Gum Springs resident Annie E. Harper honored with historic marker for her commitment to voting rights
Dozens of top county officials, community leaders, ministers, neighbors and family members gathered July 22 to recognize the major civil rights era contribution of a humble, devout Gum Springs woman, whose name was almost lost to history.
The event was the unveiling of a historic marker honoring Annie E. Harper (1885-1983) at her former residence, 7735 Fordson Road.
By all accounts, Harper was a strong member of Bethlehem Baptist Church. A retired domestic worker, she lived about a block from the church and attended services and Bible study regularly. She served as a deaconess for several years.
She didn’t talk much about herself but talked a lot about the Bible and could listen to gospel music on the radio all day, as Melanie Howard, one of her two granddaughters, recalled.
At age 79, Harper rode to her Fairfax County polling place in Alexandria City with church friends to vote for a state delegate and senator in the 1963 election. In order to vote, she was asked to pay a $4.71 poll tax, which was three years’ worth of the annual $1.50 Virginia poll tax, plus 5% (the tax was payable every year whether or not there was an election.) That was a lot for a woman who lived frugally on $913 a year in social security. Besides, Harper thought, it was wrong to have to pay to vote.
A few months later, in January 1964, the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, prohibiting poll taxes in all federal elections, and in July the Civil Rights Act was adopted, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. However, Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas continued to charge a poll tax in state elections.
The following events are documented in a 2017 article by William Page Johnson II titled, “The Dying Breath of Jim Crow: Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections,” published in the Fare Facs Gazette, a publication of Historic Fairfax City Inc.
It’s not clear exactly how Harper and three other Black women from Gum Springs found local attorney Allison W. Brown, Jr. who worked with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With the backing of these organizations, he filed a case for them in Federal District Court in Alexandria that was heard in October 1964 and dismissed in November. Brown appealed to the Supreme Court in January 1965, and the case was accepted in March. Attorneys combined this case with a similar case filed by another Black woman, Evelyn Butts of Norfolk, into Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections.
At this point, civil rights had momentum at the federal level. In August 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act and announced that the U.S. Attorney General would initiate lawsuits against Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas, charging that the poll tax was illegal under the new law.
Beginning on January 24, 1966, Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court for two days. The case engaged a luminary of the civil rights movement, U.S. Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), who in December filed a friend of the court brief asking to participate in the oral arguments. Outside the courtroom, Marshall stated, “You cannot put a tax on the right to vote in any form or fashion. The poll tax is merely a tax on the right to vote.”
Justice William O. Douglas announced the court’s 6–3 decision in favor of Harper on March 24, ending the Jim Crow era poll tax in the last four states.
Annie Harper did not attend the arguments at the Supreme Court. Nor did she testify in the Alexandria court. She filed an affidavit in that case and was so noncommittal both during and after the case that neither her family, nor most Bethlehem Baptist Church members, knew about her involvement. Harper died at age 98 in 1983 and was buried in Snowden Cemetery in Gum Springs.
More than 50 years after the famous court decision, Brenda Faison, director of Christian education and missions, came across a reference to the Harper case and dug into its history. She found the Fare Facs Gazette article and various other documents.
Faison was astounded to find that Wells Proctor, board of trustees minister at Bethlehem Baptist — whom she had known well — had notarized all of Harper’s statements for the court case but never mentioned it.
“He would tell you everything about church history, but he never said a word about this," said Faison. "It was like it never happened. The only thing I can imagine as to why they kept it so quiet was that there was a fear of retaliation."
Harper’s daughter-in-law, Rev. Evelyn Harper, who spoke at the marker unveiling, said the family was also kept in the dark. “It’s thrilling for me to see all the things that she did," said Harper. "She never talked about it, probably because of her humility. She didn’t like to be in the spotlight.”
Faison teamed with Queenie Cox, then-president of the New Gum Springs Civic Association, and State Del. Paul Krizek to research Harper’s contribution and get a historic marker created — a two-year process.
At the Annie E. Harper Historic Marker unveiling, the sun was hot, and the 10 speeches were short but inspirational.
Bethlehem Baptist Pastor Rev. Dr. Darrell K. White gave the invocation, and Minister Marcus McCallum-Ferguson, a Harper descendant and member of the church, read a scripture. They were followed by Dr. Colita Nichols Fairfax, a social justice professor at Norfolk State University who represented the Virginia Department of Historical Resources, which approved the marker; Deacon-in-Training Clifton S. Johnson, Sr., member of Bethlehem Baptist; Del. Krizek; Steve Descano, Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney; Jeff McKay, chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (BOS); Rodney Lusk, Franconia District Supervisor; and Dan Storck, Mount Vernon District Supervisor.
These speakers and others attending a reception at Bethlehem Baptist Church noted the power of a humble quiet individual with faith and conviction to help change history; the importance of recognizing and honoring these contributions, so that future generations can learn from them; and the need for continuing Harper’s work in voting rights, including amending the state constitution to allow automatic restoration of voting rights for ex-felons who have served their time, another Jim Crow vestige from the 1902 state constitution.
“Gum Springs is important to our history, and the efforts of people here must be recognized," said BOS Chair McKay. We cannot change what happened in history, but we can decide what to celebrate. We can let young people know how our rights were won and what history teaches us about how to stand up and fight for something.”
Lusk shared some personal lessons learned. “My own grandparents taught me to never take for granted that people fought and died for the right to vote," he said. "I want to instill this in my daughters. We can honor her legacy by voting in every single election.”
Storck said he hopes a historical survey of Gum Springs that's now underway will capture more stories like this one and the historical significance of the community.