Adding to the Wealth of Alexandria’s Historical Record
By Kris Gilbertson
In 2015, when the City Council debated redevelopment of the Ramsey Homes, Council member John Taylor Chapman was bothered that so few people knew that Ramsey Homes was one of three projects built as segregated housing for black defense workers during World War II. And that it was just one of many sites in the city important to the history of Alexandria’s African American populations.
Chapman was inspired to fill the knowledge gap. “I think I’m very lucky in that with everything happening in DC [National Museum of African American History & Culture] and Mt. Vernon [Lives Bound Together exhibit], and for the last eight years having had an African American president—it raised the consciousness of black people. We’re seeing it in art, in music, on TV—all of that, and then the Smithsonian. It’s the perfect time to start a business that talks about the African American experience.”
In September 2016, Chapman’s company, Manumission Tours, commenced a two-hour public walking tour on Sunday afternoons, focused on sites surrounding Market Square. The tour was immediately poplar. During the first three months, tours averaged 15 to 20 people, although one topped out at 32.
That was a bit larger than John wanted because he didn’t get a chance to chat with everyone. He feels that interacting with each customer is important because the tours are story-based and during almost every outing he hears about long-forgotten incidents and evidence of the roles African Americans played in city life.
“Most folks are really taken aback by what they hear because it’s new to them,” he says. “A couple of ministers wanted to know more about early African American religions. We have historic churches, so that’s one of the tours we’re going to look at doing in the future. Everyone knows about Alfred Street [Baptist Church] and Shiloh [Baptist Church], but we’ve got a number of Old Town churches that have been here as long. One of them says they’ve been here longer than Alfred Street, so we’ve got some history there.”
Some enslaved African Americans in Alexandria escaped aboard ships docked in Alexandria’s busy harbor. Others often found ways to make money, sometimes enough to buy their freedom. Chapman tells the story of Moses Hepburn, a freedman who, in 1850, built four brick row houses on North Pitt Street that are still occupied. He passes a private residence in the 300 block of Cameron, where the owner, Elizabeth Gordon, kept the promise of manumission hanging over two enslaved persons, Oscar and Joseph Ball, for so long that they escaped instead. They later worked with the Underground Railroad to bring family to freedom.
“And we talk a bit about freedman Dominick Barecroft. He owned a house across from City Hall,” Chapman adds. “He owned a grocery store and tavern on North Fairfax. He only liked to cater to the most elite; didn’t really deal with free blacks, didn’t deal with enslaved blacks, so we don’t talk a lot about that on the tour but it’s interesting to hear that in the research.” Barecroft’s tavern was known for great crab cakes.
Doing Business in Alexandria
Still in his mid-30s, John Chapman has an impressive record of public service, from grassroots political action in 2005 through increasingly responsible volunteer positions for the City to his 2012 election to the City Council. But starting a business requires different skills from politics and Chapman says he was a “total novice” at the process.
To get up to speed rapidly, he enrolled in a six-day business boot camp, The Black Upstart, run by his friend Kezia Williams. Williams founded Capital Cause, a nonprofit in DC, and then saw a need for and created a launching pad for African American entrepreneurs.
The boot camp ran over two three-day weekends. “Very long hours,” says Chapman. “It crammed in a lot. Obviously it didn’t cover everything, but it was enough to get folks started.”
He has found the City to be business friendly. “People have their challenges [with permits and licenses],” says Chapman, “but that’s on a person-to-person basis,” adding that he did not lean on his position for assistance in starting the business, and still did not run into problems. “It is a little confusing if you’ve never started a business. There’s a lot of licensing, State as well as City. It would be great if you could just knock out one form for everybody and be done, but everybody wants their piece,” he adds.
Visit Alexandria has helped to get the word out about Chapman’s new business. And of course, he has the right subject at the right time.
John sees many avenues for growth. He envisions Manumission Tours becoming a regular stop on a black history tourist trail, starting with the Smithsonian in DC, stopping in Alexandria, and then proceeding to Mt. Vernon.
He is developing plans for another walking tour and for a bus tour of upper Duke Street, location of the Freedom House Museum, Alfred Street Baptist Church, and the Alexandria National Cemetery (Soldiers Cemetery). Going to upper Duke Street is difficult due to parking constraints and parking near the federal cemetery is next to impossible. Chapman is working with building owners to develop opportunities to park during down times, like weekends.
When these tours are realized, he will market them as part of the envisioned black history trail to school groups, both local and from out of state.
In February, Chapman plans to meet with principals in the Alexandria City Public School system and at least two teachers in Arlington who have expressed interest, plus a group from Norwood School in Maryland that will come over for a couple of days and want to include the Manumission Tour. During the summer, he looks forward to hosting an educators’ event, to bring educators on the tour and talk to them about adding it to their field excursions.
John Chapman is a community liaison for Fairfax County Schools, and would, of course, like to include FCPS, but must work through possible policy issues [conflict of interest] before promoting the tour to them.
John Taylor Chapman
John is a fourth-generation Alexandrian whose maternal great great grandfather was among the first African American cab drivers in the city during the early to mid-1950s. John lives in the Taylor Run neighborhood, but remembers roaming the streets of Old Town as a child. His grandmother owned a home on Wilkes Street at that time, and his mother instilled her own love of history into her son. “Special Collections at the Barrett Library is my favorite place nowadays,” he says.
“I always enjoyed growing up here, I enjoyed the culture and the celebration of history,” he adds, and wants “to bring that to the African American experience and hopefully build up the celebration of that history.”
Asked what message he would send out to Zebra readers, Chapman said, “Tour with us. I really want our community to appreciate the many histories that are here. We talk about being historic-preservation driven and loving the history of this city, but we don’t always tell all of the histories. Here is an opportunity to not only tell the story, but to expose others to it—to recognize and praise it along with what we already knew. I really hope people get that appreciation.
“And if they have other ideas of stuff we can do, please let me know. I’m willing to research and explore.”
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Manumission Tour Company
Following a winter hiatus, public Manumission Tours will resume on February 11, and private tours can be arranged directly with John Chapman by calling or emailing the company. Check the website for information about when the new tours will be available.
An excellent source of information about African American history in Alexandria is the Alexandria Black History Museum at 902 Wythe Street; 703-746-4356; AlexandriaVa.gov/BlackHistory.
A Remarkable and Courageous Journey, the museum’s comprehensive guide to Alexandria’s African American history, is not currently in print but can be downloaded as a PDF. Go to www.alexandriava.gov/BlackHistory, scroll down to the News and Information section.
*Manumission: the formal emancipation from slavery.