The Washington Post

In Fairfax County,

Historic Black community protests Va. highway expansion, reflecting a similar fight from 54 years ago

- BY JUSTIN GEORGE

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.”

 ?? ERIC LEE FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Residents move a casket across Richmond Highway on Thursday to demonstrat­e the possible traffic-related deaths from its expansion in Gum Springs, one of the oldest Black suburban neighborho­ods in the country. The community last called upon the casket in 1967.
ERIC LEE FOR THE WASHINGTON POST Residents move a casket across Richmond Highway on Thursday to demonstrat­e the possible traffic-related deaths from its expansion in Gum Springs, one of the oldest Black suburban neighborho­ods in the country. The community last called upon the casket in 1967.
 ??  ?? TOP: Traffic on Richmond Highway in Gum Springs. ABOVE: On Thursday, people rally against the highway’s proposed expansion.
TOP: Traffic on Richmond Highway in Gum Springs. ABOVE: On Thursday, people rally against the highway’s proposed expansion.
 ?? PHOTOS BY ERIC LEE FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ??
PHOTOS BY ERIC LEE FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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