Home > A Brief Historical Sketch of the African American Presence in Falls Church, Virginia

A Brief Historical Sketch of the African American Presence in Falls Church, Virginia

Pre-1865 Located along the Little Falls of the Potomac River, Fairfax County was located in colonial Virginia’s western frontier. In 1699, a large log home, referred to as Big Chimneys was erected on Annandale Road in Fairfax County and it marks the earliest-known English settlement in the Falls Church area. Three centuries later, residents erected The Falls Church (the Anglican Church from which the town takes its name), and it became the center of the colonial agricultural settlement. During this nascent period, small farms and tobacco-producing plantations dotted the landscape of this Northern Virginia neighborhood. The main industry in the area was farming and most African Americans worked as enslaved laborers on the farms and plantations. Tobacco however by the eighteenth century, had significantly depleted the soil and many farmers were forced to shift to small grain production. In the changing agricultural economy, many of the enslaved continued to engage in agricultural labor, but others worked as household servants, blacksmiths, carpenters, and other skilled artisans. Additionally, the enslaved worked and lived in close proximity to the small number of free blacks in antebellum Falls Church. During the Civil War, in the midst of the competing forces of slavery and freedom, white northern teachers, J. D. Reed and his sister Betsy Reed, founded the Falls Church Colored School. In 1864, J. D. Reed was killed by Confederate soldiers and thereafter the school was supported by the black community. Frank Brooks, a local African American, was also murdered by Confederate soldiers when he sounded the alarm that Mosby Raiders were in the village. Some African Americans participated in a local paramilitary group called the “Home Guard,” while others, like James Lee, served in the U.S. Colored Troops during the war. In the final years of slavery, some free blacks, like Harriet Brice were able to purchase land. According to the southern claims transcript of Harriet Brice, she was a landowner by 1864 and her enslaved husband George helped her farm the land. Brice’s attainment of land and entrepreneurial spirit shaped the development of the freed black community in Falls Church. They represent a generation of African American men and women that began to acquire their freedom and land at the conclusion of slavery and with skill and determination became the bedrock of the free black community that expanded as self-sufficient farmers, entrepreneurs, and skilled artisans. 1865-1890 With the end of the Civil War and slavery in 1865, a maturing African American community in Falls Church sought independence, land, and education. In freedom, they leveraged the skills they gained under the yoke of slavery and developed a resilient and dynamic African American community. The black Baptist and Methodist prayed and worshipped together until 1867 when the Methodist were able to erect their church, the First Methodist Episcopal Church. The very first services were held in the home of Harriet and George Brice until the first log building was erected for services and Sunday school. Within the next few years, under the leadership of Reverend John W. Galloway, the congregation expanded and was able to build a new parsonage to replace the log structure. Inspired by the initiative of black Methodist parishioners, the Baptist raised funds to build their own house of worship. In 1872, the Second Baptist Church was built and its two-story building functioned as a church and school for the black Baptist of Falls Church. By 1900, Reverend George W. Powell became the head of the Baptist congregation and counseled his laity to become landowners and valued education. By the 1870s, Galloway United Methodist Church, and the Second Baptist Church, were pillars of black spiritual life in Falls Church. Not only had the two principle black churches in Falls Church built their own institutions by the 1870s, but a propertied black elite had also emerged. Between 1867 and 1868 James and Charles Lee, two brothers, purchased land around the area know today as Tinner Hill. According the 1870 census, both James and Charles Lee owned land valued at 200 dollars in the township of Falls Church. Other Africans Americans followed their lead, and purchased land along Annadale Road. The brothers and other African American landowners provided leadership for the black community in economic advancement, education, and racial politics. Also prominent among the black leaders were Frederick Foote, Sr. and Jr., Harriett and George Brice, Charles Tinner, and George Thomas. In 1876, one year after Falls Church became an independent town in Fairfax County, Frederick Foote, Jr. entered town politics and became the town constable. This was the beginning of Foote's foray into local politics and in 1881 he became the first African American to be elected to the Town Council in Falls Church. Well respected in the community, Foote successfully combined politics and entrepreneurship; he owned a grocery store at the cross roads of Lee Hwy and Leesburg Pike. Despite securing some gains during Reconstruction, by the 1880s African American residents of Falls Church saw an attenuation of their civil rights and political power. In 1887, the town officials voted to annex a portion of Falls Church to Fairfax County. As a result of this politically motivated action, the predominately black and Republican portion of the town, known as the “colored settlement” was retro-ceded to Fairfax County. 1890- 1920 The 1887 gerrymandering of the town of Falls Church appears to have had little impact on the daily lives of black residents. The black skilled craftsmen and business owners continued to serve the larger community, as they had before the 1887, and persevered against the rising tide of racial hostility (that was local and statewide). Amidst these changes, African Americans prayed, played, learned, and worked together to support their visions of freedom and citizenship. As the end of the nineteenth century neared, black Falls Church residents witnessed the abandonment of equality and the erosion of their civil rights. The first two decades of the twentieth century, referred to as the “the Nadir,” was marked by an increasingly racialized system of economic, political and social discrimination. In 1912, the Virginia General Assembly initiated legislation to allow cities and towns to create segregated residential neighborhoods. Two years later, motivated by the state ordinance, the Falls Church Town Council proposed a similar regulation to create an African American residential district in which only black people could reside. Given the long history of black landownership in the town, this ordinance would have forced many black families out of the “white only” designated neighborhoods. In 1915, unwilling to tolerate the rising tide of white supremacy, African American leaders gathered to discuss how to prevent the enforcement of the racially divisive legislation. One of the key organizers of the community leaders was longtime resident of Falls Church, Edwin B. Henderson. An active member of the Washington D.C. chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he and other civic-minded African Americans met at the home of Joseph Tinner, and established the Colored Citizens Protective League (CCPL). To resist the segregationist efforts, the CCPL sued the Town of Falls Church. While they their day in court, CCPL contacted the National NAACP and requested charter status for the organization. In 1917 they were granted a charter for the Falls Church and Vicinity Branch of the NAACP, and Joseph B. Tinner became the president of the first rural chapter of the NAACP. The diligent members persisted and eventually the town officials abdicated its restrictive residential ordinance. Still, for many Falls Church residents, outside the Town, the NAACP efforts proved to be a pyrrhic victory. African Americans beyond town limits found that they were excluded from the newly developed neighborhoods based on restrictive covenants. 1920-1950 During its first decade, the Falls Church NAACP was a very active branch. It broadened its influence and increased it membership. At a NAACP National convention in the 1940s, the Fairfax Branch was recognized as one of the best branches in the entire nation. They were particularly active in the areas of seeking better education for African Americans, challenging segregated transportation, demanding utility and mail service in their community and fair and equal access to quality goods and services. Despite the unfortunate continuation of racial discrimination in the 1920s, blacks in Falls Church witnessed some positive developments. In 1919, Mary Ellen Henderson, Edwin Henderson’s wife, reopened the Falls Church Colored School that was originally established around 1887 on land donated Mr. James Lee for that purpose. Falls Church had a vibrant African American community with churches, men’s and women’s social and civic clubs, sports teams and schools. African American students did not however have access to a secondary education in Fairfax County. An education after the seventh grade required African American students to travel to the regional vocational school for African Americans in Manassas, Virginia. Alternatively, if students wanted to pursue a non-vocational track of study, they had to use an address of someone who resided in Washington, DC and travel into the district every day. The opportunity for African American children in grades kindergarten through seventh grade was terribly unequal, as well. The Falls Church Colored School was a two-room wood framed schoolhouse with no running water, no indoor toilet facility and a pot belly stove in the middle of the classroom for heat in winter. The school in Falls Church for whites was the Jefferson Institute. Their school was a brick two-story structure with indoor plumbing and central heat. Each grade level had a teacher and room. The facilities were separate but definitely not equal. Discrimination in education, demonstrated the commitment to racial segregation in Virginia and throughout the South. During this period, African American men and women launched a progressive agenda to dismantle obstacles to educational equality. The NAACP education committee sent Mary Ellen Henderson and Ollie Tinner to Fairfax County School Board of Education meetings on a consistent basis to request improved school facilities. For more than twenty years, the NAACP implored the Board to meet their demands. The campaign failed. Undeterred, Mary Ellen Henderson and other NAACP member conducted a disparity study on Fairfax County Public Schools. The results of the study showed that only 2.4 cents out of every dollar was spent on African American students, while 97.6 cents out of every dollar was spent on white students in Fairfax County. Finally, in 1949, a new modern school was opened for African American students. This was a milestone accomplishment for African American men, women and children in Falls Church. 1950-1970 After World War II Fairfax County flourished because of and its proximity to Washington D.C. and Alexandria. Up to the 1940s, most black Falls Church residents continued to work as skilled artisans, small farmers, domestic workers, and in other service industry positions. Some African Americans were able to do well as business owners, such as George Taylor, who was a shoemaker, Louisa M. Henderson, who operated a successful store, and Allan and Lola Smith who ran the Blossum Inn, the only restaurant and dance hall for African Americans in Falls Church. Additionally, the Tinner family was also well known for their stonemason and well digging services. The demographic growth of the city in the post World War II era marked a time of great change and increased employment opportunities for the African Americans in the Falls Church community. In particular, federal service jobs offered new options and many were willing to commute daily into District of Columbia. Even white middle-class families found the short commute to D.C. appealing and added to the expanding population of Fairfax County. To meet the increased housing and infrastructure demand, many of the family farms were converted into sub-divisions and Seven Corners Shopping Center was built to provide goods and services to a growing suburban community. The shopping center was built on land formerly ow In the midst of the population and economic changes, African American students and their families endured persistent resistance to full integration of its schools. By 1959, nine years after Falls Church became an independent city, Africans Americans and their supporters continued to advocate for the desegregation of the public schools. Finally, in September 1961, three black students attended their first integrated classes in Falls Church. With these first few students, the integration of Falls Church schools preceded Fairfax by four years. Marian Costner was one of those brave young people and she became the first African American student to graduate from George Mason High School.

A collaborative project between: African and African American Studies, George Mason University, and the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation. Funding was provided in part by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.