Bridgett Town: Conceived Spaces
The magisterial district in which the community of Bridgett Town was located is called Gainesville. Named after Thomas B. Gaines, this honorific to his family is recorded on census forms, included on official government letterhead, used to name schools, emblazoned on children’s sports team uniforms, and inscribed on ballots. In western Prince William County, the name is ubiquitous. What is not so obvious is the history of this moniker, that of an enslaver who demanded that a train station be named after him as part of the sale of a portion of his land to Manassas Gap Railroad.2 The production of the space that is referred to as Gainesville is a social construct drawn, named, and defined by the dominant culture and, therefore, an apt example of the ways the Conceived Space is organized as it engrains a particular version of history in the present by tying space to a name from the antebellum South.
Hostile Nostalgia demands that the organization of space is unalterable due to the fact that the name or the organizational structure has history and that history gives it value or permanence. This again harkens back to the dichotomy of memory that Hostile Nostalgia seeks to camouflage: the organization of a space as a historic social construct and the demand that the organization of that space is unchangeable. The tautology feeds itself by disregarding the malleability of space and the agency of dominance that went into the creation of that constructed space. As Lefebvre points out, “Absolute space…was a product of the bonds of consanguinity, soil and language, but out of it evolved a space which was relativized and historical.”3 The names that we give places, the way we organize those spaces, and the meaning connoted through these constructs are the spatial codes that define a community and its power structure both physically and through a constructed nostalgia. Therefore, the deconstruction of this code can become a tool for dismantling the barriers that Hostile Nostalgia constructs to obscure it.
Trouillot discusses the power of names in the definition of space through his analysis of Sans Souci, an imposing structure built by Henry Christophe following the Haitian Revolution. Was the name of the building evocative of the French phrase for carefree to connote the atmosphere of a Haitian Shangri-la,4 an hommage to a Prussian palace built during the European Enlightenment in order to link those ideals with the revolution in Haiti,5 or named after a man killed by Henry Christophe to usurp the name from that of a rebel to that of a symbol of his reign?6 Each interpretation of the name redefines the space. This speaks to the power of names, a concept well understood by the descendants of Bridgett Town.
The construction of space can be implicit or explicit, as both become the constructed barriers of Hostile Nostalgia. The explicit conceptual construction of space can be seen more concretely in the production of maps. In 1901, Bridgett Town was listed on the map of Prince William County, although it was misspelled as Bridgetown, but theretofore it disappeared. Route 680, known as Bridgett Town Road was renamed Jackson Hollow Road.
The Power of Names
Residents discuss the names of Bridgett Town Road
and Stonewall Jackson High School.
However, interrogating the land use records of the time reveals that the maps may have changed but the people continued to occupy the space both physically and conceptually through deeds and documentation.
However, interrogating the land use records of the time reveals that the maps may have changed, but the people continued to occupy the space both physically and conceptually through deeds and documentation. However, records also show how the land was lost, as the descendants of Bridgett Town remember.
Without funds to pay a lawyer to draw up a will,
many black residents lost their land to the government after they passed.
We also see the explicit construction of space in the separation of schools based on race. The separation of schools fulfills two functions in the organization of space: it codifies the othering of one group in subservience to the dominant group in its terminology (white children went to Schools, black children went to Colored Schools), while ensuring that this social spacial construct is passed on to the next generation by engraining it into the lived experiences of children.
McKitterick asks, “What is it about space, place, and blackness—the uneven sites of physical and experiential ‘difference’—that derange the landscape and its inhabitants?”7 It is a question of who is deserving of control over the definition and use of space in a community. In 1907 James Ashby, a white man living in Waterfall, proposed building a distillery in the area of Bridgett Town. The residents organized a petition asking the county to stop the operation of the distillery as it would change the character of their community. It is unclear in the record whether James Ashby was forced to shut down his distillery, nonetheless, Waterfall gained a reputation as a rough place due to public drunkenness.8
The conceptual organization of the use of space affected the lived space. When officials attempted to move a polling place from Haymarket to the town of Gainesville, there appears to have been a fierce debate on the subject. It is understandable when considering that the location of the polling place would connote it as the power center of the area. James Bridgett was a participant in that debate, speaking to the black community's active involvement in the definition of the space in which they were living.9
These incidents are important to note because they speak to the trope of Hostile Nostalgia that involvement equates to agency and that subjugated communities simply accepted their plight leading people in the dominant group to think that there was a time when there was no pushback against their efforts of dominance. “[C]ollective-restorative nostalgia is driven by a politics of resentment, which inspires the nostalgic individual's radical disillusionment with the current social and political order in favour of the way things were in the unsullied heartland, during the golden age.”10 Whether it was supporting the acquisition of supplies for Antioch-McCrae, petitioning to stop a distillery, founding a church, opening a store so that people in the community could purchase items in an environment of mutual respect, or debating where polling places should be located, the community of Bridgett Town never gave up their power to shape the Conceived Space in which they were living; that power was taken through a systematic effort by the dominant culture to exert their will over the organization of space.
The residents of Bridgett Town never surrendered their agency.
Whether it was choosing not to go to a segregated movie theater,
fighting Confederate iconography, pushing back against false teaching, or voting,
members of the black community in the area never stopped trying to shape space around them.
While the organization of some space, like segregated schools, is explicit, much of it is also implicit. Esther Washington reported that in Waterfall, there was a white side of the street and a black side of the street. She also talked about the risks that black families faced for challenging the dominant race’s perception of who deserved the fullest use of space when her son was bothered by another student putting her hair on his desk. Finally, her daughter, Patricia Willis, spoke to the power that names have in communicating dominance and how that dominance can be challenged.
Claiming space and recognizing when space was being limited was a way
for the black community to define their sense of space.
But it did not come without risks.
An additional way that space can be defined is by who is given entrance to live there. As Cecil D. Hylton was redefining the eastern section of Prince William County with the construction of massive suburban neighborhoods11 there was a simultaneous influx of new residents into the western portion of the county. For decades, the demographics of the Gainesville District remained relatively steady with approximately 40% of the population being African American and 60% of the population being white. Those numbers began to diverge in the 1970s as more white people moved to suburbia, and by 1993, the Gainesville District was 93% white. Today, while Prince William County as a whole is a majority-minority community,12 according to geodata provided by Social Explorer, the Gainesville District remains well over 50% white.13
When the percentage of the white population in Gainesville hit its zenith in the 1990s, Prince William County made a major land use change with the creation of a special overlay district known as the Rural Crescent. One of the stated goals of this district was “Preservation of areas of rural character and significant cultural/historical resources.”14 High-density development would be directed to the eastern portions of Prince William County, while new development in the western portion would be characterized by 10+ acre lots to create estates with sprawling lawns. One of the results of this land use policy was the racial bifurcation of the county, with the western sections being majority white and the eastern sections being majority people of color.
While the history of the western portion of Prince William County featured established African American communities such as Bridgett Town, the influx of new residents and the contortion of Hostile Nostalgia has led to an imagined past that residents are fighting to maintain, often in the name of protecting history without fully recognizing the complexity of that history.