Enclaves are comfortable spaces where people convene, laugh and sometimes even cry. There are enclaves for sports fans, foodies, college alumni. During the early 20th Century, though, it wasn’t easy for African-Americans to build enclaves in the Commonwealth.
Tucked away in Old Town Alexandria, off of Gibbon Street, sits an enduring black enclave whose founders were some of the first African-American men to work for the federal government. Men with character.
It’s just after 9:30 pm and The Departmental Progressive Club has finished its business meeting. Everyone’s affable. But the ability for African-Americans to congregate, before the end of segregation, was a hardship.
Yet, on September 27, 1927, they did just that.
“If we had the time to look at the record, it would clearly show that this club, and its members, are a part of the city of Alexandria.” Lawrence ‘Robbie' Robinson says he’s cherished his 50 years of fellowship & commitment to community and wouldn’t trade it for world.
Jim Henson joined the club with Robbie in August of 1967. "I was just so impressed about the purpose of the club. To build character. Provide recreation," Henson remembers. "Because, in 1927, African-Americans didn’t have many places to go.”
The club has produced a number of influential Black leaders, such as Ferdinand T. Day, the first African-American to be elected chair of a public school board in Virginia, and Alexandria’s first African-American mayor, William Eullie.
And it’s all thanks to seven young men who started off as elevator operators, clerks and messengers.
“In my research, when I look at various social clubs and labor organizations in African-American life, you see a lot of distinctions,” says Claudrena Harold, a professor of African-American Studies and History at The University of Virginia.
She says African-Americans created enclaves in the late 19th century with academic excellence in mind. “There was an educated elite. There was Virginia Union University, which was founded in 1865, which was an intellectual hub for African Americans in Richmond.”
Harold’s research shows it took longer to gain footing at predominately white colleges like the University of Virginia, because those campuses lacked cultural diversity.
That is until the arrival of predominantly black fraternities and sororities in 1973. “Within the span of five years, you begin to see the Divine Nine come to The University of Virginia. And, it’s extremely important because Black students had a lot anxiety, a lot of fears and a lot of disappointments about culture, in terms of ensuring that Black students have connections to the local Black community,” Harold says.
Maria Crenshaw is one of the chartering members of Alpha Kappa Alpha’s Theta Chi chapter at Radford University.
“There was 25 of us and so between Radford and Virginia Tech the women decided that we wanted something to bring us all together,” she recounts.
Crenshaw said she joined Alpha Kappa Alpha, or AKA, to pay it forward so younger women wouldn’t experience hostility while attending school.
She says the sisterhood forged at Radford, back in 1974, still pays dividends, including the time she missed her bus in the Virginia Beach area. “This soror was across the street, getting gas, and saw my Launching New Dimension scarf. And she goes ‘You have to be an AKA. Soror, I don’t know who you are but you look like you need a ride. Would you like to have a ride?’ And I said 'Yes, thank you very much,'" Crenshaw remembers. "Didn’t know her. Never met her. And it just feels so good that somebody is willing to help you just because you are a member of this organization.”
Crenshaw says she’ll never forget the hospitality received in Virginia Beach. She pays it forward, today, as Rho Eta Omega’s alumnae chapter president where she oversees scholarship programs, voter registration initiatives and book programs.
Developing hubs for culture and community were consequential aims for African-Americans across the Commonwealth. This holds true for our country’s oldest black sorority and Alexandria’s oldest private club.