Miss Laura Missouri Dorsey

Behind the Alexandria Gazette story on Laura Missouri Dorsey dated January 11 – 17, 2018.

Several years ago, I visited and interviewed Miss Laura Missouri Dorsey’s second cousin, Mrs. Fayrene Lyles-Richardson in Maryland. In talking with Fayrene, she shared many family pictures of the Lyles and Dorsey families. One particular picture was of two cars in the Lyles family in the early 20th century.

Very few people of colored (African Americans) owned automobiles at that time, but the

Lyles Family with their Vehicles

Lyles not only had one vehicle, they had two in the family. Also in Fayrene’s collection were many pictures about the family life style. There were summer homes up north, post cards from their vacations in the 1900s – 1950s. There were pictures of their homes in Alexandria, Virginia and in Prince William County, Virginia. In the collection were professional pictures of the Lyles’ brothers at a photographer’s studio and pictures of Laura and her sister, Mary and their mother, Hannah.

As Fayrene and I pored over the pictures, we went back in time to a period when the Lyles and Dorsey family flourished. The public records have documented the life style of the Lyles and Dorsey families in the censuses, tax records, newspaper articles, marriages, death records, church records and pre-civil war documents. Laura Missouri Dorsey and her uncle, Rosier Lyles were educators in the Alexandria Public school system. Laura’s grandfather, Reverend Richard H. Lyles was the pillar of Alexandria’s African American’s Society. He was born free in 1834. Reverend Lyles was a minister at Roberts Chapel in the 19th Century; he taught private school prior to the Civil War; he worked for the Federal Government at the Freedmen Bureau; he was active in Alexandria’s Republican Party; he was a caulker on ships; he owned a business on the wharf; and, he owned a number of properties in Alexandria. He afforded his family many pleasures of life that was found among the white middle class.

The heyday for the Lyles family started prior to the Civil War through the middle of the 20th Century. They regained all their property losses during the Civil War. The Lyles and the Dorsey families left a positive history that will make many Alexandrians eager to learn more about them. Read the article on “Laura Dorsey” in the Alexandria Gazette Packet for January 11 – 17, 2018. You can sign up for a digital copy of the paper at http://www.connectionnewspapers.com/subscribe.

Posted in Black People of Alexandria, Education, Hallowell, Methodist, Parker-Gray School | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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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Alexandria, Virginia World War I Veteran – The First to Fall: Remembering Private William Thomas

Private William Thomas

Private William Thomas
Alexandria Gazette, Friday, December 27, 1918

Private William Thomas was the first to die from Alexandria, Virginia during World War I. In death, he was remembered not as an American Negro Veteran but as the first Alexandrian Veteran to die in combat in France.

Mr. William Thomas was born in Alexandria, Virginia in 1886. In 1910, William and his wife, Mary Coleman Thomas lived at 710 Gibbon Street. He worked for a fertilizer company in Alexandria. Mr. Thomas enlisted in the United States Army in 1917; he was shipped off to France in 1918. By late 1918, Private Thomas was died; he was killed in action in France.

Unfortunately, little is known about Private Thomas’ parents, but his wife, Mary Coleman Thomas on the other hand has more family history to share. In the 1910 census, William and Mary stated that they had been married for six years. Also they had one child that had died.

Mary died on April 25, 1934. She was 51-years-old; she was listed as a widow to William Thomas. Mary’s parents were John Coleman and Laura Lyles. Mary and her parents were born in Alexandria, Virginia. Based on her death certificate, her last address prior to her death was 614 St. Asaph Street. Mary’s brother, Henry Coleman was the informant on her death certificate and his address was the same as Mary.

Henry Coleman married Grace Massie. Henry died prior to 1970 and Grace died on May 5, 1971. She was a retired government worker. In researching Private William Thomas, I found that Mr. James E. Henson is the nephew of Grace Massie Coleman. Mr. Henson lives in Alexandria.

Private William Thomas would have been forgotten in history if it was not for the

1956 – Mr. Nelson Greene, Sr with the Boy’s Scouts

American Legion. In July 1931, the “First Alexandria Negro American Legion” was named American Legion William Thomas Post No. 129. The National American Legion headquarters’ records show the permanent official charter date for Post No. 129 was October 1932. The first officers of this Post No. 129 voted to name their Post after Private William Thomas. The officers were L.O. Broadneck (Commander); Sherman Majors (First Vice Commander); James McCallant (Second Vice Commander); Richard Hollinger (Adjutant); George Wilson (Finance Officer); William Dixon (Chaplain); and William Tibbs (Sergeant in Arms).

Today, William Thomas Post No. 129 has a low membership. At one time, their members exceed over 200. Mr. Cordell Credit is the Adjutant/historian for this Post.

For Private William Thomas, the African Americans of Alexandria never forgot about your supreme sacrifice – you will always be remembered as the American Legion William Thomas Post No. 129. May you rest in peace!

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Star Cab: Alexandria, Virginia First African American Cab Company

The picture in the blog banner is a picture of three men who owned their

1940s-1950s Star Cab Staff

cabs and drove for “Star Cab Company” during the 1940s and 1950s. These men were Mr. Ike Marshall, Mr. Clarence McKenney, Sr., and Mr. Norman Reynolds, Sr; this picture was taken in the 400 block of South Columbus Street. Some other drivers who drove under the Star Cab Company were Mr. John Galloway, Mr. Samuel Taylor, Jr., and Mr. William Charity.

Mr. William Charity’s cab number was 22. Mr. Charity started driving for Star Cab in the early

Mr. William Charity

Mr. William Charity


1940s part-time. He had a full-time job in the Federal Government. He soon realized that he made more money driving the cab than he did on his full-time job. He quit his government job and started driving full-time for Star Cab. Mr. Charity has fond memories of driving; “the drivers back then dressed in uniforms and we were well respected by the people who knew us”, Mr. Charity stated in a home visit that I made with Mrs. Wilson’s great-great niece, Ms. Shenise Foster to his home. Mr. Charity was able to buy his home on the salary he made from the cab business as well as provide a good living for his wife and children. Today, Mr. Charity is the last man standing who once drove for “Star Cab.” Mr. Charity is 101-years-old and he has been a member of Ebenezer Baptist Church for over 90-years.

Who was this extra-ordinary African American business minded woman who started the “Star Cab Company?”

Star Cab was owned by an African American female named, Madeline Morton Wilson who had a remarkable sense for business. She was born in Orange, Virginia around 1903. She and her brother, Clarence Morton migrated to Alexandria, Virginia and Washington, D.C., when they were young. Mrs. Wilson appeared to have stayed in Alexandria, Virginia with an aunt, Elmira Morton Matthews who migrated earlier to Alexandria. In 1926 at the age of 23, Madeline Morton married Wadsworth Wilson who was 44-years-old. Prior to her marriage, she was living at 408 Oronoco Street, in Alexandria, VA; but, she reported on her marriage license that she was born in Orange, Virginia. Prior to Mr. Wadsworth Wilson’s marriage, he was living at 617 St. Asaph Street; he reported on his marriage license that he was born in Washington, DC. They were married by Father Joseph J. Kelly at Saint Joseph Catholic Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

In Mrs. Wilson’s short life, she was a woman that was on the move making independent business deals. She had her own business as a hairdresser. She purchased her family home at 700 North Patrick Street.  Mrs. Wilson, her husband, son, and several years her young niece lived in the two story home were her hair dressing and barber shop were operated in the front portion of the home. She independently purchased several other properties in Alexandria. Many of her business transactions were recorded only in her name. One of her biggest business’ deals took place in 1940, when she started the “Star Cab Company.”

John “Buddy” Wilson second person from the right

Although her son, John “Buddy” Wilson ran the day to day operations, Mrs. Wilson was the owner. In 1945, she obtained business partners and incorporated the Cab Company into “Star Cab Association.” Her partners were:

Mrs. Pearl M. Willis – 909 Princess Street, Alexandria, Virginia
Mr. John Galloway, Jr – 233 North West Street, Alexandria, Virginia
Mr. Samuel Taylor, Jr – 318 North Alfred Street, Alexandria, Virginia

In 1950, Mrs. Wilson had passed away. In the Alexandria Gazette Newspaper, her obituary stated that she had a long illness. She died at Freedman Hospital in Washington, DC. Mrs. Wilson was survived by her husband, Wadsworth Wilson, her son, John (Buddy) Wilson, her brother, Clarence Morton of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and her aunt, Elmira Mayetta Morton Matthews of Massachusetts.

Mrs. Madeline Morton Wilson was the business genius in her family. After her death, three-years later in 1953 her husband, Wadsworth Wilson died. He was survived by his son, John (Buddy) Wilson, brother, John Wilson, and many nieces, and nephews. Shortly after the death of Madeline and Wadsworth, their son lost everything. He could not maintain all the property that his mother acquired. John “Buddy” Wilson died as a lonely man without his relatives near him.

The niece of Mrs. Madeline Morton Wilson lives in Cape May, New Jersey. She and her granddaughter, Shenise are currently researching their family history.

I want to thank Mrs. Carolyn Phillips McCrae and her nephew, Norman Reynolds, Jr., for providing the pictures of “Star Cab”. Norman, Jr., is the son of Norman Reynolds, Sr., who drove for Star Cab. Also, Ms. Shenise Foster, great-great niece of Mrs. Madeline Morton Wilson, provided three pictures including the one of Mr. Charity.

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