In the heart of the Parker-Gray Historic District in Alexandria is a modest, 69-year-old wood-frame building that once housed a nursery school for African American children when segregation prevented them from attending anywhere else.
Carver School, built by the federal government, lasted only six years. An American Legion post leased and eventually purchased the structure, and the building became one of the hubs of a vibrant black community. Civil rights meetings, weddings, beauty pageants, patriotic celebrations and religious observations were held there.
Eventually, the civic gatherings devolved into loud parties and crime. The building was sold to a third party in 2008, and developer William Cromley bought it in 2009. Cromley expected at the time to demolish it and build condos there.
Two years ago, historic preservation activists staved off the demolition of this remnant of segregated Alexandria by agreeing to find or raise $675,000 to buy the building. But the purchase deadline is only a month away, and there’s no money.
Activists, who met Sunday night to ponder their choices, have collected 200 signatures on a petition. Some blamed the lack of action on a city-appointed advisory committee.
“This sits right in the heart of what was the main African American community,” said Boyd Walker, an activist who is among those trying to save the building again. “People came from all over the Parker-Gray neighborhood because it was the only place that had services” for black people. “It continues the journey; it completes the story, almost up to the present day, of African Americans in Alexandria.”
The long and vibrant history of African Americans in Alexandria might not be as well documented as the city’s Colonial past, but it can be found in the Black History Museum, at the Contrabands and Freedman Cemetery, its churches and at Fort Ward Park. The Carver School was listed by Preservation Virginia as one of the most endangered historic buildings in the commonwealth in 2010.
In nearby Arlington County, the African American-owned Green Valley Pharmacy, which has been in business for 60 years, was designated as a historic site this week. A popular community gathering place, at 2415 Shirlington Rd., the pharmacy is owned and operated by Leonard Muse. It serves as an important anchor of the Nauck neighborhood and is “an important physical reminder of both the impacts of racial segregation and Arlington’s mid-20th century African American commercial heritage,” a report by the county said.
Unlike the pharmacy, which is still in business, Alexandria’s Carver School would require major renovations before it could reopen.
“I’m sympathetic to the cause,” Cromley said. “Unfortunately, I’m not a developer with deep enough pockets to donate it. Good intentions aren’t going to save this building. It takes more than passion, and two years is a long time.”
He’s not sure what the future holds for the property, because the economy might no longer support his plans for condos there. He’s not ruling out a deal with activists or the city, he said, but whatever happens, “it needs to work for both of us.”
The city is forecasting an $18.5 million shortfall in its budget, and City Manager Rashad Young warned the activists in November and this month that the city isn’t in a position to “purchase, preserve or redevelop” the property.
Mayor William D. Euille (D), an African American native of Alexandria, said this week that he’s personally sympathetic to the preservation effort, but “We just don’t have the money. All the other challenges we face, schools and affordable housing — the city is just not in a position to do this.”