West Ford descendants from around the country help Gum Springs celebrate 190 years of history
Gum Springs, Fairfax County’s oldest African American community, celebrated its 190th anniversary June 17 with the unveiling of a historical marker honoring its founder, West Ford. The event, which reunited Ford's local descendants with at least 30 descendants now living across the country, included speeches by county officials and other dignitaries, and a festival with more than 40 vendors and carnival rides. About 300 people attended.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Jeff McKay and Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck presented the West Ford Legacy Foundation and the Gum Springs community with a proclamation congratulating the community of 2,500, which includes as many as 500 of Ford’s local descendants.
State Delegate Paul Krizek, Matt Briney, vice president of media and communications at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and John Mullen, a member of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources Review Board, also spoke.
Linda Allen Hollis, a direct Ford descendant who has chronicled the family history, and long-time Gum Springs residents Bryan and Ursula Birch — who were honorary grand marshals — also made remarks.
The event was organized by Queenie Cox, former president of the New Gum Springs Civic Association, and Hollis, a southern California resident who organized the out-of-town descendants.
Following the unveiling of the West Ford historical marker on Fordson Road near Richmond Highway, Ford's descendants and others made their way about a mile down Fordson Road to Martin Luther King Jr. Park, where booths, rides and food were set up.
Those unable to walk rode in a miniature rented train that later shuttled kids around the park.
The historical marker recounts the history of West Ford as founder of the Gum Springs community. It notes that Ford (1784-1863) was born enslaved in 1784 in the household of George Washington’s brother, John Augustine, and was brought to live at Mount Vernon plantation in 1802, three years after Washington’s death, when John Augustine’s son, Bushrod, inherited the property.
Ford was taught to read, write and do arithmetic and became a skilled carpenter. He was freed when he turned 21 but continued to work as a manager at the plantation for 50 years and became widely known in the area.
In 1829, Ford inherited 160 acres from Bushrod, which he sold; he then bought 214 acres of land, now known as the Gum Springs community. It became the nucleus of a vibrant, free African American community that expanded after the Civil War. Ford married a free woman, Priscilla Rose Bell, and they had four children — two boys and two girls.
Hollis authored a 2004 book on Ford, I Cannot Tell a Lie, that makes a case that George Washington was the father of West Ford. She maintains The Official Website of West Ford Legacy, which provides a genealogy and links to historic materials.
Given his education and the gift of land, some historians think Ford’s father may have been a member of the Washington family, possibly Bushrod. DNA testing has not been done.
Hollis’s book, written in a novelistic style with dialogue, describes the family oral tradition of storytelling, with Ford’s mother revealing that his father was “the old General” as George Washington was called. Most of the 469-page book is about generations of Ford’s descendants, who kept his paternity secret for fear of racist reprisals. In the 1970s, some started talking to the press, and in 1986, Judith Saunders Burton, who lived in Gum Springs, wrote her doctoral thesis on Ford while at Vanderbilt University and told national reporters about her conclusion that George Washington was Ford’s father. Hollis later contacted Burton, and they discovered they had heard similar stories as children.
When Hollis’s book was published in 2004, she was interviewed on major news shows, according to the paperback cover. In 2022, a New Yorker article by Jill Abramson entitled "Did George Washington Have an Enslaved Son?" explored the family’s claim but found no proof outside of the oral history.
For many years, the Mount Vernon Estate held Gum Springs at arm’s length, but in recent time, they have had more dialogue with the community and hosted exhibits on slavery, much like other historic plantations in Virginia. Hollis has pushed them to recognize Ford for his contributions to the estate in his 60 years there.
Speaking to the crowd at MLK Park, Hollis exclaimed “We know who we are! We are descendants of George Washington. George Washington had a Black son! His only child was West Ford!
Descendants came from California (including Hollis), New York, Illinois, Virginia and Maryland, among other places. Many said they had not met each other before.
Jacquelyn Allen Whitehead, a 73-year-old from southern California, came dressed in a crown and sash for what she said was a family celebration. A fifth-generation descendant of Ford, she said it was her first trip to Gum Springs but fifth trip to Mount Vernon.
Candy Webb, a New York native now living in Illinois, said she was descended from Ford’s son William.
Ed Hines of Maryland said he was descended from both the Fords and the Quanders, another family enslaved at Mount Vernon who later bought property two miles north at Spring Bank. Hines researches the history of both families and has consulted with the county on historical issues.
Highlights of the event at the park were a free buffet lunch from Della J’s, a steel band, a raffle and many information booths with games and handouts.
The event was sponsored by Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Zeta Chi Omega Chapter; Bethlehem Baptist Church; Celebrate Fairfax; Delegate Paul Krizek; Friends of Little Hunting Creek; Greater Morning Star Apostolic Church; Harvest Assembly Baptist Church; Ivy Foundation of Northern Virginia; Long Land Company, LLC; Mt. Calvary Baptist Church; Neighborhood and Community Services; Psi Alpha Alpha Chapter of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.; a special donor; Stronger2; West Ford Legacy Foundation; and Young Invincibles.