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A Short History of Tinner Hill

Tinner Hill (1).jpg
Image courtesy of Larry Lipman.

Motorists driving through Falls Church along U.S. 29 - commonly known as Lee Highway, but named Washington Street inside the city - might notice a unique stone arch in front of the Target department store. They might think the arch is all that remains of an historic Black community that was thriving in the decades before the Civil War and played a significant role in the struggle for civil rights in Northern Virginia.

They would be wrong.

The area known as Tinner Hill continues to be a vital part of Falls Church, with many of the residents tracing their heritage back before the Civil War and many historic homes in the community still standing.

A short history of the Tinner Hill community was the focus of AARP Virginia’s first February Tuesday Explorers virtual presentation, which kicked off Black History Month. The presentation was given by Edwin B. Henderson II, the founding director of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation, and his wife, Nikki Graves Henderson, director of the foundation’s history project.

Families whose ancestors are buried in the cemeteries beside the two predominantly Black churches in Falls Church—Galloway United Methodist Church and the Second Baptist Church—still fill their pews, Graves Henderson said.

Several houses in the neighborhood were owned—and in many cases are still owned—by some of the Black families who have lived in the city for about two centuries.  A group of eight such homes have been designated as an historic district.

Graves Henderson called the Tinner Hill area “a jewel of history that’s been preserved here in this community.”

At one point, the Black community of free men, slaves and emancipated slaves comprised nearly 40 percent of the Falls Church population.  There were times when retail stores owned by Black and white merchants stood side by side and were patronized by residents of both races. The history of the Tinner Hill area includes instances where white residents helped educate Black residents - in violation of the law - and where abolitionist sympathies flourished.

But there were other instances where government officials—supported by white residents—actively worked to dilute the political power of the Black community, decimate existing Black neighborhoods, and trample the property rights of Black owners.

Much of the Tinner Hill story starts with the family of Charles and Elizabeth Tinner, who built a home in the community shortly after the Civil War, where they raised 10 children, whose homes were nestled nearby.

Charles Tinner served during the Civil War in the Union-sympathizing Home Guard in Falls Church, which was comprised roughly evenly of Black and white members.  

Several white residents, including Hiram Read, pastor of Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, and his brother, John Read, and John’s daughter, Elizabeth, commonly known as Betsy, worked on behalf of the town’s Black residents.  John and Betsy Read ran an underground school for Blacks, and received financial assistance from Emily Howland, a prominent Quaker abolitionist and friend of Harriet Tubman. In October 1864, John Read was taken from his Falls Church home a few blocks from Tinner Hill by a Confederate unit that was part of Col. John Mosby’s raiders and executed in a wooded area near Hunter Mill Road.  A Black man taken with Read was also shot, but survived the intended execution.

By 1875, Frederick Foote Jr., a prominent Black landowner in Falls Church, was elected as town constable, and by 1880 he had been elected as the first Black member of the town council.

But the political wind was blowing against the Black community.  Political forces in Falls Church became concerned by the large population of Black residents, who were then closely aligned with the Republican Party once led by Abraham Lincoln.  The White town leaders were Democrats.  In 1887, town officials gerrymandered the predominantly Black neighborhood around Tinner Hill - much of it owned by Black resident James Lee - out of the town limits and into the surrounding Fairfax County, which was overwhelmingly white.

“The gerrymandering meant that Black people had no say in town matters anymore,” Edwin Henderson said.

Things became even grimmer by 1915 when town officials drafted an ordinance to segregate the city and require some Black property owners to sell their homes to white people and relocate to a Black neighborhood. Town officials proposed that the ordinance be adopted by a referendum.

To fight the proposed ordinance, the men of nine Black families formed the Colored Citizens Protective League.  The league sought to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had been formed six years earlier.  Fearing violence, the NAACP did not immediately accept the league’s request, but did offer encouragement and assistance.

The league met in the Tinner Hill home of Joseph and Mary Tinner, descendants of Charles and Elizabeth Tinner.

“These nine people and their families took their lives into their hands,” said Graves Henderson, who noted that most of the atrocities against Black people in the South were committed in largely rural areas such as Falls Church. “Many of them could have lost their lives or their livelihoods, so it took a great strength of character.”

Despite the league’s opposition, the referendum was easily adopted by the white residents of Falls Church.  But a suit filed in federal circuit court in Fairfax County challenged its implementation.  The suit was never resolved because a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a similar case in 1917 held that such ordinances were unconstitutional.

A year later, the league was recast as the first rural chapter of the NAACP. Joseph Tinner, the league’s first president, became the first president of the Falls Church chapter of the NAACP.  Joseph Tinner, a stone mason, used pink granite in many of his construction projects around town.  The archway at Tinner Hill was erected in 1999 in memory of the league’s efforts to fight the 1915 ordinance and was constructed from pink granite from the same quarry.

Many of the properties in Falls Church were owned by prominent Black families. But in 1922, the federal government designed a realignment of what had been the Fairfax County Courthouse Road.  The new highway—named in honor of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee—was designed to cut through the predominantly Black neighborhood of Tinner Hill.  Properties owned by many Black families along the route were taken by eminent domain.

“Homes and farms were disrupted by eminent domain,” said Edwin Henderson, noting that the taking was for a highway named after a Confederate general who had fought to keep Black people enslaved. Graves Henderson wondered out loud how much such properties along the major thoroughfare would be worth today.

The segregation ordinance wasn’t the only place where Black residents of Tinner Hill fought discrimination.  Education was a prime area in the struggle. 

In the 1880s, there were two elementary schools in Falls Church. The white school, the Jefferson Institute, was a two-story brick edifice of separate classrooms, running water, indoor plumbing, and heat. The Falls Church Colored School was a two-room clapboard building with no indoor plumbing and a single pot-bellied stove for heat.

One of the people fighting against such separate and unequal treatment of Black and white students was Tinner Hill resident Mary Ellen Henderson, who had been a teacher at a Black school in Washington until she lost her job because she had children.  After World War I, Henderson - Edwin Henderson’s grandmother, commonly called “Miss Nellie” - was urged to reopen the Falls Church Colored School.

For decades she battled the unfair treatment given to Black education.  In 1938, she prepared a study which showed that 97.4 percent of the Fairfax County Public Schools’ budget was devoted to white students, and only 2.6 percent was earmarked for Black students. 

A decade later, on property donated by James Lee, a new school for Black children was opened in Fairfax County.  That school was shut down after Virginia schools were desegregated in the 1960s, but later was renovated a couple of times and is now part of the exterior of the James Lee Community Center.  A middle school named after Mary Ellen Henderson was opened in Falls Church in 2005.

Mary Ellen Henderson’s husband, Edwin Bancroft Henderson, was the first Black physical education instructor in Washington D.C., and is credited with introducing basketball to Black youth. He is often referred to as the “Father of Black Basketball.”  In 2013, he was inducted posthumously into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Edwin Bancroft Henderson will be the subject of AARP Virginia’s Tuesday Explorers virtual presentation on Feb. 8.  To register, click here.

Among the most prominent Black families in the Tinner Hill area were those of Frederick Foote Sr., and Frederick Foote Jr.  Frederick Foote Sr. had served with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War.  He and his son owned many of the properties in and around Falls Church, including 28 acres of land that in what eventually became the Seven Corners shopping area, just east of the city.

Although Frederick Foote Sr. had drafted a property covenant designed to keep the land in the family, it was taken by eminent domain and a federal judge in 1952 ordered that it be sold.  Development of the property eventually led to a scandal in which five Fairfax County supervisors and four developers were indicted. Two of the supervisors spent time in prison for their involvement.

Today, in addition to the stone arch and the historic designation of many of the properties, the Tinner Hill legacy continues in the form of educational and charitable endeavors.  Among the highlights is the annual Tinner Hill Jazz Festival held in nearby Cherry Hill Park in Falls Church. To learn more about Tinner Hill, visit the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation.

To watch the Tuesday Explorers presentation on Tinner Hill, click here.

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