ALX Community K-9 Dispatch: Celebrating the Incredible Women of Alexandria Throughout History

Did you know the first owner of the land we now call Alexandria was a woman? Or that the we have a woman to thank for the institution of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a holiday? Throughout the centuries, women have made some pretty big contributions to Alexandria. To celebrate International Women’s Month, we, the lady dogs of ALX Community, wish to share with you just a few amazing stories of the incredible trailblazers who shaped our city into the wonderful home it is today.

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All photos by ALX Community or courtesy of its members

Zelda, Hall Monitor

Hello. For those of you who haven’t met me, I’m Zelda, and I quietly patrol the hallways of the Atrium. Some might describe me as regal, and as such, it’s my honor to introduce you to Dame Margaret Brent, a lady who arrived in Maryland from England in 1638 seeking religious freedom, and as the head of her own household. A feisty, savvy, single woman with significant property and business interests, she frequently appeared in court, representing herself as well as others, which would later lead the American Bar Association to dub her “the nation’s first woman lawyer.” She was also the first woman to petition for the right to vote in the New World, nearly 300 years before the women’s suffrage movement. Hot dang. And if you aren’t impressed yet, how about now: In 1650, Margaret relocated to Northern Virginia, where she turned her attention from the court to real estate. Here she obtained the first land grant for a 700-acre rectangular patch of land along the Potomac River. This made her the first private owner of the land we now call Old Town, later sold to Scotsman John Alexander. Please join me in petitioning for an annual parade in her honor, sans those noisy bagpipes.

Athena, Board Member in Training

I’m a young pup with big paws to fill: I’m training to be a service dog, so I’d like to share the story of a heroine of mine who exemplified true service, Julia Wheelock. Julia came to Alexandria from Michigan during the Civil War in search of her wounded brother, a Union soldier. He had been staying at Lyceum Hall (that big building by the Atrium), which was built to be a beautiful library, but was turned into a hospital after the Battle of Bull Run in 1861, the first big battle of the Civil War in nearby Prince George County (I’m learning so much at just 13 weeks). Julia’s brother had died by the time she arrived, but she remained in Alexandria to care for the wounded soldiers, working twelve-hour days at the newly renamed Lyceum Hall Hospital, which became one of Alexandria’s 30 military hospitals and held 80 of the city’s 6,500 available hospital beds. She assisted nurses, fed soldiers, wrote letters home for them, and even traveled to the front to care for the wounded immediately after battles, where she met General Ulysses S. Grant and shared the work she was doing. In the evenings she returned to her Alexandria boardinghouse and baked pies to take to the soldiers the following day. I can’t bake yet, but that seems like a neat part of service.

Julia documented her work in her book, Boys in White, Experiences of a Hospital Agent in and Around Washington based on her diary entries (which is amazingly still being published today and is part of the Civil War collection at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee). Quite remarkably, in 1890, she was granted a pension of $12 a month for her service during the war. A document issued by the House of Representatives stated, “Julia Wheelock was a brave woman, a patriot in the highest sense of the term.”

See? I really do have big paws to fill.

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Laptop, Chief Technology Officer

Hello everyone. I’m sharing with you the very inspiring story of Sarah A. Gray, whose passion for education started at a young age. She was born free in Alexandria in 1847, which meant she was able to attend a Catholic school for girls in Baltimore. When the Civil War broke out, many enslaved men, women, and children escaped to Alexandria, which soon came under the control of the U.S. Army. In October 1861, a determined 14-year-old Sarah and friend Jane A. Crouch founded the St. Rose Institute, a day and night school on West Street, to educate the children of slaves. Six years later, Sarah then opened Excelsior School, where she taught reading, writing, math, and geography. Then, in 1870, Virginia created its first statewide system of public schools, which were racially segregated by law. Sarah became a teacher for the Hallowell School on N Alfred Street, which was Alexandria’s first public school for black girls. Then, in 1883, the school board named her principal. Wanting to offer the best curriculum for her students, Sarah made frequent trips to northern states to learn about the latest teaching methods, returning to implement new classes for the advanced students. These would become the first high school classes in Virginia.

With her health failing, Sarah retired and died a few months later, in 1893. When a new school for blacks opened in 1920, the city honored Sarah’s service by naming it the Parker-Gray School, for Sarah A. Gray and John F. Parker, another transformational black educator.

Emmie, Chief Twirling Officer

Greetings from my outpost in Naples, Florida where I frequent when I’m not at my office at the Atrium. My compact size makes me an ideal travel companion, so today I share with you the story of another sophisticated world traveler, Kate Waller Barrett. Kate was born in Stafford County, VA in the 1850s and lived in Richmond, VA, Atlanta, GA, and Washington, DC before settling in Alexandria in 1896 with her husband and four children. Sometimes described as a “pioneer sociologist,” Kate’s relentless pursuit of social reform concerning sex trafficking, working conditions for women and children, and the welfare of soldiers and veterans took her all over the world. She traveled to London in 1894 with her husband and completed a nursing course at the Florence Nightingale Training School, then returned to Atlanta and opened a rescue home where unmarried pregnant girls could find refuge and receive care and education. In 1896, she established the National Florence Crittenton Mission, the first philanthropic institution to be chartered by Congress.

Kate was also quite the talented speaker, and was sent by Congress as a delegate to the world conference in London in 1899; Toronto in 1909; and Rome in 1914. Her work also took her to Alaska, Bangkok, and Mexico. Can you believe this was all by boat and train? Then, in 1924, she was sent as the Virginia delegate to the Democratic National Convention in New York City and delivered a short but powerful speech. This prompted a delegate from New Jersey to spontaneously placed her name in nomination for the vice presidency. In 1924! How heckin’ cool is that?

In 1925, when Kate passed away suddenly in her home at 408 Duke Street, the governor of Virginia ordered the flag to be lowered on the State Capitol in Richmond, the first time that a woman had been so honored.

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Swiss, Chief Attitude Officer

Let’s chat sports. For those of you who don’t know, besides being a connoisseur of snacks and naps, I’m also a natural athlete, and when the sun’s out, I’m all about that water life. So is my girl Shirley Marshall-Lee, who was raised in The Berg neighborhood in North Old Town in the 1940s. Every summer, Shirley took a bus to DC to the area’s only swimming pool for the black community and learned to swim at age 13. In Alexandria, many black locals walked a few short blocks to cool off in the Potomac, which tragically led to drownings. In 1952, the Memorial Pool opened in Alexandria after two young brothers drowned in the river, spurring outrage from black and white Alexandrians who demanded the city open a segregated swimming pool (now part of the Charles Houston Recreation Center). At age 16, Shirley became a lifeguard there and taught swimming lessons to locals. In 1965, Shirley met Dr. Albert Jose Jones, the president of the Underwater Adventure Seekers, while admiring his scuba gear at a pool where she was a lifeguard. He invited her to take scuba lessons, and she became the first certified African American female scuba diver in the U.S., launching a lifetime dedicated to underwater pursuits. Her diving has taken her all over the world, from Fiji to Morocco to Egypt to Bermuda. In 1993, she was part of Jones’s team that explored the Henrietta Marie slave ship off the Florida coast, which went down in 1701 with no slaves aboard. During the dive, they placed a 2,700-pound memorial at the wreck site. Shirley’s last dive was in Malaysia in 2006. Today, she sticks to snorkeling, where she can simply admire the fish.

Lainey, Chief Miracle Officer

As the Chief Miracle Officer, I’m thrilled to share the story of a woman who dedicated her life to working miracles big and small and making everyone feel good, Alice Morgan. At age seven, she began making “Use Me” books for the Red Cross, little books made from construction paper and filled with chewing gum and comic strips. In college, she was recognized by the Red Cross for having donated over 500 hours of service. Her efforts in activism took her to Richmond for marches and sit-ins to desegregate restaurants and movie theaters. In 1967, she moved to Alexandria, and focused on efforts around affordable housing, senior citizen advocacy, and affordable health care, leading her to be named one of the Outstanding Young Women of America in 1970.

Then, in 1973, came a really big miracle: Working with the city, Alice launched the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Service. This is a big deal because it was a whole ten years before King’s birthday was approved as a holiday by Virginia and by Congress. For the next 34 years, she volunteered as chair for the holiday’s annual celebrations, and was always sure to include children who wanted to help, giving those as young as five their first roles as volunteers.

In 1979, Alice became the first black woman to run for City Council. She didn’t win, but her actions were an encouragement and inspiration to other black woman who sought leadership roles. Due to her lifetime of volunteerism and dedication to the community, in areas ranging from the Police Community Relations Task Force to the Board of the Alexandria Mental Health Association, Alice received the President’s Volunteer Service Award for Community Service in Alexandria in 1912, which was accompanied by a certificate and letter of congratulations signed by President Barack Obama.

Piper, Chief Canine Officer

I’m here to celebrate Vola D. Lawson, a true gift to Alexandria* like myself. I’m told we have a few things in common: compassion, assertiveness, and our knack for leadership. In1985, Mayor Charles Beatley appointed Vola as Acting City Manager of Alexandria, and said that leaving her in charge was his “gift to the city” (*source: Mayor Beatley). In this role, Vola championed public service while fighting corruption inside the government and working to confront sexism and racism in society. In 1994, Vola kicked breast cancer’s butt and established the Walk to Prevent Breast Cancer to raise funds for mammograms for lower income women, a cause near and dear to the hearts of ALX Community. She also cared deeply about dogs (and cats, I suppose) and toward the end of her career led the city’s efforts to raise money for a new animal shelter, which was dedicated to her in 2002. To wrap up what we have in common (I could go on for days), Vola played a key role in passing legislation for the redevelopment of Old Town’s waterfront. Incidentally, I’m also working on some plans at our Waterfront location, which include turning the Flex Desks into a mixed-use space anchored by a dog café tentatively named “Piper’s Dockside Treats & Bones.” We are unsure if we will allow humans at this time.

ALX Community is 100 percent sure it allows dogs! Interested in joining? You can schedule an in-person or virtual tour here.