Why Ilda Matters - In Wesley's Footsteps

– Public historian Marion R. Dobbins, a descendant of the Lee-Collins family of The Pines in Merrifield, 2008

Dennis Howard ensured his Ilda ancestors were remembered and that a half-forgotten Black cemetery on Guinea Road, slated for demolition by road-building, was spared, researched and respectfully reinterred.

Beyond antiquarian interest, why do these old-time stories matter now? Ask Ilda descendants who missed out on the mid-century land boom. Ask locals like Marion Dobbins and the late Dennis Howard, who remember gathering around pianos and under orchard trees in places now lost to "progress." Ask Wesley Gibson’s widow, Courtney, and their Southwest D.C. neighbors forced out of a bustling 1950s rowhouse community. Ask the people living there now in public housing that's falling apart while they await progress on a now years-old promise of rehabilitation according to build-first principles that would prevent displacement -- but only if it happens.[1]

Ilda's story reverberates today as we consider not just urban land use and equity but possible reparations. Such histories of displacement encourage us to address these issues more broadly, to think about ways to redress not just slavery but ensuing generational insults of displacement, disenfranchisement and deprivation of equity. Destabilizing Black communities like Ilda and The Pines – denying their right to remain – erased what should have been generations of dignity and equity, measured in both dollars and the “social capital” of education, networks and cultural influence.

“We know that heritage can foster a community’s sense of identity and belonging, and help residents and visitors alike understand a community’s past, present and intentions for the future," say the organizers of the forthcoming 11th Street Bridge Park linking historically Black communities across the Anacostia River. "But who gets to tell histories?” They are wrestling with ways to avoid displacement as they build a new amenity not far from Wesley’s Sixth Street address.[2]

Elevating stories like Ilda’s helps us see through-lines and recognize our personal responsibility to redress, or at least interrupt, such patterns. Knowing that we walk where others’ built and strived – as I do every day, mindful of Wesley Gibson and the bustling sidewalks of old Southwest – should gird us for the effort. We cannot go back in time to agitate for a Black school in early Ilda. We cannot restore the lost headstones of the Merrifield cemetery obliterated by eminent domain, now "recovered" at the edge of a parking lot at Pine Ridge Park. What we can do is reinforce Black activism and Black communities around us.

As historians, we can continue to metaphorically recover those lost headstones, disinter their buried narratives, to contest the assumptions that make mindless displacement seem acceptable or routine. McKittrick says in Demonic Grounds that, like the 11th Street Bridge planners, we must consider how “practices of domination” connect with “alternative geographic perspectives and spatial matters that may not replicate what we think we know, or have been taught, about our surroundings.”[3] This story of Ilda is one of those alternative perspectives.

11th Street Bridge Park rendering


"The 11th Street Bridge Park will physically connect both sides of the Anacostia River. It’s a 1,200-foot-long, pedestrian-only expanse that will let people stroll between Capitol Hill and Anacostia. The big question is whether it will socially connect them." -- Shaun Courtney, Washingtonian, April 14, 2017

Further study of Ilda and the forces that played on it could tell us so much:

  • Studying Black and white land-ownership patterns could indicate if and how much Black farms’ sizes affect their viability. One could compare land tax rolls, which were (conveniently? astonishingly?) segregated for many years by race, corroborating them with deeds and transaction records to assess race-based links between farm values and longevity on the land. Such research might also help us understand how the most fortunate owners and communities resisted dislocation and dissipation of their wealth.
  • What did it mean for Ilda to be, as so many refer to it, “interracial”? Did its heavy white presence weaken the Black community? Was its composition unique in Fairfax, where we more often hear of places like Merrifield where, as descendant Dennis Howard recalled, “Gallows Road was a dividing line between blacks and whites. Blacks were on the east side of Gallows Road. Whites were on the west …”[4] Besides Ilda, where did Black- and white-owned plats abut one another in no particular pattern, as opposed to clustering? Knowing this would help us understand how Black communal growth occurred and how it affected local economies and lives.
  • Tracking Gibson and Parker descendants beyond Fairfax, in New England and D.C., might open a window on people we might consider the middle and upper classes among refugees from Jim Crow states. On a personal level, it would feel great to find and "meet" and, on the page at least, reunite them.

No white entity or people erased Blackness from Ilda as deliberately and literally as Christophe buried the glory of Sans Souci. But the effects were the same. For those pulling the strings, driving the political and veritable bulldozers, it was as if such communities had never existed. The Fight for Fairfax, a gauzy encomium to the developers and planners behind the county’s mid-20th century transformation, describes “the two distinct views emerging about how Fairfax County should evolve” [emphasis added] as, on one hand, “newcomers wanting to maintain the county’s pastoral qualities,” and on the other, “rural landed gentry wishing to preserve the highest financial value of their properties.” These latter also enjoyed, unsurprisingly, “the support of real estate developers, pro-business groups like the chamber of commerce, and the board of supervisors.”[5]

Descendant-historian Marion R. Dobbins, thinking of lost church Sundays at The Pines among extended family, can think of more than two constituencies with stakes in the land. Her reflections refute Fight's ahistorical narrative designed to comfort the powerful: “If you go into Merrifield now – they’ve even changed the name to the ‘Mosaic District’… its historical significance has been lost through gentrification,” she laments. “All of those African Americans who created that community … there’s no remnants of them left. And if you go to people and you say, you know, ‘I grew up in Merrifield,’ and they‘ll look at me and they’re like, ‘Really?’”

Yes. Really. 


[1] Abigail Williams, “DC’s Public Housing Authority Renews Promise to ‘Build First,’” Street Sense Media, April 6, 2022, https://www.streetsensemedia.org/article/dcs-public-housing-authority-renews-promise-to-build-first/.

[2] “Designing Black Spaces – Building Bridges Across the River,” accessed April 26, 2023, https://bbardc.org/designing-black-spaces/.

[3] McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, xxvi.

[4] Dennis Howard oral history, 822.

[5] Banham, The Fight for Fairfax, 22.

Mandy Katz

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