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February 23, 2011 Published in Arts & Style, Other News

Finding Parker And Gray

By Carla Branch

Portrait of John F. Parker (Courtesy Photo)

Those who are new to Alexandria and even longtime Alexandrians often don’t know where the “Parker” and “Gray” in Parker-Gray originated. They see the name on an historic district in the City, on an old high school that served black students in Alexandria from the 1920s through desegregation and on the stadium at T. C. Williams but who are these people that they warranted this honor.

When Char McCargo Bah, a genealogical researcher, asked those questions and got few satisfactory answers, she set out to find them for herself. “Last spring, I began researching John F. Parker and Sarah A. Gray, two black educators who worked in Alexandria during and immediately after the Civil War,” Bah said. “I asked a lot of questions about them but nobody knew very much. I’ve learned a lot but still have a lot of research to do.”

John F. Parker was born in Alexandria in 1842, according to his headstone.  "His actual birth date was 1845. We don’t know whether he was free or was born into slavery,” Bah said. “The first real reference I can find to him is in 1866 when he applied to the Freedmen’s Bureau to become a farm laborer in Arkansas. The next time I can find a reference to him is in 1874, when he got married in Alexandria.

“After that, he started teaching at the Snowdon School. Many people believe that he was the first principal there but he wasn’t. He became the principal when his boss took a better paying job in New Jersey. That was around 1878.

“Over the next several years, there are references to him in newspapers, particularly when he stepped down as principal of Snowden and went back to teaching because of poor health,” Bah said.

Bah’s research indicates that, around 1915, Parker was hospitalized at Central State Mental Hospital, where he remained until he died in 1922. “We don’t know what his mental health issue was but we can confirm he was at Central State in 1920, because they listed him in the Census of that year as a patient. It’s interesting that, also in the 1920 Census, Parker's wife described herself as a widow, which she was not.”

Headstone for John F. Parker in St. Mary's cemetary in Old Town Alexandria (Courtesy Photo)

Parker is buried in the cemetery at St. Mary’s. “They didn’t even know he was buried there,” Bah said. “His tombstone tells the story of how much his students loved and respected him.”

The headstone reads: “In memory of John F. Parker, 1842 to 1922, taught school 45 years, Erected by former pupils and friends.”

Sarah A. Gray was the daughter of William Gray and Laura Dundas Gray. She was born in Alexandria in 1846 and died in 1893.

“William Gray was a free man, as was his mother. His wife was emancipated,” Bah said. “William Gray was a well-known butcher who owned 58 acres off Braddock Road, as well as various properties in Old Town.

“He sent Sarah to school at St. Francis in Baltimore. It was run by the Oblates, who found a record of William Gray’s tuition payment for Sarah in 1859, which included payment for piano lessons.

“Sarah started teaching school in Alexandria when she was around 14 years old and taught school throughout the Civil War. She, too, first worked as a teacher at the Hallowell School before becoming its principal. In 1892, because of poor health, she took a leave of absence from teaching and died during that time,” Bah said.

Like William Gray, John F. Parker was a man of property. “During his life, he owned three different homes,” Bah said. “One was located at 630 S. Fairfax Street, another at 148 Queen Street and the last home he owned before going to Central state Hospital was at 810 N. Columbus Street. It is possible that he also owned a home at 712 Wolfe Street in 1888.

“When she died, his wife left the N. Columbus Street home to her niece, Sadie, who lived in it with  Sadie’s sister, Ida. They

Headstone for Laura Gray (Courtesy Photo)

were John Parker’s half- brother William’s children. Ida’s grand-daughters attended my lecture on Parker and Gray last Saturday,” Bah said.

Most of William Gray’s property went to his second wife Amanda’s son-in-law, who also may

Headstone for Laura Gray (Courtesy Photo)

have stolen money from Sarah’s bank account when she died. “About $1000 was missing from her bank account when she died. She was buried near her parents but there was no headstone so we can’t conclusively identify her grave site,” Bah said.

Honoring Parker and Gray

When the new black high school opened in 1920, it was named for John F. Parker and Sarah A. Gray. “Although I haven’t yet found any records of why they were chosen for that honor, I believe it was because most people thought they were the first principals at the Snowden and Hallowell Schools,” Bah said. “I found a newspaper account of the unveiling of their portraits at Parker-Gray High School in 1921, but can’t find the portraits. We have a picture of John Parker’s portrait and there are those who remember seeing the portraits but we can’t find Sarah’s.”

Bah, who attended Parker-Gray Middle School graduated from T. C. Williams in 1975, is continuing her search. “I want to find school records from when both John F. Parker and Sarah A. Gray were teachers and I want to fill in some of the gaps in their lives.

“I have been involved in genealogical research since 1981 and got involved in researching black families in Alexandria at the request of Pam Cressey, the City archaeologist when she was working on identifying those who were buried at Freedmen’s Cemetery. It’s amazing how many descendants of those people still live in and around Alexandria.

“Alexandria was unique in Virginia and throughout the country because there were a large number of free blacks who owned property and were affluent. They lived side by side with slaves. This research has become my life’s work,” Bah said.

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