The History of ACPS
One of the first experiments in public education in the nation took place in Alexandria. The Alexandria Academy was originally the home of the Washington Free School, founded in 1785 for the purpose of educating orphans and poor children. Robert E. Lee was a student of the academy from 1818 to 1823. It was funded in part by George Washington, with a $4,000 bequest in his will.
The Academy building was vacated after the War of 1812, at which time a group of free blacks established a school for African-American children on the third floor. The Rev. James H. Hanson, the white minister of the black Methodist Episcopal Church, conducted classes there for almost 300 students until 1823, when the building was sold. One of Rev. Hanson’s enslaved students, Alfred Parry, later became a teacher and by the early 1830s had opened his own night school. After an 1837 law forbade the assembly of blacks, Parry managed to open a day school, Mount Hope Academy, by hiring a white man to be present at all times. Located between Duke and Wolfe streets, Mount Hope educated free and enslaved blacks until 1843, when Parry moved to Washington, D.C.
In 1893, establishing an elementary school was one of the first priorities of the residents of the newly-established communities of Del Ray and St. Elmo, which were among the first “trolley suburbs” to be built in Northern Virginia on the outskirts of Washington. The old Washington Alexandria and Mount Vernon electric trolley ran straight down Commonwealth Avenue. The first school in the area opened in 1896, in two rooms in a house at 208 E. Howell Avenue. The teacher was paid $30 a month. Two years later, the school was moved to 204 E. Del Ray.
In 1899, Joseph Suplee and William Garrett purchased five lots on Mount Vernon Avenue for a new school building. The first Mount Vernon School, completed in 1906, was an impressive brick Colonial revival building with an octagonal cupola with a bell and tall, white columns gracing each side of the front entrance. The school opened out onto Mount Vernon Avenue, where the playground now sits. It had a 350-seat auditorium, stage, dressing room and a facility in the balcony for “stereopticon” shows. At a cost of $30,000, the superintendent at the time said the Mount Vernon school was “probably the most expensive building in the county.” The large school was built with an eye to the future and a commitment to education, because at the time, the town’s population hovered around only 200.
The school not only served to educate the community’s children, but also as a meeting place. It was here that the community decided to incorporate as the Town of Potomac in 1908, here that the Town Council met in the basement and here where in 1930, after two years of contentious public debate, the Town of Potomac agreed to be annexed and become part of the City of Alexandria.
In 1925, some local houses still had chicken coops, the sidewalks were two wooden planks and the community’s streets were still paved with cinders from the nearby Potomac Yard railroad switching station — the largest in the nation and one of the area’s biggest employers. Mount Vernon Elementary School got an addition in 1928 and by 1930, 800 students attended the school, where the 15 teachers had an average class size of 53 students.
City officials built George Mason High School just next door to Mount Vernon. At this time, the city defined the “desirable” teacher student ratio as 45 to 1. In 1935, George Mason High School was closed and the building became an annex to Mount Vernon. In 1953, the school population grew again when the Warwick Village community was built.
The Snowden School for Boys and Hallowell School for Girls were the first public schools for Black children in the City of Alexandria.
In 1920, the Snowden and Hallowell schools were consolidated into the Parker-Gray School. The school was named for John Parker, principal of the Snowden School, and Sarah Gray, principal of the Hallowell School. The Parker-Gray School opened in 1920 for children in grades one through eight on the site of the current Charles Houston Recreation Center on Wythe Street. It had nine teachers and the barest necessities. Members of the community provided chairs and basic equipment. For many years, African-American students had to travel to Washington, D.C. to receive an education beyond the eighth grade.
By the early 1930s the school was overcrowded. A new school was established in an old silk factory at the corner of Wilkes and South Pitt streets for black children who lived south of Cameron Street. It was named Lyles-Crouch to honor Jane Crouch and Rozier D. Lyles. Mrs. Crouch was a principal at Hallowell School; Mr. Lyles taught at Snowden School and at the first Parker-Gray School. The first students who attended Parker-Gray for grades eight through eleven graduated in 1936 as Virginia required only 11 years of public education.
The community realized that a separate high school building was needed. The Hopkins House Men’s Club and other groups asked the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). NAACP lawyers, headed by Attorney Charles Houston, conferred with city, state and federal officials. Eventually, the Parker-Gray High School was built at 1207 Madison Street. It was dedicated on May 31, 1950 and remained the high school for black students until 1965.
When the Parker-Gray High School was built in 1950, the original Parker-Gray School was given the name of Charles Houston, the NAACP lawyer who helped the community in their quest to have the high school built. During the desegregating years, Charles Houston Elementary School closed and the building eventually burned down. This site is now home to the Charles Houston Recreation Center.
George Washington High School opened in 1935. It consolidated the city’s two previous schools, Alexandria and George Mason. Notable alumni include: Francis Hammond (class of 1949, posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1953 for his actions during the Korean War), Willard Scott of NBC’s The Today Show (class of 1951), members of The Mamas & the Papas, Jim Morrison of The Doors (class of 1961), astronaut Guy Gardner (class of 1965) and Skeeter Swift, a pro basketball player (class of 1965). Francis Hammond High School opened in 1956.
World War II
World War II drew thousands of workers to Northern Virginia to work in New Deal agencies, defense plants, and the military, but housing was scarce. The Public Works Agency of the federal government funded and supervised construction of housing and schools for workers near defense sites. It created two such housing developments in Alexandria: Chinquapin Village on the site of today’s Chinquapin Rec Center, and Cameron Valley, located off Duke Street and Yale Drive. Douglas MacArthur School, known briefly as the Chinquapin School during its construction, was built for children of these employees. Douglas MacArthur Elementary School became part of the public school system in 1947. It was attended by all four children of President Gerald R. Ford and Betty Ford. Their three sons graduated from T.C. Williams High School.
Metropolitan Life Insurance Company of New York responded to President Franklin Roosevelt’s plea for more housing near the Pentagon by building Parkfairfax and donating about five acres and $50,000 to the City of Alexandria to build Charles Barrett Elementary School. The school was named after Major General Charles Dodson Barrett (1885–1943), the first commanding general of the 3rd Marine Division, who died while on duty in the South Pacific in 1943 and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in recognition of his outstanding service.
In 1958, 14 black students in Alexandria applied to attend white schools. At the time, a state pupil placement board evaluated all black students applying for transfers to white schools on six criteria, one of them being “mental and emotional stability.” All 14 were denied. The 14 students sued and won about the same time that Virginia’s “massive resistance” program was struck down by a federal court in Norfolk and the Virginia Court of Appeals. The Federal District Court ordered the Alexandria City School Board to admit nine black students to three previously all white schools. James Lomax, then aged 8, and his sister Margaret, then aged 6, were two of the students who symbolically passed the “do not enter” sign at the entrance to Theodore Ficklin Elementary School on North Royal and Second Street on February 10, 1959.
In 1964, Alexandria City School Board expanded the city’s public school board from six to nine members and appointed Ferdinand T. Day as one of the three new members. Ten years after the Board Versus Brown decision, Day was the only African-American on the board and the first to be appointed to this position. Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School, named after Day, opened in September 2018.
T.C. Williams High School initially opened its doors in 1965, and graduated its first class in June 1967. At the time, it was one of three public high schools along with George Washington High School and Francis C. Hammond High School. Parker-Gray High School, which served black high school students from 1950 onward, had begun to phase out grades in the early 1960s. By 1964, its students had been integrated into other schools. In order to build T.C. Williams High School in the 1960s, land was acquired by eminent domain from the community of African-Americans who owned the houses on and near the current Parker-Gray Memorial Field. The new high school was named after former ACPS superintendent Thomas Chambliss Williams (mid-1930s - 1963), a supporter of perpetuating segregation, and a man who did everything possible to slow down the process of integration in Alexandria.
In 1971 the city consolidated all high school students into T.C. Williams, so that the school became Alexandria’s only public senior high school serving 11th and 12th graders. The city’s freshmen and sophomores attended Francis C. Hammond High School and George Washington High School. Although T.C. Williams and George Washington were already integrated in 1971, Hammond was nearly all white, while the city was about one-fifth black. The story of Alexandria’s struggle to desegregate its schools is immortalized in the Disney movie, “Remember the Titans” (2000), about the high school’s football team who went on to win the state football championship in 1971.
In 1974, three years following the city’s high school consolidation, Superintendent John Albohm, who had worked with the School Board to achieve desegregation, announced; “This year, we have finally reorganized our elementary schools and, in a broad sense, have completed the desegregation of our school system kindergarten through grade 12”.
T.C. Williams High School’s current building opened in 2008 on the same site as the original 1965 building. The gym was named after Gerry Bertier — a member of the Titans’ 1971 state championship football team — who was paralyzed in a car crash. The basketball court was named in honor of Earl Lloyd, who attended Parker-Gray High School and was the first African-American to play in the NBA. The football stadium is named Parker-Gray Stadium in deference to the former pre-segregation high school.
Reference: For a fuller story of the history and background of ACPS, please see “Building the Federal School House” by Doug Reed.