“Back to School” Next to Our University: The History of a Long-standing Black Community in Fairfax

Aims and Findings

The original aim for this project was to find where the Black community lived during an expansionist phase of George Mason College in the 1960s. While this goal proved to be too open-ended, it raised key questions. These questions, in turn, focused the research plan on a School Street neighborhood that used to exist across from our university. The fieldwork that followed sought to rediscover the lives of Black individuals and families in that area, circled with blue ink on the map above, and trace what became of their property.  Did they sell their homes and land? Were they forced to move away?  Why has the School Street community vanished? These specific questions guided the next steps of inquiry.  

The John C. Wood papers in the University Libraries' Special Collections Research Center offered information regarding properties that may have been listed for acquisition by George Mason College (GMC), the parent school of George Mason University (GMU).  School Street was mentioned in these Wood papers. The next path in the research trail led to the Fairfax County Court House where archival work was assisted by Georgia Brown. In this repository of legal records, relevant real estate and tax documents were found, which detailed the building of certain subdivisions (designated by Jim Crow law for Black people).  These properties were located in an area several miles away from GMU. Some folders referenced a School Street neighborhood.  It was right next door to our university.

First established in 1920, the School Street community welcomed and supported generations of Black homeowners. The original property developer, John Rust, bought the land, subdivided it, and sold parcels to interested parties, some of whom were freed slaves. More details of these transactions are provided in one exhibit.

This fascinating information did not complete a full picture of School Street. Some more missing pieces came from Elaine McRey who works at the Virginia Room of the Fairfax Public Library. Her additional resources helped to put together a more accurate picture of the area founded by John Rust. From this picture, certain properties were traced to land that George Mason College may have been interested in purchasing at one time.

This story of how one long-standing Black community came to coexist with a modern college next door is part of the history of suburbanization in Northern Virginia.  How processes of rapid population growth and property development placed pressure on School Street residents to leave their homes should be the subject of further research.  One thing is certain. The original School Street properties are no longer there.

Join me as we go "Back to School."

By Sydney-Alexandria Hardy


"A Bit of Va. History is on the Block"

Developer Makes Bid for Last Black Enclave in Fairfax City


For seven decades, the rhythms of life have been simple on the dead-end road called School Street in Fairfax City.

Sheets clap loudly on clotheslines, rusted Ford trucks wait on jacks for long-forgotten repairs, grandparents rock on porches, keeping watch on children rolling up and down the street, and smells of spices from cooked crab seep through screen doors. Strange cars wandering down the country lane are watched closely.

Three generations after more than a dozen families brought and cleared the land, School Street is Fairfax City's last old-time black neighborhood. Now time has turned the corner off of busy Route 123, and residents are negotiating to sell their homes, and a bit of social history, to a developer.

"They are going to get rid of School Street", said Virginia Williams, 74, who has lived there since 1936, when she and her husband moved into a four-room shack along the mile-long street where about 15 frame houses remain. But Williams, whose father's park pavilion once featured Duke Ellington, vowed never to leave, no matter what the price.

"They asked me to sell and I said forget it", Williams said. "I'm poor as a church mouse, even so I'm satisfied. If I die and they burn the house down, I'm still going to have this land."

Most residents--many of them retired--are far more hospitable to the developer, who is seeking to put up luxury homes and has offered about $550,000 per acre.

"When I'm gone , I could care less what is here. What I am concerned about is what will pay us the most money per square foot," said Jean Carter, whose husband built the house in which she lives. Carter and her husband came to the street in 1951 and brought three-fourths of acre for $1,500.

"Fairfax is the place to be if you can afford it," said Carter, who said that her roof leaks and repairs to her house are pulling at her fixed income. She and other residents plan to take the money they make on their land and buy houses in the area.

The history of the street goes back to the early 1900's, when Fairfax City was still divided by black and white. Many of the area's blacks had lived as tenants along Main Street, which is now downtown.

After a fire burned down the district in about 1920, a developer, John Rust, brought the land around School Street, subdivided it and sold it to the tenants, some of whom were freed slaves.

"I'm sure if their ancestors knew they were selling, they would turn over in their graves," said George A. Hamill, a local historian. "Many of the lots have been in families generation after generation."

City Council member John Mason said he had hoped the community would not disappear during the current wave of development. "It's un-fortunate we may lose a significant black community," he said, "but owners are entitled to sell their property, I hope any developer provided provisions for reduced rates for families to stay there."

Michael Ferraguto, president of Ocean Atlantic Development Corp., is proposing to build 240 units, filling the wooded land with luxury town houses and single-family houses that could sell for as much as $500,000 and would be marketed to young professionals.

Ferraguto said the company is under contract with 35 property owners to buy 30 acres. He said the total purchase price could be $15 million to $16 million, making millionaires of some of the residents, many of whom are living on Social Security.

"The residents came to me to sell me their land," Ferraguto said. "I think for a lot of them, that's their retirement. We're happy to be the buyer."

Ferraguto's plan, which has not been officially submitted to the council, would require a zoning change to allow more houses per acre. Several residents who are under contract to Ferraguto said they hope the city will allow more density, and thus more money for the land.

Anthony Downs, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that the disappearance of suburban black neighborhoods is occurring across the country. "In the South in particular, there were clusters of blacks living in the midst of whites. They had long-established communities there, and the suburb grew out to them," he said. "They are under tremendous pressure to sell out to developers who want to use land for more expensive houses."

John Kromkowski, president of the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs, has been researching the transformation of neighborhoods nationwide. He has watched ethnic neighborhoods fold and sell out, and has seen other residents become stubborn about their communities and fight off developers.

"It's a choice people make, "Kromkowski said. "All sorts of folk songs have been made about it. 'I gave up my old ways, came to the city, lost my soul, now I'm going back to the country.'

"A very important part of American life is being lost. Larger suburban and urban areas are expanding and gobbling up ethnic enclaves."

In time, Virginia Willaims's home --a big yellow house with black shutters almost buried under flowers and vines that stands smack in the middle of the block --may remains the street's sole monument to a lost generation. The developer said he plans to build around Williams’s house.

"I may be the only black woman down here," Williams said as she sat among her polished antique furniture and etchings of Fairfax when she was a girl. "My little house is fixed up the best I could. He can build right around me. I got my flowers and my bushes and my trees. I don't mind being here with high-rises around me. They can't come no closer to my property than I let them."


Mass Sellout is Facing Opposition: Neighbors, City Council Could Scuttle Fairfax City Homeowners' Plans


Most of the property owners along Fairfax City's School Street comprise the latest group of Washington area residents seeking to reap huge profits by selling their properties en masse to a developer. But they are facing opposition from the city government and a couple of their neighbors.

Some of the owners believe they can get nearly $500,000 each for their individual properties, which now are assessed as worth as much as $75,000, if the city agrees to a rezoning of the 30-acre tract townhouse development. The land-use plan now in effect would allow only four residences per acre, a level too low to attract a satisfactory offer, according to Yvonne Roberts, a member of the neighborhood steering committee working to arrange the sale.

"We will definitely not go below $10 [a square foot] and we hope for about $13," Roberts said. A total of 25 of the property owners want to sell their land, but two are opposed. Most houses in the neighborhood now sit on one-acre lots.

The proposed deal is the work of Thomas A. Clary, an economist and former federal community planning official, who spearheaded one the Washington area's first group sales several years ago in his Arlington neighborhood. Clary was so successful that he now does "community assemblages" for a living.

Residents of more and more older neighborhoods in the Washington area located in the path of spreading commercial and residential development are joining forces in an effort to get the best price possible for thier properties. Such group sales usually net owners two or three times more than they would get by selling their properties individually, Clary said.

Clary said he believes that $11 to $12 a square foot is a realistic price for the tract along School Street, which nestles against the southwestern boundary of Fairfax City near George Mason University. The development proposal calls for construction of town houses that would sell for about $250,000 a piece. Five developers have expressed interest in developing the property, but all their offers are contingent on a rezoning of the land, Clary said.

The city government, however, "has totally different plans" for the neighborhood, said Peggy T. Wagner, the city's community development and planning director. "We think the community is handsome. We've invested money in it [in recent street repaving and other improvements] and we are interested in preserving it as a viable neighborhood."

Although the area is currently zoned for two houses per acre, the city land-use plan would permit an increase to four single-family detached homes an acre, Wagner said. Rezoning to the four-unit level would stand a good chance of being approved, but she said the city council has a policy of disapproving zoning changes not allowed under the land-use plan.

Several city officials said they are concerned about the decline in the number of families with children in Fairfax City's aging population of 20,500, and fear decreasing enrollment in the city's schools. About 90 percent of the city's land area is already developed, with town houses and condominiums making up the bulk of recent development.

City council member John Mason, said, "The single, overriding need in the city is for single-family [detached] homes. There is no place for families to move up to." Studies have shown that detached houses have larger proportion of children living in them than apartments and townhouses, according to Mason and Mayor George T. Snyder Jr.

Snyder said he has "consistently voted against rezoning" needed for apartment and town house development because he is a "strong believer in single-family detached homes versus more commercial or heavily dense" residential development. He said he could not comment on proposals for School Street because a rezoning application could come before the city council in the future.

Local government opposition has scuttled some attempts to assemble property in the past, Clary said. Homeowners' efforts to sell as a group were dropped in the Fairfax Farms subdivision near the Fair Oaks shopping mall and another Fairfax Country neighborhood when it became clear the local officials would not approve the necessary rezoning and amendments to the land-use plan.

School Street residents, despite the opposition from city officials, are still hopeful of winning the needed zoning changes.

The area is a close-knit, long-established neighborhood where most of the houses are owner occupied. Many families have been on the street for decades, including one woman who has lived there for 50 years. Some do not want to leave, but others believe redevelopment inevitably will push them out, Roberts said.

The steering committee’s object is to "get as much as we can for [property owners] because we will never again in this life be privileged to own this size property," said Stanley Smith, a building inspector for Fairfax County and a member of the steering committee. "Most people here are 60 or older. They have worked and struggled all their lives for what they have and they are entitled to get what they want for it," he said.

One School Street owner who opposes the assemblage is W. Rembert Simpson, a builder. He believes the property is worth far less than $10 a square foot. The proposal "flies directly in the face of the comprehensive plan," Simpson said. He said he does not expect the city council to agree to the rezoning sought by most of the property owners.

If the homeowners do not sell as a group, "their option is to sit where they are and be picked off one at a time by speculators," for less money than they can expect by selling as a group, Clary said. He said he sympathizes with the residents who are reluctant to leave. "I understand these emotions. What happens is you resist development initially" but finally "you realize redevelopment is inevitable."

He said his company, DeRand Realty Corp., "only works with communities that are adversely impacted by rapid growth or transportation." Office and apartment development "has exploded" around the School Street community, in Fairfax City and neighboring Fairfax County, making the community "ready for development, “he said.

DeRand and Long and Foster Realtors are working together on the assemblage project and will split the 6 percent commission specified in the proposal. Gene Klein, who owns two lots on School Street but does not live there, and his daughter Carrie Klein, a sales agent with Long and Foster, went to DeRand with the idea of uniting the homeowners in an agreement to sell the property, Clary said.

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