Gum Springs: A Historic African American Community
Gum Springs sits a half mile off Route 1, but travelers can also read about it while on the road, thanks to a historical marker at the intersection of Fordson Road and Richmond Highway (Route 1’s name in that part of Virginia). The sign summarizes the most salient points of Gum Spring’s history: that this robust African-American community began in 1833, when former enslaved person West Ford bought a 214-acre farm. This land went on to house a school, a land ownership program, and eventually the oldest African American community in the county. While this summary about Gum Springs hits the highlights, there’s plenty more story between those lines. Read on to learn more about this small town’s noteworthy story.
The Beginning of Gum Springs
About five miles away from Gum Springs sits Vernon Estate, the home of George Washington and his family. The story goes that on his way home, Washington would stop to water his horses at a small spring lined with gum trees—hence the name Gum Springs. While the property was close to Washington’s estate, it actually belonged to his brother, John Augustine, and was part of the Bushfield plantation. John Augustine lived on the plantation with his wife, Hannah. When Hannah passed away in 1801, her will included special instructions for enslaved person West Ford: that he receive smallpox inoculation, receive training in a trade, and be freed at age 21. Hannah’s son, Bushrod Washington, who inherited the estate, made good on his mother’s instructions. He made Ford the overseer of Mount Vernon, freeing him in 1805. (It’s worth noting that all the enslaved persons who worked on Mount Vernon received their freedom after the passing of George and Martha Washington in 1802). Ford, meanwhile, managed the estate until 1829, at which point Bushrod gave Ford 119 acres. The land was an almost unheard-of gift; at the time, few African Americans in Virginia were freed persons, much less landowners. West Ford decided to sell it for $350 in order to purchase the property next to it: a 214-acre plot of land called Gum Spring Farm.
Gum Springs’ Growth and Present Day Story
Gum Springs wasn’t a particularly sought-after location. The water source it was named after made the ground muddy and hard to farm. But it belonged to a freedman, making it a valuable space for building a community that met the needs of African Americans. In the pre-Civil War era, those needs translated into providing a safe space for freed persons and runaways. A nearby Quaker settlement helped provide Gum Springs inhabitants with the manual labor jobs they needed for economic survival. Meanwhile, its inhabitants started building: first homes, then a church in 1865, and in 1867, a school with support from the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Quaker Friends’ Aid Society of Philadelphia. In 1890, expansion continued when five citizens formed the Joint Stock Club: an initiative aimed at supporting African American independence and land ownership. These men (whose names are listed on the historical marker) pooled their incomes in order to buy land that they then re-sold to African Americans for $30 an acre. With hard work, support from Quakers and other organizations in favor of helping African Americans, and a community mindset, Gum Springs continued to grow. Today, it houses 2,500 residents. At least 500 of those people descend from ancestors of enslaved persons who worked for George Washington or one of his family members. (When West Ford passed away, he was buried near George Washington on Vernon Estate). The town has a museum that chronicles its history, complete with stories of courage, ingenuity, and tenacity. Take, for instance, the tale of Ben Holland, who, in 1937, fought the county to receive a school bus so that the area’s children could attend high school at a location 25 miles away. Holland drove that bus for free for a year in order to fulfill his request. Or consider the battles fought in the 1950s and 1960s, when a county-wide initiative to replace farmland with necessary infrastructure such as stormwater controls, paved streets, and sidewalks, overlooked Gum Springs completely. The town had been flooding since its earliest years, and received no governmental assistance despite repeated requests. Gum Springs received hard-won financial assistance to remedy the problems in 1964, the same year that a Washington Post article noted its “outhouses in muddy puddles” and “tumble down houses” made with fruitbox lumber. Gum Springs’ residents are familiar with their history, and continue to fight to this day to preserve the town’s legacy. An ongoing dialogue around the expansion of Route 1 has some residents concerned that the change will disrupt the town’s heritage. One proposed initiative to ensure that doesn’t happen is creating a commemorative site at the creek running alongside Napper Road and U.S. 1, where ministers used to conduct baptisms. The Gum Springs Museum, meanwhile, hosts virtual tours that allow you to learn about the town’s history and see key artifacts. However you choose to participate in Gum Springs’ history, we hope that you find the experience as refreshing and as vital as the water was to Washington’s horses so long ago.
Elisia Guerena Apr 01, 2021 History Signs
Elisia Guerena Apr 01, 2021
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