To the Editor:
The Gum Springs Historical Society wishes to bring to your attention errors of fact and
mischaracterizations of the Gum Springs community, its history, and its founder, West Ford, in: The New Yorker: American Chronicles, March 14, 2022 Issue, “Did George Washington Have an Enslaved Son?” by Jill Abramson, March 7, 2022.
As president of the Gum Springs Historical Society, and frequent host to visitors to our small museum, I
have grown accustomed to visitors’ misimpressions of our community’s history – often recognizable as
having been promulgated in print by some “authoritative” source or other. I will continue to labor to
substitute such false histories with the more authentic perspectives on race, faith, freedom, and resilience, as lived by successive generations of families like my own, and other descendants of enslaved people of Mount Vernon and beyond. As one who has been thrust into civic activism to protect my community from a constant onslaught of threats, I suppose I should be grateful when a readership as wide as The NewYorker’s is introduced to our plight. However, will Ms. Abramson’s misstatements and errors, which substitute stereotyping for the traditional culture of Gum Springs – and worse, portray it as a disappearing community – help or hurt our cause?
Responses of the Gum Springs Historical Society to a few of the article’s problematic statements are as
Abramson: “freedmen’s community” and “freedmen’s village”
Response: These terms are misnomers, or at least misleading, as they commonly reference post-
Civil War encampments established by the Freedmen’s Bureau to temporarily house former
slaves freed under the Emancipation Proclamation. Stating that Gum Springs is an anomaly that is
an older version of this more common model of government military encampments to temporarily
house former slaves is an anachronistic and false characterization.
The dissertation by Judith Saunders Burton – a source cited in the article – includes a chapter that
treats the subject of the Freedmen’s Bureau and its role in assisting Gum Springs after the Civil
War and the influx of freed people, who had been settled there because it was a pre-existing,
stable black community that provided “security and population growth potential.”
Abramson: “ . . . West Ford, who lived and worked at Mount Vernon for nearly sixty years, first as an
enslaved teen-ager and continuing after he was freed. Following Washington’s death, in 1799, Ford
helped manage the estate . . .”
Response: This wording gives the impression that West Ford was enslaved at Mount Vernon by
George Washington, then continued working at Mount Vernon after George’s death. However,
Ford did not arrive at Mount Vernon until three years after George’s death. He accompanied
George’s heir, Judge Bushrod Washington, who moved to Mount Vernon in 1802 from Bushfield
Plantation, Westmoreland County. There, George’s brother, Bushrod’s father, John Augustine
Washington, had held West Ford in slavery until his widow, Hannah, inherited West – still a
child. Hannah Washington then provided for his manumission through the terms of her will.
Only much later in the article do these facts appear, and would likely be surprising to the reader,
after the initial impressions given by this wording.
Abramson: “unusually warm relationship with the extended Washington family”
Response: Source? Records kept and actions taken demonstrate that certain members of the
Washington family demonstrated favor toward Ford that could be construed as “warm” feelings
(if one is looking for a reason other than the possibility of paternity). However, there is no
information about whether those feelings, or representations, were experienced by Ford toward
his enslavers. Suggesting this without corroborating evidence, unfortunately, plays into the
widely discredited and spurious mythology of the “happy slave” propounded by apologists of
slavery and those who perpetuate this false view of the history of American slavery.
Abramson: “Awareness of West Ford had faded both in Gum Springs and at Mount Vernon, but in recent years his story has been at the center of a bitter controversy between the two sites.”
Response: Awareness of West Ford has been an ongoing, central part of the identity of Gum
Springs descendants and residents, who honor him as the founder of their community, and as
ancestor to many. His sons and daughters carried on his legacy through donations of land for
schools, churches, and civic associations, and these patterns of civic enrichment continued
through their children and each successive generation, The results of these contributions are
manifest in the community today, and to further ensure that his memory, and the cultural
traditions he represents, continue to be honored in the future, the Gum Springs Historical Society
was established in 1984. Ron Chase continues this legacy at the Gum Springs Museum today.
Abramson: “They also argue—citing oral histories from two branches of the family—that Ford was
Washington’s unacknowledged son, a claim that Mount Vernon officials have consistently denied. As that
debate continues, Black civic organizations in Gum Springs are engaged in related battles to save their
Response: In what way is the initiative to prevent adverse effects of the proposed highway
project a “related battle”? How does a “bitter controversy” – if that is what it is – about West
Ford’s relationship to the Washington family, in any way, relate to the efforts of Gum Springs
residents “to save their endangered community”?
Abramson: “They have resisted, with some success, Virginia’s planned expansion of Richmond Highway,
which would encroach on the town . . .”
Response: Source? To date, there has been no “success” in preventing the planned expansion of
Richmond Highway. Statements by politicians, especially for a project that will not be
constructed for several years, do not represent success. If any of the interviewees expressed such
a hopeful view, why not attribute such a statement accordingly?
Abramson: “ . . . they have embarked on the process of getting Gum Springs named a national historic
Response: This statement ignores the amply documented controversy – alluded to, but not
adequately articulated – much later in the article – over whether to pursue national or local
recognition of the historic value of Gum Springs. It also implies that naming the community “a
national historic site” would provide protections. It would not. It would be more accurate to state
that historic designation that would provide protections against encroachment is being sought.
That process in Fairfax County is known as Historic Overlay District designation. County
officials have only recently acceded to the possibility that such local designation could be
considered – with no guarantee that such an effort would succeed.
Abramson: “We visited Bethlehem Baptist Church, founded, in 1863, by a freedom seeker named
Samuel K. Taylor, who served as its pastor for thirty years. We hoped to go inside, but a sign was taped to the door: “Space Is Uninhabitable.”
Response: This statement, which was never explained, will mislead readers into believing that
Bethlehem Baptist Church is either marginal or defunct. The author inexplicably mistook an
unused building next to the church as today’s Bethlehem Baptist Church – a large modern church
building that is clearly marked with signage at its prominent location at the corner of Sherwood
Hall Lane and Fordson Road. It is difficult not to conclude that the author intentionally ignored
both the new church’s signage and its predecessor’s historical marker, in order to advance a
narrative of a “dying” community.
Abramson: “The Gum Springs Historical Society and Museum was closed for the day.”
Response: Did the author return to the museum during its hours of operation?
“We found only one citation of West Ford, at a housing project on Fordson Road that was named for him.
The historical marker for the town had been destroyed by drivers who, while speeding off the highway,
had run into it. Replaced a few months later, it reads ‘Gum Springs, an African-American community,
originated here on a 214-acre farm bought in 1833 by West Ford (ca. 1785-1863).’”
Response: In addition to the “only one citation of West Ford,” the author herself mentions two
others: “Fordson Road,” and the text of the historical marker, which evidently had already been
replaced when the author visited Gum Springs. Further, that missing marker, which the author
acknowledges was replaced by the time she returned in November, was one of two identical
markers in the heart of Gum Springs that she visited.
Abramson: “According to a 1990 monograph by John Terry Chase, a Fairfax County historian . . .”
Response: The late John Terry Chase was not a Fairfax County historian. He was an independent
historian contracted by the County to write the book. Further, it is regrettable that the author did
not clarify that Terry (as we knew him) was no relation to Ron Chase.
[This matters for a number of reasons, most importantly to Gum Springs residents, he did not
have the depth of understanding that residents and descendants would bring to the task of
recording its history. Further, the community had no say in its content, and certain statements in
his book are not only unsupported by facts, but are offensive, for example: “Contrary to popular
belief, in northern Virginia free Negroes were seen as an asset by whites and were not
discriminated against in the period from 1806 to 1860.” p. 12.]
Abramson: “ . . . the historian Norman L. Crockett wrote in 1979”
Response: Crockett’s book, The Black Towns, is a study of failed post-Civil War towns in
Kansas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, that were founded by black promoters. Crockett found that
the practices employed in founding these towns were indistinguishable from those of white
speculators, and it was these practices that contained the seeds of their eventual failure, despite
racism and other societal factors that also presented challenges over time. Yet, the author of the
article quotes Ron Chase’s statements about the fact that Gum Springs’ community leaders, who
were men associated with Bethlehem Baptist Church, “started a land-buying collective called the
Joint Stock Club, which sold parcels to newcomers at cost, for thirty dollars an acre in 1890,” the
same time period studied by Crockett. This fact alone is clearly a differentiating characteristic
from those studied by Crockett, even if one discounts the actual history of the community’s
founding, by a formerly enslaved man, much earlier – in 1833.
Being easily differentiated from Gum Springs, geographically and sociologically, the entire
description of the “dream” of these promoters of “the black town,” as quoted from Crockett, or
apparently derived from his book, predictably rings false: there is no record of Gum Springs
residents or leaders ever aspiring to “manufacturing plants hiring local labor”; and “refrigerated
trucks” posed no threats to Gum Springs farmers, who found nearby Alexandria markets as long
as they continued raising and selling fresh produce from their own gardens. Use of such false
claims to prove the author’s observation, “Racism was embedded in those realities,” sidesteps the
more important question of how racial discrimination, both random and institutionalized, led to
both impoverishment and empowerment of the Gum Springs community.
Abramson: “In the early nineteen-sixties, Fairfax County condemned and demolished more than two
Response: Source? Could it possibly be true that the author’s sources actually said that “more
than two hundred homes” were demolished in Gum Springs? When questioned, the author stated
that the figure had appeared in several sources, including more than one article in The
Washington Post. She stated further that when such a fact is repeated in many articles and
publications, as she claimed was the case, one must assume the fact to be true. For those who
have seen false and misleading information about the history of Gum Springs disseminated
repeatedly over the years, such an assertion was as disappointing as it was outrageous.
Terry Chase, in Gum Springs, The Triumph of a Black Community (John Terry Chase, Fairfax
County Office of Comprehensive Planning, 1990), states that, in March 1963, “The Fairfax
County Public Health Department condemned over two hundred houses, most of them in Gum
Springs.” He did not state that those dwellings were demolished. Instead, he reported, “In
response to such a stark challenge, Gum Springs stepped up its political activities.” He then
devotes the remainder of the chapter, “Trial and Triumph,” to the ongoing community activism
for which Gum Springs is known.
Judith Saunders Burton (whose dissertation is among the sources the author consulted) states that
215 houses in Gum Springs were “either destroyed or ‘placarded’ as unsuitable for human
habitation.” The public record indicates that only a few of the dwellings were destroyed – because
of bold community action by Gum Springs residents and their supporters.
According to the Washington Evening Star (2/13/1963), at the time of the 1960 U.S. Census,
there were a total of 270 dwellings in Gum Springs for a population of 1160. In the following
weeks, both the Evening Star and the Washington Post reported that a total of three families were
scheduled to be evicted and the families were given an extension as a consequence of
intervention of Senator Harrison Williams (D-NJ) who, with Gum Springs neighbors and others,
assisted the families in repairing their properties and thereby avoiding the scheduled evictions.
(2/21/1963, et seq.)
On March 6, 1963, The Post reported on the community’s organized response to the threats of
eviction, stating that “at least 10 families” faced eviction “this spring.” [“Group Fights
Evictions,” The Washington Post, March 6, 1963.] On April 7, The Post documented three
families had been “told by county health authorities to move out by Feb. 21.” Deadlines were
extended. A total of sixty-two families had been given notices of eviction since the ordinance was
passed in 1961. Noting that “Negro housing in Northern Virginia is scarce,” the article stated that
notwithstanding the notices, “No eviction cases have been taken to court, however.” A petition
campaign followed; and a referendum was held to create a housing authority that “would have the
power to work with the Federal Government in obtaining public housing, low interest rates for
private developments, funds for housing rehabilitation and longterm loans.” “Housing Authority
Petitions Circulated,” The Washington Post, June 17, 1963.
The County’s continued neglect of drainage problems was clearly accountable for depriving Gum
Springs residents of both private and government financing. Subsequent Post articles reported
estimated costs of fixing the drainage problem and associated re-zoning of a site for affordable
housing at $400,000. A County official was quoted stating that the estimated amount “exceeds the
. . . assessed value of all property in the area.” The Washington Post, March 31, 1963.
Clearly, the author’s statement is a significant misinterpretation of the facts notwithstanding the
availability of multiple sources from which to gain an understanding of the events in question.
Abramson: “These were replaced by public housing . . .”
Response: This wording suggests that construction of public housing in Gum Springs was the
consequence of demolition of condemned dwellings. Not only is her claim about demolitions
incorrect, but there is also a gap of a quarter of a century between the condemnation notices that
were issued pursuant to a 1961 County Public Health Department ordinance and the construction
of public housing in 1987.
Faced with the ongoing consequences of discriminatory housing practices in the 1960s, the
community fended off the County’s plans to demolish over two hundred homes, many of which
were able to be repaired and retained. The community was successful in re-zoning and
constructing apartments, utilizing FHA and HUD financing, along the edge of the community on
Route One (a state road). The apartments provided housing for residents who could not afford to
rehabilitate their homes, and/or could not wait for the County to correct decades of neglect by
addressing inadequate drainage on the County road that ran through Gum Springs. These
conditions placed out of reach not only bank loans, but even federal housing loans intended for
correcting housing deficiencies. The Gum Springs community continued its efforts to provide
decent housing for a growing population, building Gabriel Plaza and Brosar Park subdivisions in
the 1970s and early ’80s before housing programs were cut in the Reagan administration.
Abramson: “Chase and Cox, along with two dozen other residents, have been protesting the state-highway
‘improvement’ plan, which initially called for more than doubling the number of lanes where the road
crossed Gum Springs, from six to thirteen.”
Response: “Initially”? What has changed? If an alternative to the “initial” proposed plan is being
studied, why not state this?
Abramson: “Bushrod moved with his wife, Julia Anne, to Mount Vernon, where West Ford managed
their enslaved workforce.” “ . . . and managed dozens of people who were still enslaved by the
Response: This statement should be attributed to the source who provided it. It is at odds with
other sources, which indicate that West Ford brought his numerous skills to his role as manager
of the estate. The portrayal of Ford as an overseer of slaves is a stereotypical characterization that
is at odds with what is known about him. Perpetuation of this mischaracterization is unfortunate.
The author’s article has already been linked to by Wikipedia, despite its inclusion of the text of
the Gum Springs historical marker: “In 1833, Gum Springs was founded by West Ford, a freed
slave, skilled carpenter, and manager on George Washington's plantation, Mount Vernon.”
[Wikipedia entry for “Hybla Valley, Virginia,” retrieved 3/20/2022] As if to suggest there is no
difference between the two versions, the author, later in the article, provides quoted text of the
historical marker for West Ford, which reads: “Gum Springs, an African-American community,
originated here on a 214-acre farm bought in 1833 by West Ford (ca. 1785-1863), a freed man,
skilled carpenter, and manager of the Mount Vernon estate.”
Abramson: “Linda Allen Hollis, Ford’s seventy-year-old great-great-great-granddaughter, is the current
custodian of the family’s oral history.”
Response: As with many families with different lines of descent, it is not often one single
individual who would be considered the “custodian of the family’s oral history.” With the
descendants of West Ford, the article records that there are different lines of descent from his four
children, and that certain of their histories have been kept separate. Judith Saunders Burton, Ron
Chase, and the Gum Springs Historical Society have been such custodians for the lines of descent
of those who remained in Gum Springs. This should be acknowledged, not only in fairness to
these keepers of Ford family history, but also to avoid misleading readers into accepting one
family’s knowledge – however authoritative – as extending to all of the family lines.
Abramson: “Mount Vernon has almost daily records of Washington’s travels in the years between his
return from fighting the Revolutionary War, in 1783, and his assumption of the Presidency, in 1789.
Those records show that he was nowhere near Bushfield when Ford was likely conceived.”
Response: The author does not state until later in the article that recent corrections have been
made to the interpretation of records that had long been misconstrued, and relied upon, for ruling
out George Washington’s presence at Bushfield during the period when West Ford would have
been conceived. See Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the
Creation of America, pp. 304-310. Wiencek’s information was new because he consulted the
original will of John Augustine that he states had “unexpectedly surfaced in the Mount Vernon
archives in September 2003.” The will had previously only been consulted as a transcription –
whose errors were repeated over and over through the years by historians. The new information
supports a different timeline, and has not been refuted, notwithstanding Wiencek’s own attempt
to counter it with the familiar “character” arguments so often resorted to by historians who cannot
resolve the question of West Ford’s paternity, yet seem to feel that having insufficient evidence is
not enough of a rebuttal to such unthinkable possibilities.
Ronald L. Chase, President
Gum Springs Historical Society and Museum
8100 Fordson Road
Alexandria, VA 22306