- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2009

Born, raised and still living in the same house — the oldest in what longtime Alexandrians know as the “Seminary” community — Elizabeth Henry Douglas is a rare gem with lots to tell, and she remembers it all very well.

“Ms. Lisabeth,” as we called her as youngsters and still do today, can always come up with something to brighten your day — a story to share, an old photograph or a newspaper clipping. There is nothing like a picture to help tell a story, and she comes up with them out of the blue.

“I always loved to take pictures,” Mrs. Douglas says.

She is a true “Seminarian” and historian in her own right.

The Alexandria Archaeological Commission, under the auspices of the Office of Historic Alexandria, awarded Mrs. Douglas the Bernard Brenman Archaeology in Alexandria Award. The honor was presented by Mayor William D. Euille during a City Council meeting on Oct. 27. Other recipients included founding commission member Vivienne Mitchell; historic property owner Joe Reeder; Sara Borgatti, for a children’s Revolutionary War project; and the Louis Berger Group, for its historic study and archaeological investigation of the Bruin Slave Jail site on Duke Street.

The award is named for retired Army Col. Brenman, a city activist who was a founding member of the commission and served as its chairman for 21 years.

Mrs. Douglas received the award as “a knowledgeable source and generous donor of West End history,” particularly through her contributions to oral history. Further, her recognition reads: “She witnessed the transformation of the once rural community near the [Virginia Theological] Seminary and Oakland Baptist Church. She has shared her stories, recollections, and knowledge of members of the African American community who can trace their family history to the Civil War period. Her contributions are the basis of the ‘African American Walking Tour’ at Fort Ward and help researchers identify other potential archaeological sites at the Fort.”

Many of her family, church and community members attended the awards ceremony.

The song “Precious Memories” (“how they linger”) is a great testimony for an outstanding historian. When you start a conversation with Ms. Lisabeth regarding her neighborhood, she begins by telling you that former accounts about the community’s development “got it all wrong.”

“Mudtown was not where they said it was. That was called Macedonia,” she says of former names given the neighborhood throughout the late 19th century and 20th century by others, including city developers.

Yes, her memory and historical knowledge are still sharp for a spry woman in her 90s. She loves to share what she knows. All she needs is a listening ear.

The old Alexandrians knew about the people who lived in Seminary, where I also live. We were called “the people from the sticks,” but we were well-respected. The new Alexandrians don’t know about our community because it does not exist as it did before the early 1960s. Several black families were uprooted from their homes when the city decided to build T.C. Williams High School and turn Fort Ward into a park and museum with some recreational spaces.

Twenty-eight homes were built on the land where some of the old homes had existed, and 28 families, a mix of returning and new, moved into the newly constructed neighborhood off Quaker Lane.

Thank goodness for Ms. Lisabeth. Through the years, she kept in touch with most of the families who once lived in the area, including the families who lived “up the fort.”

If she doesn’t know the answer to your question about our old neighbors, she will say, in her distinctive voice and enunciation, “Well, I don’t know, but I’ll try to get some information for you.”

Recalling the origins of the Seminary area, Mrs. Douglas says, “It was a small little community, but we had our own elementary school and fantastic teachers. One of the teachers, Ms. Geraldine Stevens, was also the principal. We considered ourselves blessed. They cared about our education and well-being. We had a corner store named Donaldson’s and a neighborhood church.

“It was called Seminary because of the theological seminary,” she says. “If you lived in the City of Alexandria years ago, you would catch the Seminary bus to come to our community. A real true neighborhood; everyone knew each other. It was a great place to raise a family.

“We had neighbors who cared about us, and why not? We were all interconnected by blood kin and marriage.”

Ms. Lisabeth was not a teacher by profession, but she spent hours at the Oakland Baptist Church teaching Sunday school and preparing the children for the Easter and Christmas plays, making them recite their “pieces” from memory. She had a captive audience because she knew every mother and father in the neighborhood, and she was the second mother to all the children. Disobedience was unacceptable in our neighborhood.

Some people get their rewards early in life, some people don’t get any rewards, and some people are rewarded throughout their lives for one thing or another. Ms. Lisabeth has always been one happy lady, and getting the Brenman Award just put the icing on the cake.

She enjoys her spiritual life, her walks and nature. She can be seen slowly walking the mile between her home and the grocery store or to church on any day. She’s a sage of a new era.

• Joyce Sanchez is a writer and retired educator living in Alexandria.

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