The End of an Historical Era Looms on Railroad Avenue

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
May 28, 2013

One hundred and forty-eight years ago, the U.S. Civil War had just concluded after four shockingly bloody years, and Falls Church City, which had been occupied by both sides at various times, was just a small, rural town.

It would be a gross understatement to say much has changed since then, as the town that was then a part of Fairfax County later became an independent city and developed into the prosperous urban suburb that it is today. But over on Railroad Avenue, a short, one-lane wide cul-de-sac near the Fairfax border, three vacant lots provide a bridge to that earlier rural era.

The land, totaling 1.3 acres, is still owned today by the same family that purchased it in August 1865, just four months after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

Even more remarkable, the family that took title to the land so long ago is African-American. They purchased it when, for a variety of reasons, including the persistent racial discrimination of the era, it was difficult for black families to become landowners.

However, the family’s ownership, and the era it represents, appears to be drawing to a close. The family has put the land up for sale, and a builder has signed a contract to purchase the lots and build as many as three single family homes on the site, which fronts the Washington & Old Dominion Trail across from the city’s Property Yard.

The deal could still fall apart. The builder is investigating how many new houses the zoning code would allow, city officials say. The parcel is big enough for three homes, but one of the three subdivided lots has the shape of a long, narrow triangle, so the builder has asked city officials to determine just how many houses can be constructed there before deciding if he will close on the purchase.

Yet even if the builder ultimately walks away, it would seem that with the high demand for land here, the family will sell it to a builder sooner rather than later, ending the long run of continuous ownership that began in such a radically different time.


In 1865, all of the land along Railroad Avenue, from its beginning at Fowler Street to its end a short distance to the north, was owned by Lewis and Sarah Sewall, who also owned several hundred additional acres on the Fairfax side of Fowler, records maintained at the Fairfax County Historical Records Library show.

The Sewall legacy lives on today: one of the streets just outside the City limits is still called Sewell Avenue, albeit with a different spelling. They lived in a house on South West Street, according to Falls Church by Fence and Fireside, a 1964 book published by what was then called the Falls Church Public Library and whose cost was underwritten by the Falls Church City Council.

The Sewall family was a prominent one during that era; Sarah Sewall was born Sarah West, into a family that did the original survey for, and owned much of the early land in, the city of Alexandria, according to a variety of sources, including the Alexandria Historical Society’s newsletter, The Alexandria Chronicle.

The West family also had earlier owned 300 acres in and around what is today Falls Church City’s South West Street, and the street is probably named for the family, local historians say. John West bequeathed the family’s land to three of his children, including 100 acres to Sarah West, and she and her husband Lewis later acquired additional land in the area.

In 1860, the Sewalls owned more than 250 acres, plat maps of the era show, and their holdings extended roughly from today’s Shreve Road to Timber Lane, and from Parker Street to Fairwood Lane.

The first ever Catholic mass in Falls Church was held at the family home on West, and their land housed the original St. James Church, which in 1902 moved to its current location on Park Avenue.

Their land also was used for a cemetery, now the St. James Cemetery, located at West and Fowler, and both Lewis and Sarah, along with many other family members, are buried there, the Falls Church Times has learned.

Graves marking the burial of Lewis and Sarah Sewall at St. James Cemetery on West Street.

The Sewalls’ Railroad Avenue property fronted the railroad tracks for what was then known as the Alexandria, Loudoun, and Hampshire train line and later was renamed the Washington & Old Dominion line. The tracks were built shortly before the Civil War and were damaged during the conflict.

For the sum of $75, the Sewalls agreed in 1865 to sell their Railroad land to an African American woman named Lucinda Gaskins, according to the Fairfax Deed Book of that era. It is not known why they opted to sell, and it may have been somewhat unusual, but not unprecedented, for a prominent white family to sell land to a black family at that time, local historians say.

It doesn’t appear that the Sewalls would have been sympathetic to the plight of African Americans in Virginia at that time or to the anti-slavery cause. Lewis Sewall voted for Virginia’s secession from the Union prior to the Civil War, and two of his children fought for the Confederacy during the war, according to demographic information about Fairfax County compiled by Edith Moore Sprouse in 1996.

Additionally, the Sewalls owned at least three slaves as of 1850, according to research conducted by Fairfax historian Maddy McCoy, who created and maintains a body of information on the topic called the Virginia Slavery Inventory Database.

It is theoretically possible that Ms. Gaskins was one of the Sewalls’ three slaves, but that cannot be determined from the available records, which are far from complete, Ms. McCoy said.

Ms. Gaskins was born around 1830, married Charles Gaskins in 1848, and had six children, according to genealogy research prepared by Ms. McCoy for the Falls Church Times.

Ms. McCoy’s research shows the Sewalls owned a 17-year-old female slave in 1850, who could be a match for Ms. Gaskins, but there aren’t sufficient records to determine that, she said. However, emancipated slaves, sometimes purchased land from, and lived adjacent to, their former owners, local historians say.

Ms. Gaskins died before 1890, although the exact date is not known. In her will, which was executed in 1897, Ms. Gaskins left the land to three of her children and one grandchild. The two lots closest to Fowler Street were given to her oldest child, Elizabeth Collins, who was born in 1851, while the next lot went to another daughter, Jane Finney.

The lot north of that was deeded to McCready Gaskins, who appears to have been Lucinda and Charles’ oldest son, having been born in 1856, while the one still north of that went to Lewis Lee Gaskins, another son, who was born in 1870.

The subdivision of the Railroad Avenue lots, as drawn in the owner's 19th century will.

The last lot, which is the triangular shaped one, was willed to Lucinda and Charles’ granddaughter, Harriett Ann Gaskins, who was born in 1874, because her mother, Drusilla, had died by that time, Ms. McCoy’s research shows.

Some of the lots were sold out of the family some time ago, but the lots willed to Lewis Lee and Harriett Ann Gaskins remain in the family today. Lewis Lee Gaskins’ lot was subdivided at some point into two equal lots, and it is those two, plus Harriett Ann Gaskins’ triangular lot, that are for sale now.

Lewis Lee Gaskins died around 1915, and City records show his lot (the one that was subsequently subdivided) passed to two other members of the family.

Rosa Tinner, who was the daughter of William Rector and Harriett Ann Gaskins, according to Ms. McCoy’s research, took possession of the northern half of the lot at some unknown point; her name is still in the City records for the lot. Born in 1894 as Rosa Rector, she acquired the famous Tinner name by marrying Melvin Tinner in Falls Church in 1925.

The name is famous in Falls Church because the Tinner family gave its name to the City’s historically black Tinner Hill neighborhood, which sits on both sides of South Washington Street in the City, and in Fairfax County, at the junction of Tinner Hill Road adjacent to Elevation Burger.

Activists in the Tinner Hill neighborhood fought a racial segregation ordinance approved by the Falls Church Town Council in 1915, and were instrumental in founding the first rural branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) around the same time, according to the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation.

Some of those activists were Joseph Tinner, who bought land in the area in the 1880s, and E.B. Henderson, the husband of Mary Ellen Henderson, for whom Falls Church City’s middle school is named.

The southern half of Lewis Lee Gaskins’ lot at some point passed into ownership of a William Rector, but it’s not clear if that is Rosa Tinner’s father, or another family member with the same name; she had a brother named William H. Rector, born in 1900, and a nephew, William N. Rector, born in 1928, Ms. McCoy’s research shows.

William H. Rector also had seven other children, including Mary Frances Rector, who was born in 1930. Ms. McCoy’s research shows that she married Joseph Whitney in 1950. And it is her married name, Mary Whitney, that still is on the Railroad Avenue property tax bills today.

Ms. Whitney is 83 years old and lives in south Arlington’s historically black Nauck neighborhood near Shirlington. And, in a sad twist, Ms. Whitney’s son, Lewis, lives today in a camper on the Railroad Avenue parcel, apparently without running water. It was Lewis who first tipped the Times to the fact that his family had owned the land since shortly after the Civil War.

The camper that serves as a home on Railroad Avenue.

Lewis’ home in a camper without any modern infrastructure (although he has a generator to provide heat) presents quite a contrast from the rest of the neighborhood; a home next door to Lewis at 1002 Railroad (built on land once owned by Lewis’ family) is under contract with a listing price of $998,000.

There is not known to be any criminal activity on the parcel, but the lot is zoned for single family homes and not for recreational vehicles or mobile homes. City officials have received some complaints, including from real estate agents, that have asked that the zoning code be enforced and Lewis and his camper be removed, the Falls Church Times has learned.

Asked about the city’s position on this unusual situation, spokeswoman Susan Finarelli confirmed that the city has received complaints, and she issued this statement to the Times:

“The City is aware of the person living on the land off of Railroad Avenue. The person, to the City’s knowledge, is a relative of the landowner and an American war veteran. Because of these reasons, the City has been working with the family to find a compassionate resolution to the issue. With that land on the market for sale, a resolution seems to be coming soon.”

Indeed, it does seem as though the end of an era is upon us. When that day comes, it isn’t clear what will happen to Lewis, or where he will go.

But what is pretty clear is that he will be the last of six generations — that began with his great great great grandmother Lucinda 148 years ago — to call the 1000 block of Railroad Avenue in Falls Church City their home.

May 28, 2013 


11 Responses to “The End of an Historical Era Looms on Railroad Avenue”

  1. Barry Buschow on May 28th, 2013 9:50 am

    Good research Stephen. Many years ago other family members lived on the land and worked in various trades, one would bring left over asphalt home now and then and over time paved that section of Railroad Ave. That is how it got paved.

  2. Cathy Quinn, Falls Church City on May 28th, 2013 9:54 am

    Thanks for a most interesting story of the history of our area.

  3. Nikki Graves Henderson on May 28th, 2013 11:35 am

    Great research and interesting, little known history worth noting! The Gaskin’s, Tinner’s, Henderson’s, Rector’s, Scipio’s, Foote’s, Lee’s, Honesty’s, Brice’s are about half of the African American families who lived in Falls Church before, during and after the Civil War. What I find very unusual is that you still find their descendants working, worshiping and socializing in Falls Church. . . At the Galloway United Methodist Church (in Falls Church City) and Second Baptist Church (founded in the city, but due to the Gerrymandering in 1887 now in Fairfax County) were both founded in the 1860’s. On any Sunday morning the pews are full of the descendants of the above mentioned families. Most of the descendants of other historic families in Falls Church have long ago left the area. . . but the African American families who, some free and some enslaved, put down roots here centuries ago and are still here!

  4. Edwin B. Henderson, II on May 28th, 2013 12:40 pm

    There were two free sets of Gaskins family in the Falls Church 1860 census. The sale of all the property along the railroad was made by Sewall to African American families. This area was known as Gravel Bank.

    Rosa Tinner/Rector is incorrect. Her name was Rosé Tinner, not Rosa. Sometime in the mid-1900’s. the land owners along Gravel Bank were asked to sell their land because the county wanted the land to build a school. Many of the homes and communities that are along Shreveport Road once belonged to those African America’s that had property along Gravel Bank.

    As far as the property there on Railroad Ave, the city has been trying to get this property for years. Ms Whitney’s House was condemned by the city because they said that it was leaning. Lewis said he took his leveling tool and found no lean. Still Ms Whitney agreed to tear the house down and move to Arlington.

    African Americans that still lived along Railroad Av, applied for permits to build but were denied, only to sell to whites that were then given permits to build. Seems to be a double standard, if you look at these facts. I ascertained this information after speaking with Lewis and other members of the Rector family.

    There has been a consistent pattern in Fairfax County and Northern Virginia of the deliberate targeting of Land that belongs to African Americans when there is a desired need by the general,public or by the interest of whites to take this land for economic advantage,as was the case here, and along Gravel Bank, in my humble opinion.

    Other examples of this can be found when we look the property where George Mason University, Fairfax Hospital, Dulles Airport, JEB Stuart High School (Peace Valley Lane), as well as several others.

    I would like to thank you for bring up this story, because it is a topic that needs to be researched and will be. There is a pattern of using codes and condemnation to take the lands of African Americans in this area. So I think you have hit on something that is of vital importance to uncover and correct.

  5. vlfrance on May 29th, 2013 11:21 am

    I truly enjoyed this story – I love history and this is especially interesting because it is relatively unique and local.

    The story tells us the land is for sale by the current owner(s). It is attractive land and far from commercial development so I doubt could be obtained through eminent domain. I personally doubt it is targeted for anything other than profit by a builder. I have little doubt other offers would come in if the current one falls through.

    The City reports they have compassion for the current family member who is inhabiting the land in an illegal structure as zoned. I am sure we can all appreciate this given the man’s history and his link to the property. I hope all involved can mutually agree on a plan to relocate Lewis.

  6. Gordon Theisz, Falls Church on May 29th, 2013 11:45 am

    I recall some zoning issues on Railroad a few years ago – that it is/was not an official City street, so the lots don’t/didn’t have the access they need to be developed. I am wondering how that issue was resolved – did Council act to make Railroad an official street? Is it now maintained by the City? Was a Board of Zoning Appeals variance provided?

  7. TFC on May 29th, 2013 2:15 pm

    @Gordon, I recall the same situation. A family member I know wanted to build a home there but was told he could not. I wish I remembered all the details. He was very frustrated by the hoops he was told he had to go through to try to build a home on the property. The hoops came with large price tags too.

  8. Mark Belcere, ex-Falls Churcher on June 1st, 2013 12:15 am

    Great article and very informative. As a student at GMHS in the 80’s, I had classmates who lived on Railroad Avenue. And in reading a few of the postings here, I recognized some of the surnames (Darren Lee was football star at Mason in the 80’s; Timmy Honesty played hoops for GM; and the Byrd’s (who at one time lived on RR Ave) all played sports at GM as well, but I think the Gaskins went to Falls Church HS) of Falls Church resident families. Learning the source of the name for Sewell Avenue was great even if it is just barely outside city limits.

    Much of this article brought me back to memories of the City back when I walked and biked its streets as a blissfully ignorant youngster (and yes, went to Anthony’s as well as Flipper McGees, and who could forget Playtime?). Railroad Avenue always seemed darker at night and was right next to the bike trail, it was a decent place to drink adult beverages with my high school pals. It would be fitting for RR Ave to be developed into million dollar homes. That seems to be what the City is all about now.

  9. Lynnell Henry on January 9th, 2015 7:16 am

    Great research! As a history researcher, I am always inspire when I see info about Civil war history and African Americans…….

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