Local Commentary

A Penny For Your Thoughts

Fairfax County history is fascinating and varied, as demonstrated by two celebrations last weekend, one at the James Lee Community Center, and the other at Annandale United Methodist Church. Stories of both institutions go back to the 1800s, and reflect times in local history that can be troubling today. Bringing those stories to light helps us both to understand and to mitigate actions of previous generations.

The weather was gorgeous on Saturday as a Fairfax County Historical Marker was unveiled at the James Lee Community Center on Annandale Road. The center is in Providence District, but just one-quarter mile from the Mason/Providence magisterial border, and where I have attended many community events. James Lee purchased the property in 1867, as a free Black man after the Civil War. The first Falls Church Colored School opened on the site around 1888, and was closed during World War I. In 1919, Mary E. “Nellie” Henderson was asked to reopen the school, which operated until 1948. The Black community had long struggled for educational equality and the James Lee Elementary School was the first modern school for African Americans in Fairfax County. Ms. Alma Amaker, who was a fourth grader when the new school opened in 1948, told the story of walking from the old school, “The Hall” on Costner Avenue, to the new school. She still can remember the smell of the new books, and there were indoor bathrooms! In her new classroom, she looked around for the traditional bucket and dipper to get a drink of water. The teacher told her to go into the hall and use the water fountain. It was the first time she had seen a water fountain that wasn’t signed “For Whites Only” and had to ask the teacher how it worked.

The new school was used until 1966, when Fairfax County public schools were desegregated. James Lee students were reassigned to other elementary schools and James Lee was closed, because white students would not attend Black schools. In 1973, the James Lee Community Center was born, but there was more to the story. In the 1990s, the community vociferously opposed a proposal to close the center, which was expanded again and houses a number of county and non-profit programs. The historic marker honors the earliest Black landowners in the Falls Church area, and their descendants, many of whom participated in the ceremony, who still are active in the community today.

On Sunday, another beautiful autumn day but a bit warmer, the Annandale United Methodist Church congregation celebrated the anniversary and restoration of the “Little White Church” at the intersection of Columbia Pike and Gallows Road. The first church was built in 1846, and destroyed during the Civil War. A “new” church was built on the present site, and the larger sanctuary was consecrated a hundred years after the original, in 1946, and renovated and expanded again in the 1990s. When touring the little church, one can see the door where only Black worshippers entered to sit in the balcony for services. A photo identifies well-dressed attendees at a church picnic in June 1900. The Lynch, Wakefield, and Hirst families are pictured among others, but no people of color are included. A 175th anniversary commemorative poem by Terri Ruhter struck just the right balance of spirituality and reality across the years of history. The anniversary celebration concluded with a robust ringing of the historic 746-pound church bell by longtime AUMC member Peter Snitzer and his young son. The peals rang across Annandale, summoning today’s worshippers, just as they did more than 100 years ago.

Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at mason@fairfaxcounty.gov.