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Community leaders are trying to save Gum Springs from fading into history

A sign welcoming all to Gum Springs, at the corner of Fordson Road and Richmond Highway (staff photo by Matt Blitz)

As motorists make the turn onto Fordson Road from Richmond Highway, they are greeted by a green sign welcoming all to Gum Springs. Underneath the bolded letters, it reads “1833.”

Gum Springs is perhaps the most historically significant Black community in Fairfax County. It was founded nearly two centuries ago by West Ford, a former enslaved person at Mount Vernon who was freed.

A number of his descendants also believe he’s the only son of George Washington, a claim Mount Vernon officials have denied.

What isn’t disputed is that the family of the nation’s first president deeded Ford 160 acres of land. In 1833, he sold that land to purchase 214 acres in what is now the southeastern portion of Fairfax County.

He named this new community “Gum Springs,” supposedly after a tree and a spring where Washington watered his horses.

And, for the last 189 years, Gum Springs has been home to thousands of people that were not necessarily always welcomed in the county.

“Gum Springs gave African-Americans a place of being,” Ron Chase, director of the Gum Springs Historical Society and Museum, told FFXnow on a recent summer afternoon. He’s lived here nearly all of his life and is one of potentially 500 descendants of the original residents. “It gave them a sanctuary. It gave them a place to live.”

But community leaders say Gum Springs’ present and future are now threatened.

Only about 30% of residents who live in the community today are Black, according to 2021 county data.

There are the typical culprits, like urban sprawl, road construction, gentrification, and the exploding house market. But what makes this situation particularly unique is Gum Springs’ contributions to not just county history, but its place in American lore.

“We are constantly being challenged,” Queenie Cox, president of the New Gum Springs Civic Association, told FFXnow. ” This community is [under threat] of being dismantled, and eliminated for its contribution to this [nation’s] history and to the history of our first president of the United States.”

A sign about Gum Springs (staff photo by Matt Blitz)

Preserving the identity of Gum Springs

Both Cox and Chase say there’s a litany of recurring battles that Gum Springs keeps having to fight to keep the community alive.

For one, there’s the exploding housing market, bringing new residents to the historic community. It’s in a major corridor, only a few miles away from Old Town Alexandria, while being a manageable commute from the District.

Many of the single-family homes for sale today are going for more than a quarter of a million dollars, according to Redfin.

“The people who move in, most don’t have a connection or want a connection to the community and its history and heritage,” Cox said. “They view the area pretty much as affordable housing and great access to various locations.”

Cox takes issue with the formation of a new homeowners association within Gum Springs’ borders. Starting a new HOA instead of joining Gum Springs’ diminishes the historic Black community, Cox says.

But state law required the new association be formed to represent 11 homeowners in the development on Holland Court, said the association’s president Bill Kane.

Nonetheless, as more residents move in, some fear Gum Springs’ identity is being threatened.

That’s why Cox has made it her mission to get the county to officially recognize the borders of Gum Springs, all 214 acres that West Ford first established as the community.

That includes Richmond Highway as the western border while Boswell Ave and Shelhorn Drive is the northern border, Holland Road is the eastern, and Little Hunting Creek is the southern border, according to a map provided by Cox and the West Ford Legacy.

The original borders of Gum Springs (image via Queenie Cox)

“There should not be any question, any dispute about where Gum Springs is,” she said.

She also wants the county to provide and pay for more historical markers, wayfaring, and informational signs.

There are a couple of county-led projects underway that could lead to more historical education about Gum Springs. This includes the Black/African American Experience Project, Historical Marker Project, Story Collection, and the Gum Springs Heritage Resources Study.

Chase wants to make Gum Springs a county “historical overlay district,” which would provide an extra layer of protection to a number of older buildings. Cox thinks the distinction would be too restrictive for homeowners, but agrees some sort of historical designation could be the answer.

Ron Chase at Gum Springs Museum & Cultural Center (staff photo by Matt Blitz)

More broadly, Cox wants Fairfax County to put their money and efforts where their mouths are.

“They are doing, I would say, the bare minimum in protecting this community,” she says. “The only [way] Gum Springs is going to get the protection it needs is that we need to be very vocal and public about it.”

Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck told FFXnow in a statement that the county holds a “complicated history” with Gum Springs and other historically Black communities across the county.

A mix of development conducive policy choices, market influences, and the impacts of discrimination and racism produced county growth and economic development impacts that have excluded Black people from housing and economic opportunities and resulted in the displacement of longtime Black residents and the elimination of Black communities (estimated to be around 35) across the county. This history and more recent development decisions that the community perceives as threatening to its historic and residential character – has led to mistrust about the county’s commitment to protecting, preserving and supporting community endorsed actions. As the District Supervisor, I am dedicated and working hard every day to meet those needs and grow that trust.

Richmond Highway widening

A Virginia Department of Transportation project to widen Richmond Highway isn’t helping that trust. The miles-long project would roughly double the number of lanes on a portion of the road, including through Gum Springs. VDOT is expecting to complete the expansion later this decade.

Last year, the community protested the plan due to safety concerns, comparing it to a similar one they had in 1967 to get a traffic light.

“Why would you do this to the community? [It will bring] too much traffic and safety issues…Surely, all the negatives outweigh the positives,” Chase said. “Another example of not prioritizing Gum Springs.”

VDOT spokesperson Kathleen Leonard told FFXnow in an email that along with the widening, there will be a number of other safety improvements including additional through lanes, “ADA-compliant and consistent bicycle and pedestrian accommodation,” additional crosswalks, and construction over an underpass at Little Hunting Creek.

There are also discussions of removing turning lanes as a means to reduce the number of total lanes, Leonard said. Just last week, VDOT additionally recommended lowering the speed limit on a 7-mile stretch of the road to 35 miles per hour.

But that doesn’t completely satisfy the community leaders. While the design has Richmond Highway going to 11 or 12 lanes, one stretch would widen by an extra lane to 13. That stretch happens to be in Gum Springs.

“Why are you putting 13 lanes only in the Black community?” Cox told The Washington Post last year.

Who was West Ford?

The story of Gum Springs is also the story of West Ford and the question of who he was.

Ford was born in 1784 or 1785 on a plantation owned by the Washington family about 90 miles from Mount Vernon. Ford’s descendants say George Washington visited the plantation and conceived a child with Venus, an enslaved woman.

A 1859 drawing of West Ford (via Wikimedia Commons)

The fact that Washington might’ve even had a child would be a significant departure from how American history has been taught in schools for centuries.

“George Washington was childless. He didn’t have any children with Martha,” Linda Allen Hollis, West Ford’s great-great-great-granddaughter, told FFXnow. “That he might have sired a child with a slave woman…changes the narrative of George Washington.”

Hollis, like many others in her family, believes Washington was Ford’s father and has repeatedly tried to get this claim proven. Mount Vernon has disputed it.

“While we respect the Ford family’s beliefs, after conducting extensive research, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has found no documentation to corroborate the family’s oral tradition of West Ford’s paternity,” the website reads.

Hollis says they’ve requested DNA tests for years, in hopes of putting the question to rest. But the requests have been rejected, she says, even as recently as in the last several months.

Mount Vernon spokesperson Matt Briney confirmed the recent requests to FFXnow, but said even if a DNA test would be done, it could only provide a match to the Washington male line — not a particular individual.

“We are aware of the family’s request. They have requested this several times, however, we stand by our statement that the DNA would be inconclusive,” Briney wrote. “It would require participation by descendants of Washington family members in order to come to the conclusion the family seeks.”

Either way, despite a recent effort by several local historic sites, including Mount Vernon, to tell more complete stories, the possibility that Washington was Ford’s father may be a step too far for some.

“It might be uncomfortable for [people] to think the only son [Washington] had was a Black son,” Hollis said.

The debate over Ford’s ancestry is part of why many in the community fear that the loss of what makes Gum Springs unique and historically significant.

When asked if he’s fearful that people will forget the importance of Gum Springs, Chase is unequivocal.

“Every waking hour, I’m afraid,” he said. “And even when I’m asleep.”

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