- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The early morning bustle at Alexandria’s Market Square has already become a full crush by 8 a.m., a time when many Washingtonians are still asleep or lingering over their coffee. Which vendor has the freshest strawberries, the tastiest jellies, or a handcrafted elephant from West Africa?

It’s all part of a Saturday morning ritual that’s been in place since 1753.

Note the date. That’s older than the United States itself, and almost as old as the city of Alexandria, which was laid out in 1749, 27 years before the Declaration of Independence.

Both the United States and Alexandria will be celebrating their birthdays in style this year. The Alexandria tradition involves birthday cake and a performance by the Alexandria Symphony, complete with cannon and fireworks. It is intended to complement, rather than compete with, the national holiday.

“It’s our biggest community celebration,” says Cheryl Lawrence, director of Cultural Arts Events and Special Services for the city of Alexandria, about the city’s celebrations, held every year on the first Saturday after July 4 — which this year is July 9.

• • •

Clearly, more than barbecues and band concerts link the nation’s Fourth of July festivities with Alexandria’s own birthday event. Both city and nation shared a history of political involvement, an inclination for self-improvement, and a cast of characters that would help chart the course of the American Revolution and shape the country’s future in the years to follow.

George Washington himself stopped by to celebrate with Alexandria during its Independence Day celebrations in 1798 and 1799. Indeed, the presence of that particular Founding Father is as much bound up in the fortunes of Alexandria as it is in the nation as a whole.

Well before the Revolution, references in his diaries abound with trips to the city for balls, court proceedings, churchgoing and even cardplaying.

“He was the pre-eminent personality to reside here,” says T. Michael Miller, research historian for the Office of Historic Alexandria. “Every time he came to town they tried to have a ball or some other festivities for him.”

Alexandria began as a seaport town, built on tobacco and bolstered by the trade in wheat and other crops coming from the interior. For a time, it was part of the District of Columbia, until it was returned to Virginia in 1846. During the Civil War, it was occupied by Union troops and supported countless hospitals and a military prison.

Today, Old Town Alexandria is known for its Federal-style architecture, unique shops and restaurants and upscale night life. But it’s also a place that hasn’t forgotten its roots, particularly as the Fourth of July, and its own birthday, approaches.

• • •

As a seaport town in the mid-18th century, Alexandria was perhaps the closest thing to cosmopolitan there was in the New World. Ships brought in trade goods from exotic ports and people from the Old World seeking opportunities in the New.

Men like John Carlyle, who immigrated in the 1740s, were typical of the new Colonial man. His home, which still exists at 121 N. Fairfax St., was designed to showcase Carlyle both as a Scot and as an up-and-coming Colonial merchant.

As one of the founding fathers of the city, Carlyle probably helped put together the proviso that buildings of the new town be set out along the same plumb line, close to the street. It’s one of the reasons that Old Town Alexandria today has such a quaint, distinctive look.

When it came to Carlyle’s own house, though, he managed to secure an exemption. His imposing mansion is set back from the street, with a front lawn so broad and sweeping that during the town’s years of decline after the Civil War, a hotel could be built on the space.

“He was looking for a place that would say, ‘I have arrived,’” says Cindy Major, curator of education at Carlyle House Historic Park.

As the second son of an apothecary, it’s unlike that John Carlyle could have “arrived” so quickly, if at all, back in Britain. In addition to his trading interests, he also had a blacksmith business, worked as a builder, and served as justice of the peace. During the 1760s, Washington was a frequent guest at the Carlyle residence, where the two would discuss business interests and, presumably, politics.

Like many Alexandria residents, Carlyle would move from British colonial to American patriot in less than 20 years. In the same time, Alexandria would move from colonial outpost to a city that was ready to assert its rights.

Both Carlyle and his fellow Alexandrians were ready to welcome Gen. Edward Braddock when he brought his troops into Alexandria during the early years of the French and Indian War. Braddock even set up his headquarters in Carlyle’s house, where he met with six royal governors to discuss ways to finance the British expedition to the Ohio Valley.

Unfortunately, he and his soldiers quickly wore out their welcome.

“They didn’t treat the population well,” says Mrs. Major. “They felt that the Colonials were very much beneath the British.”

• • •

It was something the citizenry probably kept in mind as the Colonies progressed toward independence.

“In the 1770s Alexandria was at the forefront of open rebellion against the British,” Mr. Miller says. “It has a proud role in securing the country’s independence.”

In July of 1770, Washington joined with other prominent Virginians to become part of the “Association,” an organization of citizens that was urging the nonimportation of British goods.

On June 1, 1774, Washington wrote in his diary that he and other Alexandrians were fasting to symbolize Virginia’s support of the people of Boston after the British closed their port.

And on July 18 of that year Washington declared his support for the Fairfax Resolves. Written by George Mason, who lived nearby at Gunston Hall, the Resolves laid out the Colonies’ complaint against the British and served as an early model for the Declaration of Independence.

After the Revolution, Washington continued to be a presence in Alexandria. His birth night balls, held at Gadsby’s Tavern on Feb. 12, 1798, and Feb. 11, 1799, were considered among the social events of the century and are even re-enacted there today. (Birth night balls were an English tradition that were continued in Alexandria.)

• • •

Gadsby’s Tavern, which stills stands at the corner of Royal and Cameron streets, dates from 1785, when it was operated by John Wise as a slightly less commodious establishment from the one that hosted the famous balls later. (John Gadsby, from whom the tavern later took its name, operated the establishment from 1796 to 1808, when he moved to Washington City.)

Back then, says Liz Williams, assistant director at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, location was more important than luxury.

“Wise was a savvy businessman,” Mrs. Williams says. “This was a prime location, with the County Courthouse and Market Square across the street.”

Upstairs accommodations were typically Spartan; rope cots and chamber pots, with no heating source and little privacy.

“You could find yourself sleeping with a stranger,” Mrs. Williams says. “You rented the space, not the room.”

Pride of place in the older building goes to the public assembly room, one of the largest meeting and entertainment spaces in the city. It was here that fraternal and political organizations could hold their meetings, and dentists and other traveling vendors could set up shop for a day or two.

And, yes, Washington was here too, in 1793, when he dined along with 100 others to celebrate America’s independence. It was also a favorite spot for planning subsequent Independence Day celebrations.

By 1796, Gadsby was doing so well that he erected a more extensive operation next door.

“Alexandria was now part of the federal city,” Mrs. Williams says. “He built a really tall building and boasted that it was the best accommodation around. It became the five-star hotel of the late 18th century.”

The new Georgian building’s ballroom was the site of those famous “birth night” balls.

“That room is really the reason we’re not a parking lot,” says Mrs. Williams. “You can really step into history here, complete with George and Martha.”

• • •

You can also step back into history at the Lyceum, which was built by a group of literary-minded Alexandrians in 1839. Today, the Greek Revival structure serves as the city museum and features changing exhibits and a research library devoted to the city’s history.

A new exhibit documents the lost lifestyles of post-Civil War industrial Alexandria, before it was considered “quaint.”

After the war, Mr. Miller says, Alexandria was home to the largest locomotive works in the South, and also boasted a sugar refining business and a silk factory along with other industrial ventures.

• • •

Alexandria also sparked one of the earliest attempts to desegregate public facilities in the South. In 1939, a group of young black men attempted to borrow books from the Alexandria Free Library, which was open only to whites. They were arrested, although their efforts were reward by the establishment of the Robert Robinson Library for the black residents of the town, erected at half the cost of the one for whites.

Today the former library building serves as the core of Alexandria’s Black History Resource Center and Black History Museum.

“We want to engage families into telling their stories,” says Louis Hicks, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, which is currently putting together a comprehensive exhibit, “Securing the Blessings of Liberty,” about black Americans in Alexandria.

“The African American community has been continually seeking the blessings of freedom,” says Mr. Hicks, who says that racism and racial prejudice continue. “We want to show how they worked to secure those rights guaranteed by the Constitution.”

During the Civil War, blacks escaping from slavery flocked to Alexandria, drawn by the promise of safe haven thanks to the proximity of U.S. troops. They settled in neighborhoods that would exist long after the war, with names like Hayti (for the Caribbean island), Grantsville (for Gen. Grant) and Sumnerville (for Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a 19th-century champion of black rights). Each neighborhood had its own religious and social institutions.

Hundreds of blacks from Alexandria enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops and fought in Grant’s overland campaign against Richmond in 1864 and 1865, Mr. Miller says.

Something of that spirit is celebrated each year at Alexandria’s Juneteenth Festival, billed as “The True Day of Independence.” Originally a Texas-based celebration commemorating the date when enslaved people there finally found they were free, Juneteenth celebrations have become increasingly popular around the United States.

“It’s not just food and music; there’s history to it,” says Roy Mays, a contemporary gospel performer from California who came to Alexandria to perform in this year’s Juneteenth celebrations. “There’s a certain spirit here, an awareness of what’s gone before.”

That’s why, says S. Howard Woodson, president of the Alexandria Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, it’s important for people to come to events like this one.

“This is history,” he says. “The more you know, the more you can move forward.”


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