Gum Springs

This post was written by Mike Rynearson, Research Services Assistant.

In this week’s blog, we spotlight Black History Month with one of our rare books that tell the incredible story of Gum Springs. Gum Springs is the oldest African American Community in Fairfax County, formally established in 1833. The founder of the community was West Ford, a former slave of George Washington who had been set free. The land was a part of the inheritance that Ford received from the Washington estate. Quietly nestled across the river on George Washington’s side of the Potomac, Ford allowed this

Chase, John Terry, Gum Springs: The Triumph of a Black Community, F232.F2C49 1990, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University.

land to become a refuge for freed runaway slaves during and after the Civil War. Many of those who would settle in Gum Springs, much like the town’s founder, were once slaves on General Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon before they gained freedom at the death of his wife, Martha. Freed slaves found assistance from Quakers in their struggle for economic survival. However, the establishment of a functioning community was no easy task. While the financial support from the Quakers allowed for the building of homes and schools, the necessary foundation for how the community would function was entirely the responsibilities of those living in Gum Springs. Land owners in the area during the earlier years were mostly farmers as it provided themselves and those in the community with jobs and a reliable income. The period from 1900-1945 would prove to be the most prosperous for Gum Springs as the suburbanization of Northern Virginia required the need for more crops. Gum Springs became one of the many farm towns which benefited from the sudden influx of people to the area. Economic decline would come in much the same way it did in other suburban adjacent areas. The combination of suburban expansion and the agriculture industry becoming less local caused the way of life that Gum Springs and Fairfax County once knew to fade away.  The citizens of Gum Springs recognized this change and soon began a transition process. By the 1960s, Gum Springs was much like any other suburban town that you would find in Northern Virginia. Today it faces the same issues many other towns in the area face, but it has remained a perfect example of a black town gaining prosperity without losing its cultural identity.

Gum Springs: The Triumph of a Black Community by John Terry Chase tells the full story of this astonishing town. Throughout it are the stories from its humble beginnings as flat marshland, to the establishments of effective local governments that would provide a foundation for a prosperous suburban community. If you would like to read this book and learn more about Gum Springs, we invite you to come and visit special collections.

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