Preserving African American Heritage: Gum Springs

The story of the Gum Springs community is a story of perseverance. Gum Springs is the oldest African American community in Fairfax County.

Historic Bethlehem Baptist Church

The story of the Gum Springs community is a story of perseverance. Tucked away next to U.S. 1 five miles south of the Beltway, it was founded in 1833 by a former enslaved man, West Ford, and has endured for 186 years despite daunting hurdles. Gum Springs is the oldest African American community in Fairfax County.

The name comes from the sweet gum trees on the former William Peake family farm near the spring where George Washington watered his horses on the way to and from his Mount Vernon plantation, according to Ronald Chase, President of the Gum Springs Historical Society.

Of today’s 2,500 residents, it’s believed that some 250 are descendants of early Gum Springs settlers. The enclave is a mix of 1950s and 1960s bungalows, more modern brick colonials, and townhomes. A few landmarks hint at the community’s rich history: Bethlehem Baptist Church, the Peake family cemetery, the Gum Springs Community Center, and the Gum Springs Museum. There are six churches and the Martin Luther King Park. Two markers note the community’s historic status.

Twelve-pound Civil War cannonball found near Gum Springs

The Founding

West Ford was born enslaved in 1785 on the Bushfield Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia. George Washington’s brother, John Augustine Washington, and his wife, Hannah Bushrod Washington, owned Bushfield. John Washington died in 1787. Hannah Washington died in 1801. Her will stipulated that West be inoculated for smallpox, taught a trade, and freed at age 21.

Hannah’s son, Bushrod, inherited Mount Vernon from his aunt, Martha Washington, in 1802. Bushrod made Ford the overseer, freed him around 1805, and bequeathed 119 acres to Ford in 1829.

This was a time when few African Americans in Virginia owned land. Ford sold the property for $350 and, in 1833, he purchased adjacent land, Samuel Collard’s 214-acre Gum Spring Farm. It was the founding of the Gum Springs community.

In 1863, Samuel Taylor, a man born in slavery in Caroline County who preached in slave cabins on alternating Sundays, came to Gum Springs and preached in people’s homes. He formed First Black Baptist Church and built the first church building in 1865 using lumber from Union soldiers’ former stables. It became today’s Bethlehem Baptist Church. Bethlehem’s stained glass windows depict many of the community’s original families. (Another church, Woodlawn United Methodist, was moved to Gum Springs when it was displaced by construction at Fort Belvoir).

Gum Springs was a haven for both runaway and freed slaves until the end of the Civil War. A Quaker group at nearby Woodlawn supported African American freedom and land ownership. Following the Civil War, in 1867, Gum Springs residents built a school with help from the Freedman’s Bureau and the Quaker Friends’ Aid Society of Philadelphia. Classroom instruction was a new experience for most youngsters.

In 1890, five Gum Springs men formed the Joint Stock Club, which was dedicated to creating a safe place where African Americans could thrive. By pooling their money, they collaboratively bought and subdivided land and sold it at cost to other African Americans for $30 an acre.

“The legacy of land and freedom [West] bequeathed to his children made possible the growth of a remarkable community of free black Americans seeking freedom for themselves and for their posterity after the Civil War,” wrote John Terry Chase in Gum Springs: The Triumph of a Black Community.

Museum Honors Local Notables

Photographs of prominent locals and objects of daily life fill the small Gum Springs Museum. Some document what locals view as governmental neglect in the 1950s and 1960s, when Fairfax County permitted developers to bulldoze farmland and build ever-expanding subdivisions with infrastructure like stormwater controls, paved streets, and sidewalks. Gum Springs had none of those. Poor stormwater drainage had plagued the community since colonial days, despite pleas to fix it. Finally, in 1961, the Board of Supervisors approved $55,000 on a three to two vote, but the county did not award a contract until 1964.

A 1964 Washington Post article contrasted Gum Springs with the prosperous, more affluent neighborhoods surrounding it. “For a tiny section of the county, however, the 1,200 who live in the predominantly Negro community of Gum Springs, the prosperity is just a joke.” Text and photos showed outhouses in muddy puddles, “tumble down houses,” some made with “fruitbox lumber.” Until the drainage problems were solved, banks would not make home improvement loans.

Museum displays also chronicle residents’ determination to get an education, including the late 19th century school and the first black teacher at the Gum Springs School, Annie M. Smith, whose husband was West Ford’s grandson. In 1953, Fairfax County built the Drew Smith Elementary School for African American students. It is today’s community center and museum. Photographs in the museum honor Saunders B. Moon, the first principal.

Queene Cox, President of the New Gum Springs Civic Association, honors local police officers at the annual Gum Springs Community Day.

The museum spotlights the struggles when Virginia had racially segregated schools. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Michael Williams rode a bus from Quander Road, very near Hollin Hills Elementary, to go to Drew Smith. There were no Fairfax County high schools for black students in the first half of the 20th century, so Gum Springs high school students were bussed 29 miles each way to the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth, a regional school that served four counties. In the 1950s, Fairfax County built Luther Jackson, a high school for black students near Merrifield. Even though Mount Vernon High School was only two miles away, Carl Chase rode 20 miles each way to Luther Jackson.

In 1956, Virginia’s Massive Resistance policies and laws opposed and thwarted public school integration, after the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling that separate schools based on race were inherently unequal. Fairfax County did not dismantle school segregation completely until 1965.

Among other museum objects is a photograph of Ronald Chase’s great grandmother, Harriet Cortrell who was a slave when she was a child; a wrought iron stove from Chase’s grandmother, Mary Etta Brow; old washboards and entry hall chairs with hat hooks, owned by Gum Springs families.

History can haunt. The museum has a 12-pound solid iron shot projectile from the Civil War that was found on a nearby farm. After the war, Samuel Clemens went through Gum Springs and noted in his memoir that the Peake family’s farmhouse walls had cannon ball holes.

Challenges

Preserving Gum Spring’s history is an ongoing challenge, especially as people without local roots move in and people with local ties leave or pass away. “The new people coming in benefit from sacrifices the community made through the years,” said Chase, “[but] they don’t understand the sacrifices that were made.”

Some propose tearing down Bethlehem Baptist Church’s historic core and building a modern “mini-convention center.” It’s a controversial proposal because many locals view the current building as the symbolic heart of the community and its history.

Another threat is the county-sanctioned widening of U.S. 1 and massive redevelopment of the U.S. 1 corridor called Embark Richmond Highway. The project includes remaking an eight-mile stretch from Huntington Metro to Fort Belvoir and building six community business centers and bus rapid transit stations. “Developers see it as opportunity to rape the community,” said Chase. One developer wants to replace some Gum Springs homes with townhouses.

Queene Cox, President of the New Gum Springs Civic Association, shared Chase’s concerns. “The great challenge facing Gum Springs today is its potential destruction as a community and sense of belonging in the oldest African American community in Fairfax County as a direct result of certain decisions made by local elected officials. Fairfax County continues to chip away at the community to support its vision by creating havoc and not communicating with Gum Springs on decisions that adversely impact us, including traffic patterns, transportation and housing.”

West Ford, founder of Gum Springs

To further highlight the community’s significance, Betsy Martin, President of the Friends of Little Hunting Creek, proposes to create a commemorative site at Napper Road and U.S. 1, near the spot where ministers once performed baptisms in the creek. The plan includes planting a sweet gum tree and installing interpretive signage.

It is a durable community. “…the ideal of the good community has made Gum Springs far more than a collection of black Americans. Propelled by its vision of a self-sustaining community, time and again Gum Springs has triumphed over adversity,” wrote John Chase.

Over its 186 years, Gum Springs has survived mud, slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, and governmental indifference. Despite the odds, its people persevere and succeed.

Ronald Chase, President of the Gum Springs Historical Society, in the museum under a photograph of the first Bethlehem Baptist Church

Resources

· Gum Springs Historical Society and Museum, open weekdays, 12:00 noon to 5:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.; otherwise by appointment

· New Gum Springs Civic Association

· Fairfax County Historic Sites

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