By Gary Carroll
Once upon a time, a little African-American girl, born in 1934 in rural, racially segregated Fauquier County, grew up to be a multi-talented entrepreneur and a fashion model at the New York World’s Fair. During her 48 short years, she became a community and civic leader, developed and operated her own business, and created recreational and training opportunities for black youth. Through her lifestyle and accomplishments, she became a role model for a generation of African-American women.
But this is not a fairy tale; it is the story of Eva Walker, for whom Eva Walker Park in Warrenton is named. How many motorists entering downtown Warrenton via Alexandria Pike have glanced at the open green area with playground equipment off to their left and wondered, “Who is Eva Walker and why is there a park named for her?”
Robert Walker, Eva’s 91 year-old husband, recently welcomed me into their home on Fourth Street overlooking what is now Walker Park. There, I had the opportunity to listen, transfixed, as he and his daughter, retired teacher Robyn Thompson, reminisced about their memories of Eva’s personal and community achievements. Asked what he remembered most about his wife, Robert immediately said, “She was not afraid to tackle anything.”
This was a quality she learned as a child. Eva’s father, a successful stone mason, taught her she could become whatever she wanted to be, and Eva clearly took his advice seriously. Entering Routts Hill School when she was four years old, she quickly impressed her teacher with her energy and intelligence. Eva graduated as salutatorian of her class at Routts Hill and later graduated as valedictorian from Rosenwald High School, receiving a college scholarship from Virginia State College.
But life had other plans. It was her intelligence, beauty, and confident personality that caught the attention of Robert who, when a friend introduced them. They married in 1951, and as it turned out, Virginia State College’s loss was Warrenton’s gain.
As Eva and Robert started to build a family with two daughters, they also started to build a better environment for their community. The couple converted the basement of their home into a youth community center where neighborhood kids could spend time playing games, enjoying cold sodas, and listening to music supplied by the Walkers’ large collection of 45 and 78 rpm records, a collection that Robert maintains even today. The Walkers allowed their home to be used for parties and money-raising projects.
Eva was always looking for a cause and eager to accept a leadership role, whether it was holding a carnival to raise money for muscular dystrophy or organizing young people to clean up their community. She persuaded the Town Council to upgrade streets, sidewalks and housing in the area. Looking out her kitchen at the unkempt field where children played caused her to dream of one day converting that field into a proper park. She began the process of making that happen by approaching the owner of the land and encouraging him to donate it to the town. Today, the park is a welcome oasis for children in the community.
Eva commuted to Washington, D.C. to attend the famous Ophelia DeVore School of Self Development and Modeling, which was devoted to training African-American women, setting her on a course to become a model and designer. She then used her own personal studies and training to benefit her community. She studied cosmetology and became a certified cosmetologist, allowing her to open her own beauty salon in her home which she named La Petite Sherobyn, after her two daughters, Robyn and Sherrie. She also produced her own line of cosmetics.
Back home in Warrenton, she taught etiquette and charm classes to neighborhood girls and even helped to organize them into a majorette group to march in local parades, making most of their costumes herself. Eva also organized fashion shows to raise money for charities and helped raise funds for the Heart Fund, while volunteering to work as a “gray lady” at the Fauquier Hospital.
One of the greatest impacts of Eva and Robert Walker on the community came during the years of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. Both were leaders in the movement and were active in promoting racial integration of schools and businesses, working closely with other elements of the community to break down racial barriers and promote more equitable treatment of all residents. They both participated in sit-ins at local restaurants and lunch counters that had previously refused service to African Americans.
In part because of the work of Eva and Robert Walker with local government and civic leaders, the racial integration process in Warrenton went more smoothly than in many areas of the country. Leaders in various parts of the community worked together to advance the inevitable social and legal transformation in Warrenton and Fauquier.
Sadly, Robert and Warrenton lost Eva in 1982 when she died suddenly at the young age of 48. She left behind her husband Robert, who still lives in their home built some 60 years ago, their two daughters, and a godson, DeShawn. Her daughter Robyn spent many years teaching in the Fauquier County School System, and Sherrie owns Sherrie’s Stuff on Main Street in Warrenton and has recently opened Eva’s Alley on Center Street in Manassas. Sherrie is currently researching her family’s history and hopes to publish a book on their story.
Even in death, Eva continued to make a statement about racial equality. When Robert was shown the “Black” section of Warrenton cemetery for Eva’s burial, he said “No, thanks,” and insisted that she be buried at a spot near the current county Sheriff’s Headquarters. There she rests today as a lasting symbol of her commitment to make Warrenton the unified town it is today.