Colored Rosemont – Part Two
Written by ©2020 Sarah Becker
Copyright ©2020 Sarah Becker
Colored Rosemont – Part Two
“Of all the American states, Virginia can lay claim to the most thorough control by an oligarchy,” historian and political scientist V.O. Key, Jr., wrote in 1949. “Political power has been closely held by a small group of leaders who, themselves or their predecessors, have subverted democratic institutions and deprived most Virginians of a voice in their government.”
“Senator Harry F. Byrd [D-VA] heads the governing oligarchy,” Key continued. “The political oligarchy is firmly rooted in the social structure of Virginia.” In 1883 the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional; then decided Plessy v. Ferguson the racially divisive separate but equal Jim Crow Car Law in 1896. The Commonwealth—readmitted to the Union in 1870—enacted its first statewide segregation law in 1900.
In Alexandria—in 1949—musician and white socialite; heiress and third generation realtor Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat Thomas, Mrs. A.H. Thomas [1893-1987] sold two of her well-constructed deliverer-designed homes to colored buyers. [603 N. Alfred Street and 1312 Wythe Street] Gilbert and Elizabeth Haggins; John and Carrie Greene’s minimum model homes were part of the Thomas family’s privately funded housing project known as Colored Rosemont.
Mrs. Thomas’ houses, like William J. Levitt’s 800 sq. ft. suburban houses were similar. They represented the American dream though reduced. Author James Truslow Adams first described the American dream in 1931, in his book The Epic of America.
Though the Crash of 1929 signaled the beginning of the Great Depression, Adams argued there was also a spirit of progress. He coined the phrase then explained “that ‘American dream’ of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank….”
Douglas Southall Freeman, editor of the Richmond News Leader, also invented a phrase: the Virginia Way. In 1929 Freeman “worried that he and other white elites were losing their ability to manage the city’s race relations,” Armistead L. Boothe’s grandson J. Douglas Smith recounted. “His concern prompted him to [consult] then Governor Harry F. Byrd.”
“The organization, by various strategems, keeps opposition leadership weak,” Key concluded.
“Perpetually suspicious of democracy and fervently convinced that only the upper orders should govern, white elites in Virginia embraced a concept of managed race relations that emphasized a particularly genteel brand of paternalism,” Smith continued. “Intent on maintaining order and stability, practitioners of the idea of managed race relations wholeheartedly supported segregation and disenfranchisement…[P]aternalists promised to provide a modicum of basic services and even encouraged a certain amount of educational uplift. In return, white elites demanded complete deference.”
The Byrd machine [1915-1966]—inherited from Senator Thomas S. Martin [D-VA/1895-1919]—controlled segregated Alexandria.
Education emerged as a salient issue in the 1930s. In 1932 “The Alexandria City Council [convened] a public meeting [to discuss] a proposed $26,000 cut in the public schools budget,” The Washington Post wrote. “One of the most interesting features was a presentation by Henry C. Brooks, colored, representing the Alexandria Colored Citizens Association. [He] told of the needs of the [black-only] Parker-Gray School, the deficiencies in equipment except desks. Brooks stated the State law provides that…schools must be “separate but equal” and said that while the schools [Jefferson and Parker-Gray] are separate they are not by any means equal.” Mrs. Virginia Wheat Thomas also “spoke in opposition to any reduction in the school budget.”
“Another point brought out was that the requirements of the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools are not being complied with by the Alexandria Schools, particular reference being made to the library,” The Post appended.
“Since education is a preparation for the competition of life, a poor education handicaps black youth who with ‘all elements of American people are in economic competition,’” National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] Special Counsel Charles Houston clarified in 1935.
In 1939 “white elites in Alexandria scrambled covertly to stymie [black attorney] Samuel W. Tucker’s efforts to force the city’s public library to admit blacks.” Samuel W.’s father, Samuel A. Tucker, Jr., was a founding member of Alexandria’s NAACP. He was also a real estate agent. In 1917 Samuel A. “sold to Charles A. Holland a house and lot on the east side of Henry Street, between Wythe and Pendleton Streets.”
Years later, in 1952, both Samuel A. Tucker, Jr., and Virginia Wheat Thomas, widow, lost their properties to ARHA, the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s James Bland public housing project, another black-only rental project.
Miss Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat was buying and selling real estate long before she could vote. For example, in 1916, “deeds were recorded from Richard F. Green to Virginia F. Wheat of a house and lot on Duke street.” She accumulated her homes; her Rosemont [16 W. Rosemont Avenue], Rosemont East [1515 Princess Street], and Colored Rosemont properties with resolve.
By law—the 18th century law of coverture—Miss Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat lived independently. In control of her a$$et$. Upon marriage, Mrs. Virginia Wheat Thomas became her husband’s property, a femme covert. The fair-minded Mrs. Thomas understood the Fitzhugh slaves’ wish for freedom.
Virginia Wheat Thomas, granddaughter of Benoni [1823-1902] and Matilda Taliaferro Fitzhugh Wheat [1831-1885], was an indirect descendant of Fredericksburg’s William Fitzhugh of Chatham. William Fitzhugh’s son, W. H. Fitzhugh of Ravensworth and Alexandria “gained prominence as a state leader and national Vice President of the American Colonization Society.” He “experimented in giving slave families small farms within Ravensworth to operate independently as tenants and buy their freedom.”
Realtor Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat Thomas believed in the American dream. Unlike Harry F. Byrd’s conservative Democrat machine, Mrs. Thomas favored black home ownership.
“Paternalists refused to recognize…the development of a larger, more prosperous, and independent black middle class, a class able to vocalize dissatisfaction with inequality,” Smith said. “Consequently, they attempted to impose limits on black advancement.” The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation permitting local residential segregation ordinances on March 12, 1912; “to designate districts as ‘white’ or ‘colored’ on the basis of whether 50 percent of the inhabitants were white or Negro.”
“Minority groups in many cities are still being barred from swank neighborhoods by restrictive real estate covenants,” The Post reported in 1949. “A United Press survey…revealed numerous instances of realtors, banks and other lending institutions upholding in actual practice the ‘white Gentiles only rule.’”
Mrs. Thomas purchased Colored Rosemont’s starter properties—“bounded by Wythe, Payne, West and Pendleton”—in 1939; “with special warranty of title” from Maurice D. Rosenberg, probably a Jew. The Parker-Gray neighborhood, however questionably the 1980s District boundaries are explained, was one of only a few “places open to Negroes for building.”
“The largest single opportunity for the rapid postwar expansion of private investment and employment lies in the field of housing, both urban and rural,” President Harry Truman said in his 1945 Message to Congress. “The present shortage of decent homes…will become more marked as [returning] veterans begin to…look for places to live.” Veterans like WWII’s segregated Negroes.
Truman’s predecessor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Neighborhood Composition Rule assured southern Democrats; the Byrd machine and 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.”
Discrimination comes in many forms. Unlike any woman, the black man could vote as of Reconstruction . Still the later Byrd machine owed “its existence to…a restricted electorate.”
ARHA’s 1967 Andrew Adkins land parcel has been segregated since 1877: beginning with black entrepreneurs John A. and George L. Seaton’s property; West to N. Fayette Streets, Wythe to Madison Streets. The Seaton’s Ward 3 multi-block parcel was located diagonally across N. Fayette Street from Colross, “one of the most splendid examples of late eighteenth century houses in Alexandria.” The mansion, then the property of former Alexandria Mayor and George Mason IV grandson Thomson F. Mason’s Estate, was constructed in 1799.
Born free “John [1837-1898] and his siblings had amassed a number of properties throughout Alexandria and Fauquier, Va.; the District of Columbia and Manhattan, N.Y.,” Char Bah wrote. The Seaton brothers were “builders.” Perhaps Colored Rosemont was conceived in the tradition of.
In the 1880s conservatives, reorganized as Democrats, gained control of the Virginia government and ended its two-party rule. It was the period when power and position, politics and nostalgic celebration gave way to segregation. Alexandrian and rebel rouser Wm. A. Smoot, Grand Commander of the Grand Camp, of Virginia was an outspoken Democrat.
“Confederate Colonel Wm. A. Smoot has just issued a circular-letter to be read before the camps of the State,” the Alexandria Gazette wrote in 1895. “I must take this occasion to congratulate every surviving patriot…on the revival of this South-land [and] the truth and justice of the ‘Lost Cause.” Smoot then owned Colross [1885-1917], a mansion used as a Union Civil War hospital; the same mansion owner John Munn moved brick and pillar to Princeton, New Jersey, in 1929.
“Prejudice is stronger than politics, and the traditions of years cannot be easily destroyed,” The Post decided in 1889 President and retired Union General Benjamin Harrison’s [R-IN] inaugural year.
“The verdict of our voters…enjoins upon the people’s servants the duty of exposing and destroying the brood kindred evils which are the wholesome progeny of paternalism,” President Grover Cleveland [D-NY] said in his 1893 inaugural address. “It undermines the self-reliance of our people.”
The Federal Housing Administration [FHA] 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 FHA. Fewer than 2% of FHA loans were made to non-white home buyers. In 1949 the NAACP “charged the FHA with lending ‘its full support’ to the perpetuation of ‘black ghettos.’”
“[L]eading whites labeled as extremist any who pushed for change outside the limits mandated by paternalism,” Smith explained. “White elites [considered] the NAACP a threat to civil society;” the Southern Regional Council less so.
“The Southern Regional Council, representing all fields of professional endeavor in the South, is turning its attention to the problems of the returning GI, particularly the Negro,” The Post stated in 1945. “The organization, outgrowth of the old Southern Commission on Inter-Racial Cooperation, seeks to attain through research and publicity ‘the ideals and practices of equal opportunity for all peoples in the region.’”
Liberalism had its limits. Virginius Dabney, the Pulitzer Prize winning editorial writer for the Richmond Times Dispatch often criticized Senator Byrd’s Democrat machine. In the 1930s Dabney advocated a federal anti-lynching law and opposed the poll tax. But following WWII he “generally supported segregation.” The “burgeoning civil rights movement” was too much to tolerate.
“Black Virginians recognized that separate would never be equal and indicated that they intended to attack the broader manifestations of Jim Crow,” Smith concluded. In 1946 the Alexandria Housing Authority and the Federal Public Housing Administration gave “a full green light for the construction of the local veteran’s housing project in the Rosemont area.” A smaller colored veteran’s project remained “under consideration.”
“The subject of Civil Rights must be faced openly and squarely,” Delegate Armistead L. Boothe (D-Alexandria) wrote in 1949. “We cannot continually exclaim against the Federal Government usurping the powers of the state without exercising those powers ourselves…[C]hanges in our segregation laws…would be a courageous step forward in preparing the people of Virginia to meet the staggering social problems they will inevitably face in the future.”
Virginia Wheat Thomas, like Virginia-born labor activist Lucy Randolph Mason [1882-1959] did not fear the future. Mason argued “with clear conviction that morality and justice required the defeat of the residential segregation ordinance.” The Thomas’ Colored Rosemont homes sold quickly; the deeds with “no encumbrances,” without restrictive real estate covenants.
“What constitutes an American?” FDR’s Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes asked in 1941. “Not color, nor race, nor religion. Not the pedigree of his family nor the place of his birth. An American is one who loves justice and the dignity of man.” The dignity of man and woman!
It was not until 2002 that Governor Mark Warner (D-Alexandria) stepped forward and formally apologized for Virginia’s 1924-1979 eugenics law. The Commonwealth’s Racial Integrity Act. Laws the Byrd machine embraced.
“As I have said many times, Mrs. Virginia Wheat Thomas was an abolitionist-minded angel,” Colored Rosemont homeowner Stanley Greene exclaimed, “a woman worthy of remembrance.” Mrs. Thomas was a woman of principle, with standing and spine.
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.