History, History Column

Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat Thomas and Colored Rosemont       

Written by ©2022 Sarah Becker

“The idea of slavery being connected with the Black Colour, and Liberty with the White, where false Ideas are twisted into our Minds, it is with difficulty we get fairly disentangled,” New Jersey Quaker John Woolman [1720-1772] wrote. The time has come to articulate a historical truth, to acknowledge a woman black Alexandria homeowner Stanley Greene describes as “an abolitionist-minded angel.”

March is Women’s History Month: her name is Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat Thomas (1893-1987). A descendant of William Fitzhugh The Immigrant [1651-1701]; an indirect descendant of The Immigrant’s great grandson William Fitzhugh of Chatham [1741-1809]; his son William Henry Fitzhugh [1792-1830] of Ravensworth and Alexandria; granddaughter of Benoni [1823-1902] and Matilda Taliaferro Fitzhugh Wheat [1831-1885], daughter of Wheat & Suter real estate developer Harrie Fitzhugh [1866-1912] and Kate Duncan Houck Wheat [1869-1899].

Virginia was an inspired realtor whose post-World War interpretation of home ownership contributed to the construction of Alexandria’s Colored Rosemont. “The verdict of our voters…enjoins upon the people’s servants the duty of exposing and destroying the brood of kindred evils which are the wholesome progeny of paternalism,” President Grover Cleveland [D-NY] said in Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat’s birth year, in his 1893 Inaugural Address. “If in lifting burdens from the daily life of our people we reduce inordinate and unequal advantages too long ignored, this is but a necessary incident of our return to right and justice.”

On May 18, 1896—the same year the National Association of Colored Women formed—the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “all railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches…shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races.” [Plessy v. Ferguson 163U.S.537 (1896)] Soon after, the Reconstruction-era “Colored Republicans…served notice.” The lily-whites reply: rewrite Virginia’s constitution.

The Commonwealth’s new constitution became final in 1902, Benoni Wheat’s death year. “Discrimination…is precisely what we propose,” State Senator Carter Glass [D-VA] explained. “As has been said, we have accomplished our purpose strictly within the limitations of the Federal Constitution by legislating against the characteristics of the black race, not against the ‘race, color or previous condition’ of the people themselves.”

Benoni Wheat, “among Alexandria’s wealthiest and most enterprising merchants,” was a member of the pre-Civil War Whig Party [1840s]; the post-Civil War Temperance Party [1880s]. During the War he was captured by Confederate authorities, held hostage; ransomed and released. “There have lived but few, if any, men in Alexandria who were more universally respected and beloved by all classes than Benoni Wheat,” The Washington Post wrote.

The Niagara Movement, a black protest movement led by W.E.B. Du Bois distributed its Negro Declaration of Independence in 1905. The organizers demanded “full equality,” including “decent housing and neighborhoods…We plead for health, for an opportunity to live in decent houses and localities.” Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat [414 Duke Street] was then 12 years old; her mother Kate was dead, and Duke Street neighbor Kate Waller Barrett [408]—vice president and general superintendent of the Florence Crittenton Homes—was advocating not only on behalf of the Homes [406], but also the National Women’s Council.

The history of the historically Black Rosemont district of Alexandria lives on through existing housing stock. Pictured above, 711 N. West Street, 719 N. West Street, 1321 Wythe and 1312 Wythe Street are prime examples.

The National Women’s Council’s 1904 adopted resolutions: “equality of women with men in pulpit and church debate and on committee work; favoring married women being allowed to teach school; favoring the creation of schools for housekeeping; favoring allowing illegitimate children to take…a share of the father’s property; favoring juvenile courts and hygienic dress. In 1909 Barrett was also serving as the vice president of the women’s Equal Suffrage League of Virginia.

On March 12, 1912, Harrie Fitzhugh Wheat’s death year, the Virginia General Assembly passed “An Act to provide for designation by the cities and towns of segregation districts for residence of white and colored persons;…and for penalties for the violation of its terms.” Local segregation ordinances, if approved, designated districts as ‘white’ or ‘colored’ depending on whether 50 percent of the inhabitants were white or negro. Harrie, a self-described Progressive was a member of Alexandria’s Citizens Progressive Association as of 1904.

Virginia’s wealth changed the day her father died. Said Harrie: “I hereby leave & bequeath all my property real & personal…for the sole use & benefit of my only child Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat [age 19]…The trusteeship…shall continue until [my daughter] reaches the age of 40 years [in 1933], when all…is turned over to [her].”

In 1915 The Washington Post listed Virginia among Alexandria’s social elite: attending parties with friends including A.H. Thomas 14 years her senior. The following year she was buying property; A.H. Thomas was thinking meaty thoughts, and Democrat Harry F. Byrd, Sr., took his seat in the Virginia State Senate.

“Byrd argued that a black electorate with decisive strength to sway elections constituted a much greater evil than ‘the continued and unchallenged government by a single political party,’” J. Douglas Smith recounted. Byrd also opposed women’s voting rights.

A.H. Thomas, a longtime employee of Armour & Co was a savvy sort. He thrice served as Armour’s branch manager: in Louisville, Kentucky; Washington and Alexandria. While in Louisville Augustus—in some way—became aware of the NAACP’s struggle to reverse a Kentucky court case known as Buchanan v. Warley.

Buchanan v. Warley [245U.S.60 (1917)] overturned Louisville’s 1914 racial zoning ordinance, an ordinance which prohibited whites selling and blacks buying homes in white-majority neighborhoods. The zoning ordinance was entitled “An ordinance to prevent conflict and ill-feeling between the white and colored races in the city of Louisville, and to preserve the public peace and promote the general welfare, by making reasonable provisions requiring, as far as practicable, the use of separate blocks, for residences, place of abode, and places of assembly by white and colored people respectively.”

“This ordinance prevents the occupancy of a lot in the city of Louisville by a person of color [newspaper editor and NAACP advocate William Warley] in a block where the greater number of residences are occupied by white persons,” U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice William Day wrote. “This drastic measure is sought to be justified under the authority of the state in the exercise of the police power.”

“But…the police power, broad as it is, cannot justify the passage of a law or ordinance which runs counter to the limitations of the federal Constitution’s 14th Amendment, a Reconstruction Amendment,” Day explained. “The right which the ordinance annulled was the civil right of a white man [real estate agent Charles Buchanan] to dispose of his property.” Buchanan’s affirmed “right to dispose of the property [by contract] to a constitutionally qualified purchaser.”

William Henry Fitzhugh, national Vice President of the American Colonization Society—a Society that operated from 1816 until 1964—“experimented in giving slave families small farms within Ravensworth to operate independently as tenants and buy their freedom.” To what extent did Fitzhugh’s economic model, Buchanan’s contractual model inspire Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat Thomas’ development of Colored Rosemont?

Five generations, from Matilda forward carried the Fitzhugh name. Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat, 26, married Augustus Howell Thomas, age 40, on May 17, 1919.  Together they had four children: Wheat, Augustus Jr. [born in Louisville], Kate, and Fitzhugh.

In 1924 State Senator Harry F. Byrd was Chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party; the Virginia General Assembly passed the Racial Integrity Act [1924-1979] and Congress passed the “widely restrictive” Johnson-Reed Immigration Act. The Democratic Party convened in Chicago and the Thomas family contemplated a move: to 1515 Princess Street, Wheat & Suter’s 1893 Addition to Alexandria, Rosemont East. The Addition’s boundaries included Princess and Oronoco Streets, Earl and West Streets. West Street separated the races post-Plessy, up to and including the 1960s.

In 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt’s U.S. [public] Housing Act was law, as was his de facto Neighborhood Composition Rule. FDR [D-NY] traded racially restricted rental housing for Party-line passage of his New Deal legislation. To rent was to become dependent—on the Byrd machine, the Byrd Organization.

To the contrary Mrs. Thomas favored black home ownership. On June 19, 1939, Virginia Wheat Thomas bought “real estate…bounded by Wythe, Payne, West and Pendleton Streets” as part of her privately-funded, colored housing project. Her plan: a standardized minimum model with built-in potential for expansion, a fixed ratio of square footage to acreage. The Thomas’ Deeds of Bargain and Sale excluded racially restrictive covenants.

The abundance of Wheat & Suter’s pre-Plessy Alexandria property; Virginia’s many 1930s-1950s properties have long been underestimated, if analyzed at all. The same can be said for Virginia and the black buyers’ mortgage methods.

In June 1967, Alexandria’s City Council thought public housing “a bitter point.” Three years before black attorney Otto L. Tucker, Samuel W.’s brother, “challenged the city’s right to condemn land he owns [a house and 2 lots] for a public housing project, claiming that the site for the project was picked because its inhabitants [20 families] were Negroes.” The Alexandria Redevelopment Housing Authority declared lawyer Tucker’s racist assertions “irrelevant and immaterial to the proper issues involved….” Last year the Virginia Thomas/Gilbert Haggins house, 603 N. Alfred Street, was demolished; the 1949 property subdivided and redeveloped.

At what point are the complexities of black developmental history honestly told? “As gallant as is the effort of Virginia liberals,” John H. Young of the Negro Pittsburgh Courier concluded, “they still have a long way to go before they can shake off the shackles of machine politicians who hide their real fear—the loss of power.” The Commonwealth’s 1902 constitution did not change until 1971.

“The subject of Civil Rights in Virginia must be faced openly and squarely by the people of Virginia,” Alexandria Democrat Armistead Boothe said in 1949. “[T]his social problem cannot be solved by failing to recognize it, to study it and to think about it. It will be our duty to the past, the present and the future to recognize and foster equality of opportunity. We must think and we must act.”

A.H. Thomas died in 1949. Still the Thomas’ vision lived on. Despite Byrd Democrats want to bury their truth.

Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat Thomas fostered equality of opportunity; helped blacks buy decent housing unencumbered as per the 1905 Negro Declaration of Independence, and author James Truslow Adams’1931 American Dream. Now it is the City’s turn to think about it, to recognize Virginia for the remarkable woman she was.

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: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

4.38 avg. rating (87% score) - 8 votes