During the Colonial, Federal and Antebellum periods, the area ultimately known as the Parker-Gray District was sparsely settled and primarily rural. Few structures survive from those eras. One of the most interesting would have been Alexandria's gun powder house, built in the 1790s at what is today the corner of N. Fayette and Queen Streets. As a potential fire hazard, it was deliberately located at a safe distance from the more densely built streets near the Potomac which included many wooden structures.
Black Neighborhoods in Alexandria
Although Parker-Gray may be the largest historically black neighborhood in Alexandria, it is not the oldest. The earliest free black settlements in the City were the Bottoms and Hayti, located in Old Town and dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries. The Office of Historic Alexandria (OHA) and its Black History Museum have compiled a list and description of these neighborhoods, including a map.
In past times, the more popular nickname for the Parker-Gray neighborhood was "Uptown."
A nearby but less well-known historic black neighborhood is "Colored" or "Black Rosemont." This is the series of small detached houses on Madison and West Streets directly across from Metro. The future of "Black Rosemont" is very much up in the air, as the current draft Braddock Road Metro small area plan envisions these houses being removed for redevelopment. "Black Rosemont" is not currently part of the Parker-Gray Historic District.
The future Parker-Gray district was a haven for escaped slaves and freedmen during and immediately after the Civil War. Wartime conditions in Alexandria were grim and families were crowded into flimsy shanties and shacks. Few if any of these structures have survived and most of the historic buildings we know today were built later in the 19th century after prosperity returned.
Given these conditions there were many deaths, particularly of young children. Most of the indigent residents were buried in the newly-established Freedmen's Cemetery on S. Washington Street.
The cemetery was closed after a few years, forgotten and ultimately built over by the early 20th century. When the burial records were rediscovered in the 1980s there was a renewed interest in preserving the site. This culminated in the clearing and rededication of the cemetery in 2007 as a historic site, a task facilitated by federal funds from the Wilson Bridge construction project.
How Parker-Gray Got Its Name
The Parker-Gray district was named for two schools whose names in turn honored leading black educators in the community: Sarah Gray, principal of Hallowell School for Girls and John Parker, principal of Snowden School for Boys.
The first Parker-Gray school was an elementary school established in 1920 after the merger of the Hallowell and Snowden Schools. (The latter had burned to the ground in 1915.)
In 1950, the City built the first black high school at 1207 Madison Street, which was named Parker-Gray. Previously, young African-Americans who wanted to continue their education past the eighth grade were forced to go to Washington, D.C. for high school.
With the construction of the new high school, the Parker-Gray elementary school on Wythe Street was renamed the Charles Houston Elementary School. It is gone now but was located on the site of the current recreation center of the same name.
In 1965, Parker-Gray High School was redesignated as a middle school and finally closed its doors in 1979. In the early 1980s the school was demolished to make way for the Madison Street townhouses. A memorial plaque designates the school's former location.
One of the most interesting OHA initiatives has been its oral history project. A number of Parker-Gray residents have been interviewed, and their stories shed light on what day-to-day life was like in Alexandria in former times. The most moving is the story of retired teacher Mabel Lyles, who recalled with tears her yearning to go to college and her struggle to earn enough money to attend Virginia Union University. Other Parker-Gray residents who were interviewed include Helen Miller, Charles K. "Buster" Williams, and Mabel Burts.
1939 Sit-In at the Barrett Library
A defining moment in Parker-Gray history was the sit-down protest organized by pioneering civicl rights attorney Samuel W. Tucker at the Kate Waller Barrett Library at 717 Queen Street. In August 1939, five young black men entered the whites-only library and quietly sat down to read. When they refused to leave, they were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. The charges were later dropped.
The City was finally shamed into building a library for its black citizens, although it was stocked with cast-off books.
Today the former Robinson Library is part of the Black History Museum complex on Wythe Street, which also includes the Watson Reading Room.
Parker-Gray's Earl Lloyd: the Jackie Robinson of Pro Basketball
Did you know that Earl Lloyd, graduate of the Parker-Gray High School class of 1946, was the first African-American player in the NBA? Here's more about his career and the move to name the new basketball court at T.C. Williams in his honor.
A Neighborhood in Transition
Over the years, the Washington Post has sent reporters to profile changes in the fortunes of the Parker-Gray neighborhood. Here's a few of the stories, including articles from 1983-84 when the creation of the historic district was hotly debated.
Plateau of Progress? (November 13, 1980)
Alexandria's Blacks Find Power Eroding (November 27, 1981)
Alexandria Blacks List Grievances (February 10, 1983)
Revival Seen for Braddock Road (November 7, 1983)
Growing Alexandria Old Town Could Uproot Black Community (December 26, 1983)
Preservation Plan Debated in Alexandria (September 11, 1984)
Alexandria Area Raises Preservation Questions (September 28, 1984)
Parker-Gray Plan Voted (October 24, 1984)
HUD Raps Parker-Gray Decision (January 15, 1988)
Parker-Gray Undergoes Gentrification (July 30, 1988)
Black Enclave, Shades of Gray (August 20, 2001)
Shop Constant in Changing Community (April 6, 2003)
The Parker-Gray community was never a slum or ghetto. It was considered the best neighborhood in town for successful middle-class African-American enterpreneurs and government employees. A move here was considered a sign of success, and Parker-Gray offered the possibility of single-family homeownership to blacks at a time when they were not permitted to buy property in most other neighborhoods west of the railroad tracks.
Nevertheless, in the 1970s Parker-Gray (like Del Ray) went through a slump. With the arrival of heroin in the 1970s and later crack cocaine in the 1980s, the neighborhood struggled with crime. African-Americans started the fight to reclaim the neighborhood from the criminal element and to restore order, and later formed a coalition with white newcomers to clean up the worst crack houses and restrict the sale of alcohol that fueled the violence. The biggest obstacle was not the criminal element but the City, which true to its segregationist past was only sporadically helpful, content merely to contain crime to Parker-Gray rather than eradicate it.
50 Cited in Drug Roundup (May 17, 1972)
An article on a raid in 1972, noting that the drug trade was centered in or near the "inner city."
Court Told Articles Tie Suspect to Killings (March 15, 1984)
One of the most sensational murders in 1980s Alexandria was the double slaying of Old Town residents Elizabeth Elliott and Karl von Lewinski. After a suspect was arrested and ultimately convicted, the initial panic subisided, especially when it came out that Ms. Elliott owned substantial rental property in Parker-Gray and had been murdered by a tenant. But one of the little secrets in this town was how many affluent whites living in Old Town and elsewhere owned run-down investment properties in Parker-Gray and paid little or no attention to what was going on.
Alexandria's Crime Fight; Police, Residents' Effort Yields Significant Results (July 4, 1985)
The Inner City strikes back against crime, including the tranvestite hookers who long plagued N. Patrick and Henry Streets. An area of concentration is "The Corridor" or Queen & N. Fayette Streets.
Alexandria Police Seek Community Support in Drive on Crime (July 29, 1985)
Black leaders like Mitchell Griffin rally the neighborhood to fight crime.
Serious Crime in Alexandria Dips, Led by 28 Percent Decline in Rapes (August 8, 1985)
Unfortunately, this decrease was not sustained for long.
Alexandria Drug Crisis Described; No Streets Are Safe, City Officials (November 14, 1989)
Some 200 residents flock to a town meeting on the Alexandria drug crisis.
Becker's Challenge (August 29, 1991)
A smug Alexandria Gazette editorial claiming tensions were boiling over in the neighborhood over citizens' efforts to curb alcohol sales at the former B&E at N. Henry and Oronoco Streets (now the site of the Monarch sales office but at the time one of the scariest dives in Alexandria).
Were the local winos and crackheads were calling the Gazette to complain? No, the editorial was written because Alexandria's establishment was annoyed that Parker-Gray was fighting back against crime and would no longer accept the pre-ordained role the City had carved out for it. The coy opinion piece illustrates the City's ongoing strategy of claiming Parker-Gray is "divided" as a tactic for keeping the neighborhood down and weakened.
Why Not Speak of the Good of a Neighborhood? (September 19, 1991)
Sarah Becker responds to the Gazette, demonstrating the community was united against alcohol and crime, and that residents were going after white as well as black-owned businesses selling booze. Note that the B&E had racked up 600 calls for police service at the site over the previous 16 months, yet it was left to citizens to tackle the problem by going directly to the Alcoholic Beverage Control board. The group was eventually successful and the B&E remained shuttered for over a decade.