Colored Rosemont – A Black History Lesson
by ©2020 Sarah Becker
Colored Rosemont – A Black History Lesson
In 1939 Winston Churchill described the Soviets as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma;” German authorities required Jews to wear the Star of David, and black American W.E.B. DuBois published Black Folk, Then and Now: An Essay in the History and Sociology of the Negro Race. Germany invaded Poland; Columbia pictures released “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and Rochester, New York, started a food stamp program. In Alexandria—on June 19—musician and socialite; heiress and white realtor Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat Thomas, Mrs. Augustus Howell Thomas bought “real estate…bounded by Wythe, Payne, West and Pendleton Streets” as part of a privately-funded housing project known as colored Rosemont.
“Housing affordability is an issue that disproportionately affects people of color,” Virginia Governor Ralph Northam affirmed in 2019. The U.S. Supreme Court decided Plessy v. Ferguson the racially divisive separate but equal Jim Crow Car Law in 1896.
“To Colored People—Own your own home, 5 room houses…dollars down, balance like rent,” the Alexandria Gazette suggested in 1920. In segregated Alexandria most property deeds, most neighborhoods were racially restricted.
The result: “[T]here is a scarcity of suitable housing for persons of average means,” American Construction council president Franklin D. Roosevelt told The New York Times in 1925.
Mrs. Thomas’ good work predates the U.S. Supreme Court decision Shelley v. Kraemer. “The parties of the first part covenant with the [colored] parties of the second part that they have the right to convey this property to them; that there are no encumbrances [restrictive racial covenants], and that the [colored] parties of the second part shall have quiet and peaceable possession thereof,” the Thomas family Deeds of Bargain and Sale consistently recorded.
“Virginia Wheat Thomas was an angel, an abolitionist-minded angel,” Stanley Greene said. Unlike the city of Alexandria’s conservative southern elite—white Democrats like Congressman Howard W. Smith who supported “managed race relations,” FDR’s Neighborhood Composition Rule, and segregated public housing—Mrs. Thomas favored home ownership; the expansion of Alexandria’s home owning black middle class. Especially post WWII.
The Neighborhood Composition Rule assured southern Democrats, segregated cities like Alexandria that the new federal presence, FDR’s New Deal agenda would not alter the existing racial composition of any given project area. “Because many neighborhoods then housed both black and white families, the Neighborhood Composition Rule resulted in placing all black housing projects in neighborhoods that were only partially black, further concentrating the black population.”
De-concentration, off-siting as per the terms of the 2008 Braddock Road and Braddock East Small Area Plans, has mostly failed. In part because the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s 2012 strategic plan again favors FDR’s Neighborhood Composition Rule. ARHA claims dispersal is a budget buster. Yet ARHA purchased 401 Wythe Street, an upscale office building in 2014 for $4.8 million “in hand paid by Grantee.”
The Federal Housing Administration was the first federal agency to openly support racial division. Three out of every five American homes purchased between 1930 and 1950 were financed by the Federal Housing Administration. Fewer than 2% of FHA loans were made to non-white home buyers.
The city of Alexandria annexed Wheat & Suter’s Subdivision; Rosemont; Shooter’s Hill and Braddock circa 1915. Because of the Rule the Braddock cum Old Town neighborhood [Census Tract 16]—developed a disproportionate share of concentrated public housing. Described today as economically diverse, the Braddock neighborhood is promoted historically as black. In truth—in 1870, in Ward Three, the Braddock neighborhood’s black population was 1,724 or 37%. In 1924 segregated black residents were 50.88% of the population; 55.98% in 1947.
“In 1943 the nation realized that self-interest as well as humanitarian impulse would demand a resolution of the anticipated postwar housing shortage,” author Barbara M. Kelly wrote. “It was in the best tradition of the Jefferson ideal that the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights…was designed to foster the simple, single-family cottage on its own plot…The houses were built in the late 1940s [and] were remarkably similar.” Mrs. Thomas’ houses, like William J. Levitt’s 800 sq. ft. suburban houses, “represented the American Dream reduced to its basic minimum.”
Stanley Greene’s parents John Henry and Carrie Maxwell Greene purchased their, now his, detached one story brick, 720 sq. ft., Wythe Street home in 1949. Other colored home buyers included West Street’s Robert L. and Shirley F. Burke. The Burke’s principal sum: $4500 in successive and monthly installments of $40 each, including interest at 6% per annum.
Both Greene and Burke were WWII veterans. Two colored troopers who bought the Thomas’ minimum model using the GI Bill of Rights’ low interest fixed rate mortgage. When taken together “the [architectural] focus becomes the truthful relationship between the deliverer-designed minimum model [Wheat/Greene unaltered] and the owner’s later redesign and expansion.” [Wheat/Burke altered]
“The housing debates were filled with angry references to ‘interference in free enterprise,’ to ‘breaking down American self-reliance,’ as well as accusations that the public-housing advocates were acting as ‘the cutting edge of the Communist front,’” The New York Times reported.
Alexandria’s first segregated public housing was constructed in 1942 in the Braddock neighborhood; the 90 unit white-only John Roberts and the 15 unit black-only Ramsey Homes. The Federal Public Housing Authority’s pre-fabricated, concrete slab Ramsey Homes—“an experimental project for Negro war workers”—was leased to the Alexandria Housing Authority, now ARHA, in November 1942. The program was “paternal in its management; crude and segregated.…”
Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat Thomas [1893-1987], of notable heritage, was the only child of “the well-known and popular” Harrie Fitzhugh [1866-1912] and Kate Duncan Houck Wheat [1869-1899]; the granddaughter of Benoni [1823-1902] and Matilda Taliaferro Fitzhugh Wheat [1831-1885]. Matilda was an indirect descendant of Fredericksburg’s William Fitzhugh of Chatham.
Alexandria born Benoni Wheat, “a prominent, useful and successful citizen,” was involved in real estate. As of 1840 he was “among the city’s wealthiest and most enterprising merchants.” The family’s flour mill, his rental buildings produced the product; his wharf, the “old Baltimore steamer Columbia” the services. He purchased 414 Duke Street in 1854, and thrice served as President: of the Alexandria Insurance company, the Alexandria Water Company and Citizens National Bank. Benoni was “regarded as the true type of Christian citizen,” even after serving 12 years on Alexandria, D.C./Alexandria, VA’s common council [1836-1853].
Benoni’s son Harrie was also “engaged in the real estate business…buying, selling, and exchanging property a specialty [including] loans made on real estate in Washington and Alexandria.” An Alexandria resident, his firm Wheat & Suter was located in Washington. Harrie launched Wheat & Suter’s [pre-Plessey] Alexandria Addition [Princess, Oronoco, West, Peyton and Earl Streets] in 1893.
“Wheat & Suter’s Addition has numerous advantages,” the Alexandria Gazette advertised. “It is convenient to depot, being only three blocks distant in a northwesterly direction, located on high grounds, commanding an excellent view of the surrounding country…no two houses will be exactly alike and [the houses] will not be built in rows.” Wheat & Suter “commenced the erection of two modern dwellings” in 1894.
A member of Alexandria’s Citizens Progressive Association, Harrie declined the Association’s 1904 invitation to run for Council. “He was not desirous of becoming a candidate [because] if elected he would not have the time to devote to [daytime] committee meetings,” the Alexandria Gazette said.
Progressive, as defined by The Oxford American Dictionary: “favoring or implementing rapid progress; social reform or new policies.”
Kate Houck Wheat died when daughter Virginia was six years old. Harrie coped by packing up the house and moving into 414 Duke Street with his sister. It was there, probably in 1903, that Virginia met 408 Duke Street neighbor, physician and social reformer Kate Waller Barrett [1857-1925]. Barrett, widowed at age 42, was working as Superintendent of the Crittenden Mission. The 400 block offered many causal learning opportunities including the 1908 arrival of the Florence Crittenden Children’s Home [406 Duke].
“Mr. Crittenden has presented the Washington Home with two pieces of property in Alexandria,” the Alexandria Gazette noted in 1902. “One will be used as a home for little children. The other house will accommodate unfortunate colored girls.”
Barrett, a Waller plantation slave owner, was “ambivalent to the race issue,” historian Katherine G. Aiken wrote. The Crittenden “experience coincided with the institutionalization of the Jim Crow practices in the South. Barrett contended that the fact the slaves did not rebel despite their treatment…illustrated the slaves ‘loss of independence and self-respect.’” Her “recognition of the power of paternalism to control victims”—especially those denied “educational and social opportunity”—echoed mightily.
Virginia F. Wheat was three years old when the Plessy decision was announced; nineteen years old when her father Harrie died. Harrie died in 1912 the same year Virginia, with the help of her father’s Trust, bought 16 W. Rosemont Avenue. Virginia and A.H. Thomas—a West Virginia born WWI veteran 14 years her senior—married on May 19, 1919; “at the residence of the bride in Rosemont.”
After a brief hiatus, Virginia and her expanding family returned to Alexandria. She continued to sell real estate; A.H. Thomas managed Armour & Co. until his retirement in 1929. Thomas then divided his time between real estate—in partnership with his wife—and farming.
In 1930 the Thomas family purchased 1515 Princess Street, within Wheat & Suter’s Alexandria Addition. Fast forward and the privately-funded colored Rosemont housing project was completed. Just not according to public housing advocates specs.
In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson’s open housing law, a law to prohibit discrimination in the sale and rental of housing, struggled. It died in the U.S. Senate in 1966 then suffered a second Congressional defeat in 1967. In the meantime ARHA, which had obtained funding “for 225 highly disputed [black only] public housing units,” completed its 90-unit Andrew Adkins rental project.
“The location was…approved…after a series of heated public hearings,” The Washington Post said in 1962. “The leading objectors were representatives of the Durant Civic Association, the city’s major Negro organization. They complained that the site includes a number of Negro-owned or Negro-occupied homes which will be leveled.” Like colored Rosemont’s Payne Street Negro-owned homes.
“The association [President A. Melvin Miller] particularly objected because of the availability there of vacant land for private Negro housing,” The Post continued. “This is one place open to Negroes for building…”
In January 1964 black lawyer and home owner Otto L. Tucker—Samuel W.’s brother—“challenged the city’s right to condemn land [a house and two lots] he owns for a public housing project, claiming that the site for the project was picked because its inhabitants [20 families] were Negroes. ARHA declared lawyer Tucker’s racist assertions “irrelevant and immaterial to the proper issues involved…”
Why not? In 1952 Virginia W. Thomas, widow; black realtor Samuel A. Tucker, Jr.—Samuel W.’s father—the Olympic Boys Club, Inc., and others lost their property to ARHA’s black only James Bland public housing development.
Johnson’s 1968 Fair Housing Act, Virginia’s 1972 Fair Housing law was the segregated black’s path to freedom. “I believe in the wisdom of the Bible,” President Lyndon B. Johnson [D-TX] wrote. “Where there is no vision the people will perish.” Today Alexandria’s public housing residents are 91.2% black; only 53% of households have income from wages and the mean income is low.
Colored Rosemont homeowner Stanley Greene has prospered; not perished. For this he wants Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat Thomas’ vision, her minimum model home[s] remembered.
Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org