Déjà vu – Alexandria African American Historic Housing Problems

Some problems never go away, the problem of housing in Alexandria is just one of those big problems. Looking back in time, we can see how these housing problems have impacted so many people especially African Americans and the poor.

In the early 20th century, the United States entered into World War I. By 1940s, the United States entered into World War II. Each of these wars brought more opportunities for the African Americans in Alexandria. The wars increased the demand for workers in the factories, the military, and in the Federal government. Along with these demands were the realization that Alexandria had a serious housing shortage. Many African Americans that were living in the City of Alexandria during this period of time lived in poor housing. Many of these homes were built during the 19th century without inside toilets and running water.

With the Federal Government Housing subsidies, affordable and public housing construction dominated the 1940s in Alexandria. During this construction boom in the 1940s, the country was experiencing “Jim Crow Laws,” which met separate but equal in name only, among the races. In order to build public housing in the African American communities, many of their homes were condemn and demolition.

These African Americans were placed in temporary trailers.

1941 Trailer – Alexandria, VA

A family of six would be placed in two trailers. The parents would be in one trailer and the children would be in another trailer. Some families lived in the trailers between six to fifteen months. The condition that they lived in was horrible. The trailers did not have inside toilets nor showers. Designated trailers were used for showers. Toilet facilities were located in an outhouse building. These facilities were used by everyone who was living in the trailer camp. Parents feared for their children safety, especially for the girls and women.

Memories of this period of time are sketched into the brains of many of the elderly African Americans who lived through this transition period. Their families were put into the trailers until public housing became available.

Two families were interviewed about their life living in the trailer camp. Mr. John Taylor remembers that his dad would not take a shower nor use the bathroom in the trailer camp. “My father would walk to his parents’ house at 214 North Payne Street to shower and use the bathroom. It was really bad in the trailer camp.” Their trailers were on First Street in Alexandria.

Mrs. Charlene Napper, the sister of Mr. John Taylor, remembered that she was a little girl around seven or eight-years-old when they moved to the trailer camp. They had two trailers assigned to them. She also remembered when the family moved out to the newly built public housing at 1005 Madison Street. “Our family did not stay long in public

First row: Mrs. Dorothy Knapper-Taylor and her grandmother and her mother – Second roll: Mrs. Dorothy’s children – they all are in the new home on North Payne Street

housing, because my parents were told by the housing authority that my oldest brother would have to move out when he turned eighteen.” Ms. Charlene told me that her father’s employer helped them to purchase a home so that their family could stay together. Today Mrs. Charlene lives in the family home on North Alfred Street. The family has owned this house for seventy-plus years.

Mr. James Beatty’s family also lived in the trailer camps on First Street in Alexandria in the 1940s. Two trailers were assigned to his family as well. After they were relocated to public housing on St. Asaph Street, Mr. Beatty’s father started saving his money and making plans to relocate his family. The opportunities for African Americans to buy their own property in Alexandria was bleak, so Mr. Beatty’s family moved to Washington, DC.

After public housing was built, many African Americans in Alexandria were not eligible for those houses. Their incomes were not low enough to qualify; and, with the segregation laws in place, they couldn’t rent nor buy in the white communities in Alexandria. So, like

Mr. James Beatty

Mr. Beatty’s family, they migrated to Washington, DC and left so many friends and family members behind.

Again, Alexandria is experiencing a demand in housing. And just like the 1940s, again African American families are at risk for affordable housing. But unlike the 1940s, many will not be moving to Washington, DC, because DC has their own shortages of affordable housing.

So, if you live long enough, you will have your Déjà vu moment; and, affordable housing in Alexandria is truly a Déjà vu moment.

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