Thursday, April 21, 2022

Letter to the editor of The New Yorker: via To the Editor:

Letter to the editor of The New Yorker: via 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 New Yorker’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 follows: 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” 2 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 endangered community.” 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 site.” 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. 3 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 4 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 hundred homes.” 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 5 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 Washington family.” 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 6 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. Sincerely, Ronald L. Chase, President Gum Springs Historical Society and Museum 8100 Fordson Road Gum Springs Alexandria, VA 22306 7 (703) 340-6051

Monday, January 4, 2021

One Step Closer to National Historic Designation for Gum Springs

The Gum Springs Historic Society is working with Fairfax County on two historic studies.  The first is for the nomination of the Pride of Fairfax Lodge #298 (former Odd Fellows Hall) for the National Register of Historic Places. 

The second is a reconnaissance-level architectural survey and Virginia Department of Historic Resources study for the creation of a Gum Springs Historic District. It will include a complete historical context to identify the historical themes and narratives of the Gum Springs community from its establishment in 1833 through the early 1970s. A goal of the Historic Society is to highlight the many innovations and self-sufficiencies of the African American community. It will also identify and analyze the buildings, sites, structures, and objects which contribute to the significant historical themes of Gum Springs.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Virtual Tour of the Gum Springs Museum

The Gum Springs Museum is excited to showcase an interactive virtual tour of the museum. It includes a  exhibits about the founder of Gum Springs, Wes (West) Ford and the foundational blocks that helped to establish the community including its churches and the first community school which was formed in 1850, when it was illegal to educate black Americans.

Gum Springs Museum Virtual Tour

This interactive tour was produced by Kevin Cook of AerialLook. Keep checking back to the link as we continue to add more exhibits!

Museum is Open for Tours During the Pandemic

The Gum Springs Museum hopes that everyone is doing well and is pleased to announce that during the Covid-19 pandemic, the museum continues to be open for tours. Masks are required and groups are limited to 8 people. Appointments are encouraged. Call 703-799-1198 or 703-340-6051 to schedule.  Museum hours are Monday through Friday 10:00am - 5:00pm.