By Mike Salmon
The story surrounding the Johnson Pool took center stage at the debut of Robin Hamilton’s documentary “Our Alexandria,” about a set of dollhouses created by Linwood M. Smith and Sharon J. Frazier that reflect life in Alexandria’s African American community years ago in Old Town. The pool was named after the two Johnson cousins that drowned in the Potomac River in 1951 while they were trying out a boat they made of cardboard, and couldn’t swim to safety when the boat sank. The Johnson boys didn’t know how to swim and there was no pool for them to learn at the time.
“The whole community was upset about that,” said Smith. Others remembered the drownings too, and out of the uproar, the city built the Johnson Pool for the African Americans in Alexandria to swim in. Thanks to the creativity of Frazier and Smith, a model of the Johnson Pool is now part of their dollhouse collection, after it was unveiled after the documentary. Smith looked back and shared what he could remember about the drownings. “The pool was one of the places we could go,” added Frazier. There was a show of about 15 hands in the Lyceum movie room for all that remember swimming in the Johnson Pool. “That’s living history,” said Hamilton.
The pool story was just one part of the documentary which was all about the 26 doll houses Frazier and Smith created to tell the story of being an African American in Alexandria through the years. There was a beauty shop and barber shop where talk became lore, photos of Beck’s Cabs, the Rex Theater, and the Tops of Old Town, where everyone bought their hats. “It was a hat shop in the black community, the women wore their hats, especially on Sundays,” Hamilton said. The shop was originally located at 101 North West Street, but is now located at 2400 Mount Vernon Avenue.
One of the dollhouse’s was a kitchen where “this lady made fried chicken and chitlins,” that she sold near West and Wythe Streets, Smith said. Other houses in the collection include a health services office where Frazier worked as a nurse in her younger days, the Stone House, a Slave Cabin, Buffalo Soldier’s Cabin, Hayden’s Studio of Photography, Watson’s Store, a One-Room School House, Bracey’s Flower Shop and many others. There are hand painted figurines in every house, even miniature figures of Frazier and Smith. Hamilton captured the historic stories in her documentary. “We’re bringing back some of the memories,” Smith said.
Although Smith is a retired Alexandria City mechanic, he was also known for collecting old jewelry and refinishing trunks, so one of the dollhouses is called “Linwood’s Treasures, Trunks and Junk.” There are signs on the wall there forbidding cursing and to “beware of pick pockets and loose women.” Alexandria must have had different concerns back then.
“They really are a microcosm of what exists here in Alexandria,” Hamilton said. “It was so much fun to put this film together,” she added. Frazier and Smith went to high school together and have remained friends for all these years.
The film was sponsored by the Alexandria Black History Museum. Robin Hamilton is an Emmy-award winning journalist, television host, moderator, and writer. Currently based in Washington, DC, Robin is a correspondent for the local Tribune affiliate’s newsmagazine program NewsPlus and has hosted DC50-TV’s award-winning Black History month series for the past 4 years, their information stated.
Other films she produced included her first film, This Little Light of Mine: The Legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer about famed Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer; Dignity and Defiance: A Portrait of Mary Church Terrell which focuses on the life of this 19th-century crusader against racial injustice.
Some of the dollhouses will be displayed at the Black History Museum during Black History Month.