Alexandria, VA

Twenty years before slavery was abolished, there were black Freemasons in Alexandria. This month, Alexandria’s Universal Lodge No. 1, which is the first “Prince Hall” in Virginia, celebrated its 175th anniversary.

“We are standing on the shoulders of previous generations looking forward,” MacArthur Myers, the 174th past master at the lodge told ALXnow. “We have to recognize all who went before us and the responsibility of the stewardship in our presence as we look at the future.”

Prince Hall Masonry, which is historically all black, dates back to 1775 when 14 free black men were initiated by a lodge attached to the British army.

Universal Lodge No. 1 was founded on Feb. 5, 1845, by seamen William Dudley, Benjamin Crier and Sandy Bryant, all of whom became masons in Liverpool, England, in the 1830s. After returning to the states, the men joined the African American Social Lodge No. 1 in Washington, D.C. in 1838.

“Even though it says 1845, many lodges couldn’t come into being until after the Civil War,” Myers noted. “You had millions of previously enslaved people who were granted their freedom, and they had to construct a nation for themselves. They had to build hospitals and schools and they knew that they had to build institutions for the betterment of the masses.”

Alexandria was part of the District in 1845, and Dudley, Crier and Bryant founded the lodge in a secret meeting. The home for the lodge was 424 S. Royal Street in the city’s Hayti neighborhood, and it remained there until moving to its present location at 112 E. Oxford Ave. in Del Ray in 1986. The lodge is well-known in the community for its charitable work, including annual coat drives for Alexandria youths in the winter.

Myers, a retired social worker who was named an Alexandria Living Legend last month, is also the historian for the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Richmond. He’s been a member since 2012, and was raised in the company of Freemasons.

“They were different than ordinary men, because you knew about their character, you knew what they were doing in a community and that’s always been faith, hope and charity,” he said. “In Alexandria, you were a member of the Masonic lodge, the Elks, the Departmental Progressive Club and you went to church. Those were the social hubs because of segregation.”

The lodge is historically and culturally an African American club, and members frequently visit other lodges around the world. Myers, who also conducts tours of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, couldn’t speak of what goes on behind closed doors or how many members there are in the lodge, but said that the applicants have to undergo an extensive background check. Notable members include former Mayor Bill Euille and former Police Chief Earl Cook.

“There’s a fine line between vanity and humility,” Myers said. “A Mason is a Mason is a Mason, and therefore it takes the individual to decide how to you want to treat another Mason. We, in our rituals and in our teaching and learning, are taught about personal growth. For us it’s about brotherly love.”

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Shirley Marshall-Lee has always felt relaxed in the water. The 84-year-old Alexandrian is widely regarded as the first certified female African American sport diver.

“Water makes me comfortable,” Marshall-Lee told ALXnow. “I’ll think about the day, and I don’t have to worry about anything.”

Marshall-Lee, who worked 30 years at the Defense Logistics Agency as a computer technician, was raised as the eldest of two sisters in The Berg neighborhood in north Old Town. She was 13 when she learned how to swim. Once a week during the summer, she recalls, a bus would pick up neighborhood kids and take them to blacks-only pools in Washington, D.C.

Alexandria didn’t have any swimming pools for African Americans until the opening of Memorial Pool in 1952. Before then, many black residents swam in the Potomac River, and between 1931 and 1951, nine young African Americans drowned. The year it opened, the 16-year-old Marshall-Lee became a lifeguard at the city pool, which is located at Charles Houston Recreation Center.

Marshall-Lee graduated from Parker Gray High School in 1956, and two years later married Lovell Lee, her high school sweetheart. The couple have two sons and three grandchildren.

Lee used to visit her when she worked as a lifeguard.

“The pool was like a magnet for the community,” he said. “Back in the days of segregation, there were not many avenues for blacks in Alexandria, quite frankly, so people congregated at the pool in the summer.”

In 1965, she met Dr. Albert Jose Jones, the president of the Underwater Adventure Seekers, the first African American scuba diving club founded in 1959 and based in Washington, D.C. That same year she got her basic certification, and the following year became the club’s first female member. She’s a dive master, and her qualifications include Professional Association of Diving Instructors and Atlantic Skin Diving Association advanced diving and open water certifications.

Marshall-Lee’s diving and swimming have garnered awards, including first place in the 1972 Atlantic Skin Diving Council Rodeo, the free diving portion of the Middle Atlantic Spearfishing Championship and in the USA Swim for Fitness program in 2001 by swimming 44 miles in four months. She is a founding member of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, and has been featured in Ebony Magazine and a number of books.

Marshall-Lee has dived all over the world, including Fiji, Morocco, Mexico, Jamaica, Egypt, Bermuda and Haiti. She also participated in a well-publicized dive of the Henrietta Marie slave ship off the Florida coast in 1993.

“I love looking at the fish, you know, just going down seeing things in the water, picking up things that you ain’t supposed to pick up,” she said. “Getting a little seashell or starfish. You know, I have a whole lot of shells and I don’t know what to do with them. Right now they’re in the garage, so I need to give them to somebody. I hate to throw them away.”

The last time she dived was in 2006 in Malaysia.

“I’m 84 years old,” Marshall-Lee said. “I’ve seen everything I need in the water. I’ve seen sunken wrecks, I’ve seen sharks, barracudas, and I’ve seen people die. I’ll go snorkeling, but that’s about it.”

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With both the Virginia House and Senate approving legislation to allow localities to remove Confederate statues, it would seem the Appomattox statue’s days are numbered.

The statue sits in the center of the intersection of S. Washington Street and Prince Street, where it’s been occasionally struck by cars.

The city has been working to remove the statue for years — former Mayor Bill Euille got his start in Alexandria politics in the 1960s protesting the statue — but a Virginia law says memorials to war veterans could not be removed.

Legislation approved yesterday (Tuesday) in the Virginia Senate, with Democrats now firmly in control in Richmond, authorized localities to “remove, relocate, contextualize, cover or alter” monuments in public spaces.

If the legislation becomes law, Mayor Justin Wilson says the statue will be removed.

“In 2016, Council voted unanimously to remove the monument out of the middle of Washington Street,” said Wilson. “That’s the existing city policy. If the legislation passes and it’s signed by the governor, then we would work to execute that council policy.”

Wilson also said that the council will have to work with the Daughters of the Confederacy, which owns the monument, on a new location, like a city museum.

Some Alexandrians had alternative destinations in mind.

The statue has a complicated history. It was built in 1889 to honor “the Seventeenth Virginia regiment who yielded their lives during the four years’ of civil war” according to the Alexandria Gazette’s reporting at the dedication. The location in the center of Prince Street marks the spot where several Alexandrians met to leave the Union-occupied city and join the Confederate army.

Rev. G. H. Norton, a chaplain who served in the Confederate camp, said at the time of the dedication that he hoped the statue would mark the end of the strife wrought by the war.

James Cullum contributed to this story. Staff photo by Jay Westcott.

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You may not be familiar with the city’s Historic Preservation Manager William “Al” Cox, but if you walked around Old Town you’re familiar with his work.

After 28 years of shaping the city’s policy on architecture and historic preservation and 10 years as the historic preservation manager, Cox is retiring.

Before he’s recognized by the City Council at tonight’s (Tuesday) meeting, Cox spoke with ALXnow about some of the highs and the lows of the last 30 years of architecture and historic preservation in Alexandria.

Cox started his career at a private practice in Texas, working on projects like the preservation of the Texas Governor’s Mansion, but Reagan-era tax law changes dried up the preservation funding. Cox went on to the University of Virginia and to Venice, to study more about how to hold onto historic architecture in changing urban landscapes, which ultimately helped to shape his view on preserving Alexandria.

“I wanted to study how Europeans had been dealing with the preservation of historic resources and maintaining a living, breathing city as opposed to calling everything a historic district and freezing it,” Cox said. “My wife and I had visited Alexandria and fell in love with it. We thought ‘why are we trying to explain all of that to people in Dallas, they don’t get preservation.'”

Cox took a two-year contract to staff the help work on design guidelines, after which then-Alexandria City Manager Vola Lawson allowed Cox to create the first city architect position.

“That was terrific, we’d never had one,” Cox said. “I worked in planning got to work on so many really cool projects: Windmill Hill, Potomac Yard, the design of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, Jones Point Park.”

Cox also was able to hire acclaimed architect Michael Graves to work on the Beatley Central Library, but like most of the projects in Alexandria, Cox said it was worked on by a whole team of people.

“He came in and made some of the presentations and it is, without question, in his style, but most of the work was his staff,” Cox said. “He was really known for doing Mediterranean colors in stucco and colored metal roofs. City Council, when he did the presentation, said they liked the design — but around here, we’re a red brick town and they wanted a copper roof like the historic houses here. Graves has his own stamp and the council did a good job of making it an Alexandria library by Michael Graves.”

It’s just one example of the kind of work that goes on behind the brick or steel walls of nearly every building in Alexandria.

“That’s what I’ve spent my career here doing,” Cox said. “I’ve gotten to work with a lot of talented folks, but even if they’re from D.C. they don’t know our brand. They don’t know our culture. Alexandria has a really strong local culture and it’s why we’re still here.”

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One week after Lee-Jackson Day was nixed, the Union is preparing for its latest show of force at Alexandria’s Fort Ward.

The Fort Ward Museum — which covers the history of one of the best-preserved Union forts that formed the defenses of Washington, D.C. during the Civil War — is scheduling its annual “outfitting the men” program for next Saturday, Feb. 22, from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

“Museum interpreters in Union uniform will present ongoing talks about the clothing, military accessories and equipment typical of the Federal units who were stationed at Fort Ward throughout the Civil War,” the museum said in a press release. “Hands-on reproduction items, intricately detailed model soldiers, and original objects on exhibit will be featured.”

Museum director Susan Cumbey said the display of Union uniforms on model soldiers are popular among children that come to the tour.

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Morning Notes

Huge Fire South of Alexandria — “A large fire in Fairfax County destroyed an unfinished development of apartments and retail stores Saturday, shutting down traffic along Route 1 for several hours while firefighters battled the blaze and thick black smoke that could be seen for several miles.” Alexandria firefighters, along with firefighters from other nearby jurisdictions, responded to the scene as mutual aid. [Washington Post, NBC 4, Twitter]

Views of the Fire from Around the City — Smoke from the South Alex fire could be seen from around the city and beyond. Here are some of the views.

T.C. Williams Lights Trial Delayed — “The trial to determine whether Alexandria City Public Schools can add lights to T.C. Williams High School’s new football stadium has been postponed from Feb. 24 to June 8, Lars Liebeler, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said… Residents from six of the neighboring households filed an original complaint in August 2018.” [Alexandria Times]

History of the Oakland Baptist Church — “Longing for their own church, they organized themselves and built Oak Hill Baptist Church in 1888. The men would leave work on their day jobs, go directly to the building site of the church, and start working. They would continue building the church after work on the weekends week after week until the church was finished.” [Zebra]

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Gadsby’s Tavern is one of Alexandria’s most notable historic landmarks, famous for hosting guests like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but a new tour looks at the lives of slaves forced to work at the tavern.

A Complicated Hospitality Tour looks into the stories, experiences and archival records of the men and women enslaved by proprietor John Gadsby, according to an event description. While many depictions of slavery focus on the plantation system, this tour looks at the nuances of urban slavery and aims to explore how slaves lived in early Alexandria.

The tour is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 22, from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Tickets are $15 per person.

There are several events throughout Black History Month in Alexandria, including a screening of a movie about an African American woman in Alabama who spoke out against the white men who raped her, and a meeting on Tuesday (Feb. 11) of the Equal Justice Initiative — a group currently working to investigate two lynchings in Alexandria’s history.

Black history in Alexandria has had a prominent focus early in 2020, with the city purchasing the Freedom House museum at 1315 Duke Street, a new art installation on the waterfront focusing on the role of black Americans in the city’s industrial and agricultural origins, and the Manumission Tour Company spotlighting the city’s history with the Underground Railroad.

Photo via Gadsby’s Tavern Museum/Facebook

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The Beatley Central Library is turning 20 this weekend and is celebrating with a birthday party.

The Beatley Birthday Party is planned for Saturday, from 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. at the Charles E. Beatley Jr. Central Library (5005 Duke Street). The party is listed as “all ages” but most activities are aimed at children.

The event will start with opening remarks at 10:30, according to the library website, followed by activities like a “birthday card project,” a panel about the historic Alexandria library sit-in, and glitter tattoos. Food trucks will be on hand from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

A Washington Post article from 1999 called the library an “unlikely architectural wonder” designed by influential architect Michael Graves. The library is named after Charles E. Beatley Jr. who served a mayor from 1967-1976 and from 1979-1985.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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African American history is an integral part of Alexandria, and the port city will take an expanded look at the topic this year, according to the city’s tourism bureau.

Audrey Davis, executive director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, said that all African American interpretations will be expanded throughout multiple sites.

“So, you can go from Alexandria archaeology to Gatsby’s Tavern to Fort Ward to the Black History Museum, to all of our sites to learn about African Americans and the impact that they had on the city,” Davis said. “There’s so much more exciting history to come focusing on African American history. So, join us on this journey.”

Among the sites is Freedom House at 1315 Duke Street in Old Town, which is being purchased by the city. Freedom House was the home to five different slave dealers between 1828 and 1861 and was once the headquarters for the largest domestic slave trading firm in the United States.

Visit Alexandria highlighted the year ahead at its annual meeting at the Carlyle Club on Friday, Jan. 24. Claire Mouledoux, vice president for communications for Visit Alexandria, said that the Office of Historic Alexandria is also supporting a community initiative to develop an African American Heritage waterfront trail, which will launch this year.

“This self guided tour will be presented as an online story map and will highlight people places and neighborhoods from a diverse period of time in Alexandria its history,” Mouledoux said.

The trail will include a north section, which will launch first, and the South section launching later, ultimately featuring more than 20 stops along the water.”

In March, the city will also welcome the new art installation “Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies” by Olalekan Jeyifous at Waterfront Park. The artwork will incorporate African American quilting and textile traditions to tell the city’s story as a merchant and manufacturing hub.

Additionally, the Manumission Tour Company will also feature a new tour telling the story of Alexandria’s history with the Underground Railroad. Alexandria City Councilman John Taylor Chapman owns the company and will give visitors tours by using writings of abolitionist William Still and Underground Railroad participants talking about where they lived in Alexandria, when and how they escaped and who helped them.

The city will also claim its Equal Justice Initiative monument in solemn recognition of its two documented lynchings. Alexandria is one of the first communities to claim its monument from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.

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Morning Notes

New Office to Residential Conversion — “A Mark Center office building in Alexandria is now set to be converted into apartments. D.C. real estate investment firm PRP LLC plans to convert 4900 Seminary Road, a 12-story, 209,000 square foot building, into residential… PRP wants to put 213 market-rate units into the building, which also has room for about 4,100 square feet of ground-floor retail.” [Washington Business Journal]

Mayor Reacts to Retrocession Suggestion — “With Democrats now in control of the Virginia Statehouse, Republican Delegate Dave LaRock says he is concerned that liberal values are taking over so he’s calling for Arlington and Alexandria to be split off and given to D.C… Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson calls LaRock’s statements a ‘comical clown move.'” [Fox 5, Twitter]

Send-off For Historic Fire Apparatus — “The Friendship Fire Company purchased an ornate hose reel carriage in 1858. Now, thanks to the support of the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Association, community donors, and its win as the No. 1 Virginia Endangered Artifact of 2019, Historic Alexandria is sending the hose carriage off for much-needed conservation.” [Zebra]

Lawmakers Considering Shopping Cart Bill — “Senate Bill 631 would make it so that the cost of removal, including disposal, of an abandoned shopping cart will be charged to the cart’s owner. The ordinance originally applied just to Fairfax County, but Surovell said Arlington and Alexandria asked to be included in the new legislation.” [ARLnow]

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Gwen Day-Fuller’s greatest memory is attending the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lincoln Memorial.

On the sultry morning of Aug. 28, 1963, Day-Fuller went to the speech with her mother, Lucille Peatross-Day, and her aunt, Mary Stokes. The then 19-year-old was on her summer break from Hampton University, and she and her family were among 250,000 people who disregarded widespread warnings that there would be riots at the now-fabled March on Washington.

Day-Fuller, 75, is the daughter of Ferdinand Day, who served as the first African American on the Alexandria School Board. She is a retired elementary school teacher and lives in the Alexandria house her parents bought in the early 1970s. Her father attended the speech separately, and met up with the family afterward.

This week, ahead of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, we asked Day-Fuller about her experience all those years ago.

ALXnow: What stands out in your memory of that day, Aug. 28, 1963? 

Day-Fuller: It was a very, very hot day, in August. And the crowd was immense. I mean, you were shoulder-to-shoulder and there had been a lot of discussion prior to the speech about how there would be riots, there would be people fighting. They anticipated a lot of problems. It was all on the news and everything. Well, the exact opposite happened because you could hear a pin drop out there. That was the thing that was so kind of eerie that I remember. People just walked along arms together. You know, it was just a very peaceful, kind atmosphere.

ALXnow: You and your parents and your aunt still attended the speech despite those warnings. 

Day-Fuller: We just were so inspired by Dr. King and everything that he stood for at that time. Also, it was almost like what could be worse than what we were living through already? And to think that somebody could come and have an impact upon the nation, that it might lead to a positive change. I mean, it’s like my dad, who went to Atlanta to Dr. King’s funeral. He just said that he had to go. That’s how, you know, we were just so grabbed by Dr. King as a man and over what he had done so far and what he was trying to do.

ALXnow: Where did you watch the speech? 

Day-Fuller: I was right near the Reflecting Pond. That’s where people were all around just trying to cool off. And that’s where we saw celebrities just walking along the way, like I remember seeing Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte. We also watched Roy Wilkins [former executive secretary of the NAACP] speak.

ALXnow: How long were you out that day? 

Day-Fuller: A long time. I remember everyone wanted to leave early to try to beat the crowds and be sure to not miss the bus. So, it took awhile for him to come on to actually make the speech, and I remember the heat, it was so hot. But there were no issues, not one. I don’t remember anything being that silent in my life. And there he was, he appeared onstage, and to think that you would get a glimpse of him was just amazing.

ALXnow: What effect did the speech have on you at the time? 

Day-Fuller: It was like my hairs were standing on-end. It was just amazing. I had heard him speak on TV and on the radio, but to be right there. I mean, I had no idea then that the speech would get the prominence it would. All I knew was I was in the midst of somebody extraordinary…  It just gave you hope. It made you feel like maybe this is actually going to come to an end — what we’ve been experiencing in this country — and maybe now things will change, maybe there is hope for change.

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The City of Alexandria planning to host a commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. next Wednesday, Jan. 15.

The ceremony is scheduled for 7:30-9:30 p.m. at Beth El Hebrew Congregation (3850 Seminary Road) It will feature Spencer Crew, interim director for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, talking about the work of the museum and the ongoing commitment to social justice, according to the city’s website.

Mayor Justin Wilson is also set to speak at the event.

The meeting is part of Alexandria’s Community Remembrance and Reconciliation project and the ongoing Equal Justice Initiative work aimed at examining the city’s civil rights history. Members of the committee are expected to attend and provide updates on the project’s work, as well as efforts to place markers for the two known lynchings that took place in Alexandria.

Photo via National Park Service/Flickr

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