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.
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.”
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. Read More
A popular, family-owned southern comfort food restaurant is taking its sweet potato pie to Hybla Valley.
Della J’s Delectables is moving from its Springfield home of the last five years to Mount Vernon Plaza, right off of Richmond Highway near Gum Springs. It will occupy a space that was formerly a Ruby Tuesday’s.
The plan is to start serving at 7692 Richmond Highway by early August, co-owner Jerry Young tells FFXnow, with the old spot in Springfield remaining open until the new one begins operations.
Young explains that they are moving because of space. The restaurant has taken off recently, with one frequent patron telling FFXnow that lines can snake out of the door. The kitchen can get cramped as well, Young notes, with orders coming in and out.
“We’re busy,” Young said. “And we needed something that’s more accommodating for us, our staff, and the public as well.”
Della J’s, known for its soul food and southern cooking, is named after Young’s mom.
He grew up in Alexandria, right behind what was then called T.C. Williams High School, and as a kid, he used to help his mom cook many of the recipes that are now served at the restaurant.
“We were really close,” he said.
Today, cooking and baking is Young’s passion as well as an activity that reminds him of his mom, who died at the relatively young age of 68. And he’s gotten very good at it.
“Cooking is a huge stress reliever for me,” Young said. “I have this ability to just open the cookbook up, look at a recipe, and pretty much nail it the first or second time.”
Young didn’t actually start out in the restaurant business, working for American Express for nearly four decades before finally retiring in 2017.
Years before, though, he first realized that he could sell the dishes he baked and cooked. One night, he brought over a pumpkin cheesecake to a family dinner. His brother, who is a Marine, loved it so much that he encouraged Young to make more.
“I did what he said and started selling them. I had a knack for it,” he said. Read More
Gum Springs, the oldest Black community in Fairfax County, is holding its Juneteenth celebration this weekend as it faces an uncertain future.
The New Gum Springs Civic Association (NGSCA) will celebrate Juneteenth with a community day tomorrow (Saturday), featuring roller skating, food, music, and words from the great-great-great granddaughter of the community’s founder, West Ford.
There will also be a performance by the Caribbean American International Steel Band, NGSCA President Queenie Cox tells FFXnow, along with a special playing of a song written by Dr. Cleve Francis, a cardiologist at Inova Mount Vernon. The doctor/country musician wrote the song in honor of the victims of the Buffalo mass shooting last month.
The event is being held from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Martin Luther King Jr. Park (8115 Fordson Road).
West Ford founded the community of Gum Springs in 1833 on land that he purchased after being freed from slavery at Mount Vernon, where he worked under George Washington. There are also claims that Ford was the son of America’s first president, though Mount Vernon officials have denied that.
In the nearly two centuries since its founding, Gum Springs in the Mount Vernon District has become a well-known historically Black community, but it’s now at risk of disappearing.
“We are constantly being challenged,” said Cox, who grew up in Gum Springs and lives in the house her grandfather built in the 1940s. “This community is [under threat] of being dismantled, eliminated and minimized for its contribution to this [nation’s] history.”
Recently, longtime residents have protested changes they fear could erase the community’s history.
Last year, plans for the Virginia Department of Transportation’s long-gestating widening of Richmond Highway shifted, further encroaching on the borders of Gum Springs. The change left a number of residents feeling like their community is being unfairly targeted.
Another community group, the Holland Court Property Owners Association, has also set up within the borders of Gum Springs, a move that the NGSCA views as intentionally trying to minimize the community’s historical impact.
Cox calls those efforts disrespectful and wrong, noting that other Black communities in the region have experienced similar challenges.
“The steps that certain individuals within the community are taking are contributing to the vanishing Black communities, and it diminishes the contribution that those Black communities have made…to American history,” Cox said.
A Gum Springs Conservation Plan was developed in 2015 as an effort to work with the county to preserve the community. However, Cox says that plan hasn’t fully been reviewed by county staff or adopted by the Board of Supervisors in the seven years since.
Celebrations like the one coming this Saturday are important, because they bring people and awareness to the challenges that Fairfax County’s oldest Black community are facing, Cox says.
“The only way that Gum Springs is going to get the protection it needs is that we have to be very vocal and public about it,” Cox said. “Gum Springs has to fight harder in order to get what other communities in the Mount Vernon District has and continues to achieve.”