Longtime local community leader Fannie McNeil dies

Longtime Arlington resident and community leader Fannie McNeil died late last month at the age of 84, her family told ARLnow.

A constant presence at Lomax AME Zion Church on 24th Road S., McNeil was a member of numerous boards of directors and founder of the SPICE (Sisters Provident Information & Christian Encouragement) program. Since the early 1990s, the church program has mentored hundreds of young women in the community.

“She really taught us the importance of community, love and empowerment of women,” says Reba Nettles, McNeil’s daughter.

McNeil grew up in North Carolina and moved to Arlington’s Green Valley neighborhood in her early twenties with her husband.

A few years later, in the 1960s and with a growing family, they moved to the Columbia Pike Corridor, just off 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 on her own. She also had eight grandchildren, of whom she raised three, as well as 13 great-grandchildren, while living in the Columbia Pike Hallway and working cleaning residences for over fifty years.

And she loved her community.

Family describes how she would invite the entire neighborhood to parties, donate countless hours and money to her church, mentor children in the community, and bring food to election officials at the Carver Community Center on Election Day.

“My grandmother, when she went to vote, she brought food for everyone,” says her granddaughter, Tiffany Jones.

Despite her positive attitude, life hasn’t always been easy.

“It was a tough fight for her,” Nettles says. “But my mom was always there for us… She never missed a step.”

She became an entrepreneur, starting a home cleaning business that allowed the family to live comfortably. Children and grandchildren say they have never been left behind, that they always have food, beautiful dresses and a loving home.

“It was a woman who witnessed lynchings and who was at the time of the [Ku Klux Klan] and survive that, come to Arlington County and build a foundation, ”says Danielle McNeill, another granddaughter of Fannie. “I mean, she was so phenomenal.”

As Nettles says, “My mother was a role model for all of us.”

She was a longtime and welcoming presence at Lomax AME Zion Church, says Brenda Cox who is the chair of the church’s history committee as well as McNeil’s neighbor at Johnson’s Hill.

“They don’t do 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 children would argue over who would sit next to McNeil in church to get the initial information on what was being prepared for Sunday night’s family dinner.

“We even asked her to cook for her own birthday party,” laughs April Nettles, a granddaughter. “His own surprise birthday party, too.”

Cox says that at every big event and church time, McNeil was there, usually doing what she did best.

“She was always in the middle of it,” Cox says. “Probably cooking.”

As he grew older, McNeil saw his neighborhood change. Johnson’s Hill was first established in the 1880s and near Freedman’s Village, which was being closed by the federal government. By the turn of the century, 300 to 400 black residents lived in Johnson’s Hill. By the 1960s, and by the time McNeil moved in, that number had tripled.

In recent years, however, black residents of the historic Columbia Pike district have declined significantly. In 1970, almost all residents were black. Forty years later, in 2010, that number had fallen to 62%, according to county data. It is likely that when the 2020 census data is released, that number will drop even further.

McNeil’s family say they noticed it and worried about rising housing costs, new construction of larger homes and the impact it was having on their community.

“I think it bothered her,” Nettles admits. “It’s always been a loving community. The neighborhood was changing… and some of the black residents were being kicked out. “

While McNeil is gone, her memory and the lessons she taught her family will live on forever. Whether it was embracing the faith, giving back to the community, or just showing love, McNeil was a role model for all.

“Grams was an uplifting, magnetic force who was wise, loving, caring and supported everyone she could reach,” Jones said. “She was the epitome of female empowerment and intelligent wisdom.”

There will be a Fannie McNeil Memorial Service at Lomax AME Zion Church this Friday, August 12, with a screening from 10 a.m. to noon. In lieu of flowers, the family is asking for donations to be made into the scholarship fund created in his name, the “Fannie McNeil Scholarship”.