Long-time Arlington resident and community leader Fannie McNeil died late last month at the age of 84, her family tells ARLnow.
A constant presence at Lomax A.M.E Zion Church on 24th Road S., McNeil was a member of numerous boards there and the founder of the SPICE (Sisters Providing Information & Christian Encouragement) program. Since the early 1990s, the church program has mentored hundreds of young women in the community.
“She really had us learn the importance of community, love, and women empowerment,” says Reba Nettles, McNeil’s daughter.
McNeil grew up in North Carolina and moved to Arlington’s Green Valley neighborhood in her early 20s with her husband.
A few years later, in the 1960s and with a growing family, they moved to the Columbia Pike corridor, right off of S. Fillmore Street. In the early 1970s, they moved to the Johnson’s Hill neighborhood, now known as Arlington View.
It was then that McNeil became a single mother, raising six children by herself. She also had eight grandchildren, three of which she raised, as well as 13 great-grandchildren, all while living in the Columbia Pike corridor and working to clean residences for more than fifty years.
And she loved her community.
Family describes how she would invite the entire neighborhood over for parties, donating countless hours and money to her church, mentoring children in the community, and bringing food to election officers at Carver Community Center on election day.
“My grandmother, when she would go vote, she would bring food for everyone,” says her granddaughter, Tiffany Jones.
Despite her positive attitude, life wasn’t always easy.
“It was a hard struggle for her,” says Nettles. “But my mother was always there for us… She never missed a step.”
She became an entrepreneur, creating a home cleaning business that allowed the family to live comfortably. The kids and grandchildren say they were never left wanting, always having food, nice dresses, and a loving home.
“This was a woman who witnessed lynchings and was in the era of the [Ku Klux Klan] and surviving that, coming to Arlington County, and building a foundation,” says Danielle McNeill, another granddaughter of Fannie’s. “I mean, she was just so phenomenal.”
As Nettles puts it, “My mother was a role model for all of us.”
She was long-time and welcoming presence at Lomax A.M.E Zion Church, says Brenda Cox who is the chairperson on the church’s historical committee as well as McNeil’s neighbor in Johnson’s Hill.
“They don’t make them like Mrs. McNeil anymore,” Cox says. “She was a pillar of our church and will be missed.”
She was also an amazing cook, so much so that the kids would fight over who would sit next to McNeil at church to get first dibs on what was being prepared for Sunday night family dinner.
“We even got her to cook for her own birthday party,” laughs April Nettles, a granddaughter. “Her own surprise birthday party, at that.”
Cox says at every big church event and moment, McNeil was there, usually doing what she did best.
“She was always in the middle of it,” says Cox. “Probably cooking.”
As McNeil grew older, she saw her neighborhood changing. Johnson’s Hill was first established in the 1880s and in close proximity to Freedman’s Village, which was in the process being closed by the federal government. By the turn of the century, 300 to 400 Black residents lived in Johnson’s Hill. In the 1960s, and around the time McNeil moved in, that number had tripled.
In recent years, though, Black residents in the historic Columbia Pike neighborhood have substantially declined. In 1970, nearly all residents were Black. Forty years later, in 2010, that number had declined to 62%, according to county data. It’s likely when the 2020 census data is released, that number will drop even further.
McNeil’s family says she noticed this and was concerned with rising housing costs, new construction of larger homes, and how it impacted her community.
“I think it bothered her,” Nettles admits. “It was always a loving community. The neighborhood was changing… and some of the Black residents were being pushed out.”
While McNeil is gone, her memory and the lessons she taught her family will always remain. Be it embracing faith, giving back to the community, or simply showing love, McNeil was a role model for all.
“Grams was nurturing and a magnetic force who was wise, loving, caring, and supported anyone who she could reach,” says Jones. “She was the epitome of woman empowerment and intelligent wisdom.”
There will be a service in Fannie McNeil’s memory at Lomax AME Zion Church this Friday, August 12, with a viewing from 10 a.m. to noon. In lieu of flowers, the family is asking for donations to be provided to the scholarship fund set up in her name, the “Fannie McNeil Scholarship.”
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