by Martha Claire Catlin, Historian of Alexandria Friends Meeting
Woodlawn Quaker Meeting, now the Alexandria Monthly Meeting, began as the worship community for a pre-Civil War antislavery Quaker colony. The settlers left their homes and farms in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York to demonstrate that Virginia lands could be profitably farmed without the use of enslaved labor. The Friends had confidence that their agricultural knowledge and experience, and hands-on approach to farming, would enable them to advance their antislavery goals. Inaugurating the plan in 1846, Chalkley Gillingham and partners purchased the 2,000-acre Woodlawn Tract, on which the Woodlawn Meetinghouse and burial ground remain today. Their intentional choice of plantation lands once owned by George Washington – an emancipator of his enslaved people through his last will and testament – signaled their hope that slaveholders throughout the South would become influenced to emancipate their slaves and adopt “scientific farming” practices. By 1852, more than forty families had joined in the endeavor by purchasing Woodlawn farmland or additional tracts from Washington’s slaveholding heirs and other plantation owners.
The Woodlawn mansion served as the first location for meeting for worship, and as a home base for new settlers while they built homes on their 100-200-acre farm tracts. The mansion and adjoining acreage were sold to Baptist allies from New Jersey who supported the Quakers’ antislavery purpose and sought to nurture a Baptist worship community at Woodlawn. Friends soon moved their place of worship from the mansion to the nearby Miller’s Cottage at George Washington’s Gristmill. Each place of worship also doubled as a school, and as the population of school-age children grew, Thomas and Sarah Wright built a log addition to their neighboring farmhouse, which served as meetinghouse and school until after the Woodlawn Meetinghouse was constructed in 1851.
During the 1850s the settlers engaged in a flurry of community building, including land purchases, establishment of farms and businesses, and the building of homes, schools, and the Woodlawn Meetinghouse. The nearby village of Accotink was given renewed life as the area’s commercial center. In addition to the sawmill, Accotink boasted a gristmill, blacksmith shop, school, general store and post office, along with a few homes. Throughout these years, the settlers befriended and supported economic independence and land ownership by free African Americans. Many were long-term residents of the neighborhood who were descended from enslaved people of Mount Vernon. Among them were William Holland and Lewis Quander, who became successful farmers of Woodlawn Tract farms purchased from the Quaker settlers.
During the Civil War, the pacifist Woodlawn Quakers were faced with control of the area south of Alexandria by Southern troops in 1861, followed by occupation of the neighborhood and the meetinghouse by Northern troops, as part of the defenses of Washington. For settlers like Chalkley Gillingham who chose to remain, it was a time of hardship, as they coped with military occupation, and the anxiety, disruption, and tragedy of war. For Jonathan Roberts, forced off his farm at Cedar Grove, near Accotink, it became a time of reckoning, as he confronted the conflict between his commitment to the Quaker testimony of peace and his unwavering antislavery passion. Ultimately, following his conscience, he become a scout and guide for the Union Army, but only on the condition that he be allowed to remain a noncombatant.
Many of the families of the Alexandria Monthly Meeting, then Woodlawn’s parent meeting, fled their homes in Alexandria city during the Civil War and never returned. Woodlawn Friends continued farming at Woodlawn and assumed the responsibilities of the Alexandria Monthly Meeting, as efforts to revive the city’s Quaker worship community flagged. They took active part in efforts to establish local free schools, partnering with Lovelace Brown of Gum Springs and William Holland of Woodlawn to provide schools for African American children. Among the students at Woodlawn were many from newly emancipated families whom the Freedmen’s Bureau had settled in the neighborhood at the invitation of the Quakers.
The Woodlawn Meetinghouse was doubled in size in 1869. Woodlawn Friends took over the Alexandria Meeting’s historic role as hosts to Friends who gathered on a quarterly schedule at each of the Monthly Meeting locations throughout Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s Fairfax Quarter. The meetinghouse in Alexandria was eventually sold in 1885. Woodlawn then became the acknowledged site of the Alexandria Monthly Meeting in an alternating pattern with the I Street Meeting in Washington, D.C. This sister meeting of Woodlawn, known as the “Eye Street Meeting,” was established by Woodlawn Friends, then having inherited the title of Alexandria Monthly Meeting, through donations from Friends nationwide who were eager for a Quaker presence in the Nation’s capital. The Woodlawn and Eye Street, Washington, meetings functioned as a single meeting community, and housed the school of Thomas Sidwell at Eye Street. In 1937, the Eye Street Meetinghouse was sold, and Woodlawn again became the sole home of the Alexandria Monthly Meeting.
The twentieth century again brought the military to this pacifist community. Quaker families and the neighboring Woodlawn African American community were displaced by the U. S. Army, first by Camp A.A. Humphreys during World War I, then Fort Belvoir with World War II. Many historic sites from the mid-19th-century settlement era were consumed, including the Gillingham farm and much of the village of Accotink. The Holland family, along with the Woodlawn United Methodist Church and its local Woodlawn congregation, moved north to the Gum Springs community. The historic church cemetery remains, surrounded by Fort Belvoir. The original wood-frame Woodlawn Baptist Church built by the Mason family is gone, but its historic cemetery remains. Woodlawn and the Quaker farmhouse nearby, “Grand View,” survive, along with the sweep of open land down to Dogue Creek. The Woodlawn Meetinghouse and its cemetery also remain, surrounded on three sides by the Fort Belvoir Army base.