By Audrey Davis
Alexandria, VA – Char Bah’s reputation in Alexandria precedes her. She is recognized as an award-winning genealogist, researcher and author, and was recognized as an Alexandria Living Legend in 2014. Bah has been profiled by national and local media, and as many know, most of her work has centered on her great love and birthplace, the City of Alexandria. She is the author of two books, African Americans of Alexandria, Virginia: Beacons of Light in the Twentieth Century (with coauthors Audrey P. Davis, Gwen Brown-Henderson, James Henson and Christa Watters) and Alexandria’s Freedmen’s Cemetery: A Legacy of Freedom. In this article, Zebra readers will have a sneak preview of two of Char Bah’s recent projects that have not yet been released to the public.
The first centers around the Ramsey Homes development, formerly located in the Parker-Gray Historic District, mere footsteps away from the Alexandria Black History Museum. Built in 1941–1942 as housing for African American defense workers, these homes later became subsidized housing. Several years ago, the homes were in the news as concerned citizens fought to save them from demolition due to their connection to Alexandria’s African American history and because of their innovative construction.
Although the homes were demolished in 2018, with new apartments set to open in in 2021, a part of the developer’s mitigation agreement is a report on the first residents. That report is being researched by Bah. Looking at the years 1942-1965, she is investigating who lived in the units and hopes to conduct oral histories with descendants.
The most difficult part of this project has been filling the gaps often found in records pertaining to African Americans. According to Bah, this is especially true “…for poor people of color. They were not documented in the same way as white families. Often their records have not been retained. It’s as if African Americans are invisible.”
This detailed genealogical work requires visits to libraries and archives, and it includes personal visits—all difficult, if not impossible, during a pandemic! To date, Bah has found names for 35 families living in the 15 Ramsey Homes between 1942 and 1955. This is amazing because these were military families who were subject to frequent relocation. Many lost husbands and fathers during World War II and the Korean War. Other obstacles include families who are suspicious of the City of Alexandria and who feel stigmatized by having grown up in what later became subsidized housing.
Her second project involves the Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) Reparations Fund. Administered by the Office of Multicultural Ministries, this fund has a $1.7M endowment to bring justice to those harmed by slavery and equity to those impacted by the work of VTS. As VTS heads toward its 200th anniversary in 2023, the school wants to acknowledge the past sins of the church and move forward with a commitment to social justice and equality.
Char Bah is part of a team researching the lives of African Americans who lived or worked at the Seminary, including enslaved men and women. She is examining the African American presence between 1865-1951. As she says, “…there are only a few people who have the genealogical skill, knowledge of Alexandria history, and expertise in African American history, who can make these deeper connections between the historical record and the community memory to write an accurate account of this period.”
Without a doubt, Char McCargo Bah has the skill and the talent to shed new light on a history that has been overlooked and dismissed.
Editor’s note: In 2021, the Office of Historic Alexandria will present a symposium on the history of the Ramsey Homes and Char M. Bah plans to present her findings at this event.