The Washington Post
In Fairfax County,
Historic Black community protests Va. highway expansion, reflecting a similar fight from 54 years ago
a Black community’s opposition to a highwaywidening project stirs memories of a similar fight in 1967.
When plans for a highway-widening project in Fairfax County shifted and encroached into a historic African American community, residents of Gum Springs were ready.
They had protected their small enclave — one of the oldest Black suburban neighborhoods in the country — for nearly two centuries from unfair housing practices and developers who coveted their neighborhood, which lies within the Hybla Valley area, south of Alexandria.
Residents called up the same Black family that has operated a funeral parlor for decades, asking them to lend a casket as they did in 1967. The people of Gum Springs and other nearby neighborhoods marched to the bustling intersection of Richmond Highway and Sherwood Hall Lane, part of a battle that has forced transportation planners to return to the drawing board.
With the sleek black casket rolled on wheels, the group last week marched into the crosswalk to send a message: Roughly doubling the number of lanes on Richmond Highway to 13 through Gum Springs would endanger the lives of residents who walk or bike to get around. The county’s population has nearly tripled since a casket was last called upon to symbolize frustration over the highway, but residents said inspiration for the sequel was fueled by that protest from 54 years earlier.
“This is where we live, and if you don’t think it’s important, we surely do,” said Ron Chase, 70, who is director of the Gum Springs Historical Society. He was a teenager during his first march along Richmond Highway to protest the road’s conditions.
The proposed project, residents say, would
eat up the buffer between their neighborhood and Richmond Highway, create a more dangerous crossing for pedestrians and, through an accompanying project, encourage crime by digging an underpass into the neighborhood. Transportation officials say the plans are being reviewed and could change to reflect the needs of the community.
From ‘Main Street’ to a change in plans
Embark Richmond Highway is a multiyear Fairfax County and state transportation project to transform about 7½ miles by creating bus rapid transit, bike lanes and walkable paths to encourage retail and residential development, according to county planning documents. County leaders hope the corridor eventually could house a Yellow Line Metro extension from the Huntington station.
Fairfax County wants to create the BRT lanes — a hybrid system incorporating aspects of light rail and public buses — on Richmond Highway from Huntington to Fort Belvoir at a cost of about $730 million, to be completed around 2028. Nine BRT stations are proposed, including one at Gum Springs, where an average of 53,500 vehicles pass through daily.
County transportation officials in 2018 drew up a plan for the corridor that had support from civic associations. Planners envisioned two BRT lanes built into an expanded median of Richmond Highway, surrounded by three or four car lanes on each side, as well as bike and walking paths. It looked like a “Main Street” that any neighborhood might desire, according to the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens’ Association.
The plans were adopted into the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan in March 2018.
But a few months ago, residents were surprised to learn state and county transportation officials had changed the plans. Instead of a stretch of highway built to accommodate transit and pedestrians, they saw more car lanes at the expense of sidewalks and trees.
Mount Vernon Council members don’t know how the plans shifted but raised concerns with county supervisors, who in late July sent plans back to the county transportation department. Katherine Ward, co-chair of the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens’ Associations, blamed state transportation officials, who she said have historically overridden residents’ wishes by pushing for more vehicle lanes.
“VDOT is car-centric. Yes, you are a transportation entity, but that doesn’t mean it has to always be auto," she said. "Transportation is bikes. Transportation is walking. So they just have not matured.”
State and county transportation officials dispute that characterization.
Ellen Kamilakis, a Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman, said the project aims to improve safety by adding lanes, “thereby reducing congestion that can lead to crashes.” She said the project would ensure sidewalks are compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act while crosswalks and underpasses for pedestrians are being built as an alternative to bridges.
Kamilakis said VDOT and the county are responding to concerns about the number of traffic lanes by considering whether turn lanes could be safely removed from design plans. An analysis will be finished later this year.
“Safety is always our top priority, and balancing the needs of all modes is a key consideration at each stage of the project development process,” she said.
Robin Geiger, spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, said planners are evaluating possible lane reductions where the project proposes to expand beyond 10 lanes — such as through Gum Springs. She said results will be shared in early 2022, and planners will seek public comments before making changes.
Geiger said VDOT also will study whether speeds on Richmond Highway should be lowered from 45 mph to 35 mph.
Residents of Gum Springs said they have no plans to watch and wait after feeling they were targeted by the shift in design. While the design had widened Richmond Highway to 11 or 12 lanes at various points, only in one small stretch does it widen to 13, said Queenie Cox, president the New Gum Springs Civic Association.
“Why are you putting 13 lanes only in the Black community?” she said.
‘Do what’s best for us’
Gum Springs, which lies about five miles south of Alexandria, was founded in 1833, when West Ford, a carpenter who once was enslaved by a member of George Washington’s family, bought a 214-acre farm that morphed into the community. A Freedmen’s Bureau school was started at Bethlehem Baptist Church in 1867. That drew more families and, by 1890, lots in the neighborhood were marketed and sold to African Americans.
By 1907, the community had 27 Black landowners, according to an account written by Michael K. Bohn for the New Gum Springs Civic Association. With its own schools and stores, it became an insular haven for African Americans somewhat shielded from the racial disparities and discrimination outside its borders.
The community thrived, boosting some into the middle class, Bohn said. Most residents worked on farms, which were sold for tract home development after World War II, leaving many struggling to find work.
Gum Springs and adjacent Hybla Valley communities have a median household income of $51,270, the lowest along the Richmond Highway corridor that stretches from Alexandria to Fort Belvoir, according to a report for the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority. The area houses more than 18,000 residents, nearly two-thirds of whom are Black or Hispanic.
Over the decades, the community has wrestled with county officials over access to the same services of other suburban developments, such as running water, sewer, streetlights and paved roads. In 1961, officials pushed to demolish homes they considered shanties, prompting Gum Springs residents to create their own housing development corporation and work with the county to create new homes, Bohn said.
As the corridor grew, community leaders say they felt neglected by transportation planners who ignored their pleas to slow traffic.
It was May 1967 when the Rev. David R. Dunlap led about 50 people into the intersection and stopped traffic at rush hour, according to the Washington Evening Star. Citing the deaths of five people at the community’s key intersection, protesters at the time called on state transportation officials to install a long-requested traffic light at Richmond Highway and Sherwood Hall Lane.
Cox, 69, grew up in Gum Springs. Her parents moved to the neighborhood to find better work than picking cotton and peaches. Cox’s father worked for animal control in Alexandria before becoming a truck driver, while her mother was a cook for the school district.
In Gum Springs, Cox said, her family found a vibrant Black community where the streets deadended and residents walked to school or stores, meeting and greeting neighbors along the way. The neighborhood has changed over the years. Many White residents have moved in, but it remains close-knit and active with seniors who were part of past demonstrations over civil rights, housing inequities and amenity disparities.
While other neighborhood groups also were upset at the proposed Richmond Highway changes and began to form a coalition to pressure the state and county, Cox said she wanted to act sooner.
“I just said to them, ‘I’m staying with the group, but I’m still going to protect Gum Springs and do what’s best for us, as well,’ ” she said.
So she began creating fliers with a picture of a casket and the words “Richmond Highway Is Deadly.” On Thursday, some held signs that said “No to 13 lanes,” while a group of demonstrators wheeled the casket into the street.
Cox said residents also don’t want an underpass that’s part of the proposed project. She said it would attract graffiti and vagrants while dissuading people from walking out of fear.
County transportation officials responded to concerns by saying the underpass was designed as a safe alternative to a crosswalk and would be well-lit.
Small shifts open the door for more changes that erode a community like Gum Springs, said Chase, the community historian. It’s not just a road widening, he said. Turn lanes would give the county more reason to expand the road — something he said officials have sought for years. Small businesses and history get erased and the nature of the community changes, Chase said.
“Gum Springs has been able to fight for itself and stay in continuum. When you look at the county, it is supposed to represent this community,” he said. “Here, you have the county doing its own thing. If it was left unchecked — Gum Springs would not be existent.”