Today, Miss Rose is crying, tears flowing down cheeks that sag with the rolling cadences of her speech.
"These are sad and distressing days. I never realized it until recently, but this city, this country is being attacked by polarization again and it's partly our own fault.
"What are we poor and black folk going to do? Will we be hated people again?"
Miss Rose, 85 years old. A woman whose father was sold at a slave market a few blocks from her Duke Street home.
Miss Rose, a friend and a guide to the children who flock to her pastel-green living room. A woman who cannot understand the rage of a black youth or the resentment of a white man who blames unemployment on black progress.
Miss Rose, the first black president of the Alexandria Women's Civic Association. A woman who woke at dawn recently to hear the radio echoing the themes she lived more that 30 years ago.
"When civil rights and integration came, you couldn't help but have a sense of gratitude that as a human being you could go into places where other human beings went . . . but now I'm frightened. I hear Strom Thurmond talking about civil rights laws and state's voting rights, I hear the Ku Klux Klan talking about race wars, I hear my neighbors telling me about friends who say they hate blacks because they were robbed by a black. . . .
"A lot of young people today don't understand what it was like then (before desegregation). They don't know what freedom means . . . instead they are angry. There are whites who are upset by black progress, and there are blacks who feel they haven't been given enough.
"So they turn to violence."
Miss Rose, a victim of that violence. Her home was robbed recently while she was attending a funeral; she was mugged one sunny afternoon coming from the grocery. And yet, Miss Rose is a person for whom words like cheery, chirpy and happy seem more like last names than adjectives.
Miss Rose, raised in Occoquan and a resident of Alexandria since 1926. For nearly 25 years, until 1946, she worked at the printing presses of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving. For nearly 40 years, since her husband William died in 1941, Miss Rose has been alone. But never lonely.
Miss Rose, the community activist. Her face plumped but unlined by age, she has spent those 40 years pumping out gospel tunes every Sunday on the church organ, transporting the sick to doctors and hospitals, caucusing at state Democratic conventions, serving on the area's Urban League board and working to improve the lot of black people.
"Don't write those things down," she orders, returning from yet another phone call -- this one asking what time she would be ready to take an acquaintance to the doctor. "I do them because they have to be done. There's so much more I could do and I feel disgusted with myself that I haven't done more for my people."
Miss Rose, a woman who never marched, but a woman people say has traveled far to bridge the racial barrier.
For that Miss Rose the years have been good. But today's Miss Rose is dismayed by the future she sees.
"Life has been wonderful to me, but I can't tell you what you want to hear. I can't tell you that the world is a more comfortable and enjoyable place to be than it was.
"I can't tell you I'm not frightened."