Calvin Terrell was born in a six-bedroom house on King Street that had been passed down from his grandparents in one of Alexandria’s oldest communities of African American homeowners. In the early 1960s, that house was demolished to make way for T.C. Williams High School.
Many of the neighbors protested the urban renewal project that leveled the community, even as some moved into new homes built next to the school.
“It was during the civil rights time. We really didn’t have a voice,” said Calvin’s wife, Frances Terrell, president of the Seminary Civic Association, which represents the neighborhood today. “The city did what it wanted to do.”
Fifty years later, area residents are protesting again. Among the concessions that residents won at the time T.C. Williams was built was an agreement from the city that there would be no lights at the football field, which is adjacent to the transplanted neighborhood.
It is the only public high school football field in Northern Virginia that does not have lights.
In May, Alexandria School Board members reopened debate on the issue, initiating a feasibility study to explore bringing lights to Parker-Gray Memorial Stadium. They cited increasing demand for sports facilities in the community and better lighting technology that, proponents say, can minimize the disruption to neighbors.
Residents of the Seminary neighborhood, along with homeowners in a historically white neighborhood that also abuts the athletic field, are speaking out against the prospect of adding lights, which they are afraid could lead to nightly noise and disruptions at the school next door.
“When is enough enough?” Terrell said.
The feasibility study, which is likely to be completed in September, will include information about potential costs and lighting arrangements as well as a vision for how the field would be used — for what types of activities, how often and by whom, said Karen Graf, the school board’s chairman.
“The problem right now in our city is that we are growing so much, and we have so many kids playing youth sports. They are competing for field time and game time,” so it’s important to make good use of existing fields, Graf said.
Graf said the neighbors’ concerns are “compelling” but added that many people in the city are excited at the prospect of stadium lights, including “50 years of alumni.”
Kerry Donley, a former school athletic director and former vice mayor of Alexandria, said not being able to use the field at night creates significant scheduling challenges.
“We are constantly juggling schedules,” he said. “Some games are postponed because of darkness or shortened because of darkness, and having to play during just daylight hours puts our kids at a disadvantage.”
Many residents of the neighborhood, near the corner of King Street and Quaker Lane, can trace four generations of relatives who have lived in the community, dating back to when African Americans began settling there shortly after the Civil War.
Most of the early homeowners worked at the Virginia Theological Seminary or Episcopal High School, on the other side of Quaker Lane, doing laundry or maintenance. The community grew up around Oakland Baptist Church and had its own school for African American children.
Some of the houses were not hooked up to city sewer and water lines and lacked heating or paved roads.
A 1960 article in The Washington Post said the area, which was also known as “Mudtown,” had been “a target for improvement or elimination for years” when the Alexandria City Council sought to acquire the site through urban renewal or condemnation to build the school.
The neighbors organized to save their homes. “It means something to leave, after generations have lived here, and to have no place to go,” Army Maj. Marion L. Johnson, president of the area’s citizens association, said in a Post article published later that year.
The city ultimately won approval and federal funding to demolish several dozen homes. It built 29 modern brick ramblers on a smaller tract of land next to T.C. Williams and gave displaced homeowners the first chance to buy them.
Not all the Seminary residents could afford the new houses, Terrell said, even though they had been paid to leave their old homes. Some moved away.
The community that endured learned what it’s like to share a back yard with one of the biggest high schools in the state.
Andrea Lewis lives in the house her great-grandmother bought on Woods Place after the family’s home was torn down. She looks out on the T.C. Williams concession stand.
In addition to the predictable bustle on game days, she has seen students urinating along her property line, she said. She describes her back yard as the “pathway to freedom” for students who hop the fence to skip school.
Michelle Hogan lives behind the scoreboard, in a house that her great-grandmother bought when her home was torn down to make way for the high school. Now she has a front-row seat to football games and track meets.
“You are there. You are right there with the gunshot at the starting line,” she said. “You can always tell who’s winning. You can hear everything.”
Like some other neighbors, Hogan said that she’s not opposed to adding lights for football games or other regularly scheduled sports events, but she’s concerned that the city wants to use the field more often.
“I have four kids. Three graduated from T.C. Williams. I’m pro-student activities. But I’m not pro-all-night-long and any time you want,” she said.