A sense of her people's history ceaselessly stirs in 87-year-old Annie B. Rose, the daughter of a slave. The walls of her Old Town, Alexandria, home carry reminders of local black accomplishments: a plate emblazoned with the image of a Baptist church her father founded in Fairfax County in 1891, an aging photograph of her aunt, who founded the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth in 1905, and a turn-of-the-century document bearing the signature of Oswald Garrison Willard, grandson of white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
"We have a heritage that we should respect and preserve," Rose said simply.
Today, Rose and members of the Parker-Gray Alumni Association (Parker-Gray was the name of Alexandria's now-defunct black high school) and the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage are attempting to do just that. They are trying to organize a black history center in Alexandria.
That Alexandria should have such a center is appropriate, Rose and the others feel, for it was a city that, in the last century, paradoxically served both as a haven for free blacks and as a major embarkation point for slaves being shipped to the Deep South.
The center is located in a tiny, city-owned red-brick building at 638 N. Alfred St. It was here, in the days of racial segregation, that the city's "colored library" was housed. The center's organizers hold a five-year, dollar-a-year lease with the city on the building.
Currently, there's little in the two-room building except an old desk, a bookcase, a vintage Admiral refrigerator and three glass display cases donated by the Kennedy Center.
But the organizers, who are volunteering their time and have virtually no money to use, have high hopes.
"What we really need is for people to contribute," said Roger Anderson, who has informally become one of the center's chief curators. "Most of what we have is what you see on these seven shelves."
Much of what sits on those shelves has been collected by Anderson, a city laborer who, for the last two years and on his own time, has combed the voluminous records of the National Archives for references to Alexandria's blacks.
An example of what Anderson discovered is that the black neighborhood in which the center is located was once the site of a Civil War-era black hospital called L'Ouverture Hospital.
Anderson explained that, during the Civil War, great numbers of freed and fugitive slaves flooded Alexandria seeking work in the Union's war effort that based a massive railroad yard and other army installations in the city.
"There were so many blacks here, the city didn't know what to do with them or how to care for them," Anderson said. The hospital, according to the documents, included a surgeon's dispensary, a schoolroom for "colored pupils," and mess and cook rooms. It closed Oct. 7, 1865.
Not far from the hospital, Anderson said, was the three-story gray-brick slave pen, which still stands, from which Annie Bailey Rose's father, Louis Henry Bailey, was sold as a slave.
Rose sees the pen and all the rest as indispensable bits of history, things that must be preserved so as to continually remind new generations of the past.
"I think it is one of the most important things we can do in view of current thinking . . . ," Rose said. "I can see where that racist element here is trying to destroy civil rights. I'm praying that that little building will be a constant source of knowledge to our young blacks. They just don't know about our history and our contributions to this society."
Until Anderson started his research, he didn't know much of his family's history. Like most blacks whose American roots are embedded in slavery, Anderson assumed his great grandfather had been a slave. In doing the research, however, Anderson and another center organizer, Harry Burke, found that they each had great grandfathers who lived as free blacks in Alexandria during the years of slavery.
Plans call for the center to open its doors to the public in mid-1983. Ideally, organizers said, they hope to move the exhibit eventually into the old Alfred Street Baptist Church building, several blocks south, built in 1855 and the fifth oldest black church in the nation.
The project has the backing of the city archeologist, Pamela Cressey.
"I think what they are doing is critical," said Cressey. "It actually helps the people who are living today to appreciate and be appreciated for what they have gone through."
Anderson agrees. "We want everyone to know our experience," he said.
The history center asks that anyone possessing photographs or other items relating to the history of blacks in Alexandria which they would be like to donate or lend to the center call (703) 548-0661 on weekdays after 4 p.m.