The Black Church on Halls Hill

Henry Louis Gates’ PBS Special and Companion Book Bring Back Memories

Listen to “The Black Church on Halls Hill.”

In mid-January, I read the PBS.com blog announcing the two-part special, “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song.” Like most Black Americans who grew up in the Black church, the words to the subtitle were immediately familiar as the first lines of the chorus of a favorite hymn, Blessed Assurance. I was excited because I knew Dr. Gates would present this subject with the reverence and importance it was due. The Black church was the foundation upon which so many of the advances in Black American life was built. Many of us in the Black community know this fact. It is past time for this important information to be brought into the mainstream of American history.

I watched with anticipation when the show premiered. As the stories were told and songs and experiences of our ancestors were displayed before me on the screen, I remembered my personal experience in the churches of Halls Hill. My mom and dad were faithful members of Mt. Salvation Baptist Church, and Calloway Methodist Church, respectively. They grew up in those churches and after they married, they both continued their service and faith journeys at their “home” churches. I and my siblings grew up in the same churches as our parents. My mom took the seven children with her to Sunday School and 11 AM morning service every week. (We all went to Calloway for anniversaries, special programs and events, and of course, Vacation Bible School.)

Rev. N. R. Richardson, who became pastor of Mt. Salvation in 1931. This pic was taken in 1954. My mom is fourth from the left.

When I remember going to Mt. Salvation as a young child, this picture is the vision I see in my mind. If the church was open, my mom was probably there. By the time I was a kid, she was the Superintendent of the Sunday School, the Church Clerk, sang in the Senior Choir, served on the Senior Usher Board, and more. And her level of service was not unusual. This was the norm. It was true of most of my friend’s parents as well. At Calloway, my dad was on the Trustee Board, Financial Secretary for many years, and was a Senior Usher, too. Dr. Gates reflected on this characteristic in the documentary. That’s how people in the Black churched rolled. They served.

A picture of the Calloway Trustee Board from the Centennial Celebration Program in 1966. My dad is second from the right.

The church was the center of our life and faith was the foundation of our home. The churches in our segregated neighborhoods filled the gap in our racist society. Black people did not have equal access to education, social, and or entertainment opportunities. The Black church is where we planned and strategized. As the documentary described it, the Black church played the “bedrock role as the site of African American survival and grace, organizing and resilience, thriving and testifying, autonomy and freedom, solidarity and speaking truth to power.”

This is definitely true for the role the Black Church played in Arlington. The first Black church established in Arlington in Freedman’s Village was the Old Bell Church, which became Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which still stands in the Green Valley neighborhood. The church members set the tone for all the Black churches that would follow to focus on faith, responsibility, education, and organizing their members for the betterment of the entire community. Combining faith, praise, and worship with a focus on social justice and equality. And now in 2021, it remains important work that many Black churches continue to do today.

BUY MY HALLS HILL FAMILY AT AMAZON NOW !

What is Best for the Children

But Only When the Children are White

Listen to “What Is Best for the Children.”

I entered the segregated Langston Elementary School as a kindergartner in September 1964 in Miss Green’s class. As a child, I was completely unaware of the battle the adults in our community were engaged in with the Arlington County School Board. Our parents, the John M. Langston Citizens Association, the Arlington Branch of the NAACP, and the local Congress of Racial Equality were all working to convince the School Board to have Langston remain a neighborhood school.

There were discussions and proposals throughout the next two years to determine what would happen to the students and the school building once segregation of Black and White children was scheduled to end. The School Board feared that White parents would not want their children to attend the school in the Black community. This was despite the fact that the Halls Hill neighborhood was surrounded by White communities. Many of the White children who would be assigned to Langston lived only a few blocks from the school.

The proposed plan that would have kept the Langston Elementary School as a neighborhood school following integration. This planned was not approved.

This plan described in the article above would have bussed far fewer students than “Plan 6,” one of the previously proposed plans. However, many of the parents of the White children preferred “Plan 6.” The School Board “made it clear” that race was not to be considered but that was an obvious falsehood.

It had been well-documented that school boundaries for Langston were gerrymandered to segregate the races at the school. The School Board was taking heat for the way they were addressing the integration of the three segregated elementary schools, as documented by multiple newspaper articles, one of which is excerpted below.

The final decision was made to disenfranchise the Black students and the Halls Hill community. In June 1966, Langston was closed as a neighborhood elementary school. Proposal 6 was approved. The 300 students were transferred to five White elementary schools. This was because the School Board succumbed to pressure from White parents concerned about Black children comprising the majority of students at any of the previously Whites-only schools. The School Board made sure that Black children would not exceed 35 percent of the school population.

The Halls Hill community was denied a neighborhood school, unlike every other established Arlington community. However, the School Board assigned kindergarten classes to the Langston building – both White and Black children! That decision was an insult to the Halls Hill community. And as my old elementary school friend, King Prather’s message advised, the influence of two Black males teachers in elementary school impacted him greatly. How many White children could have been positively impacted by the influence of the Langston teachers and administrators?

On the Arlington Public Schools website the information about Langston is not included in the history of desegregation of schools.

In my experience, I have found that the Arlington County School Board has rarely (if ever) made a boundary decision that favors Black, POC, or poor children over the middle and upper-class White majority. Unfortunately, this record continues today.

Buy My Halls Hill Family: More Than a Neighborhood at AMAZON!

We Have to Wrestle Our Demons in the Daylight

How Do We Confront the Racism of Our Nation’s Past?

Listen to the blog post – “We Have to Wrestle Our Demons in the Daylight”

I attended segregated Langston Elementary School in the Halls Hill neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia for kindergarten and first grade. In June 1966, Langston was closed. All of the students were divided by address and forced to attend five white schools, to ensure that the percentage of Black students would not exceed 35 percent of the student population at any of the schools.

I was enrolled at Walter Reed Elementary School and began second grade in Miss Harmony’s class. I was one of four or five Black students from Langston in the class of about 25 students. In Arlington County, third-grade students were tested for admittance into the talented and gifted program, called “Seminar.” To the school administration’s surprise, two Black students at Reed would be among the 24 Seminar students in the upcoming fourth-grade class. By fifth grade, the School Board cut the budget. The funding would support only 12 students and I was to be the lone Black Seminar student. Trust that there was a lot of communication between the school and parents because there was a major effort to keep Black students out of these programs. Unfortunately for the school, my parents were well versed in the strategies used to delay and deny Black students their rightful accommodations, and I remained in the program.

I knew that many of my fellow students were racists. I knew many grew up in racist households and that their parents did not want us in class together. I didn’t know any White children before I started school at Reed. I developed a friendship with one White girl in elementary school. We were in Seminar classes together for all three years. She was Jewish and her mom had earned a graduate degree at Howard University. For most of the other White kids, I am sure the Halls Hill kids were the first Black people they had interacted with at that level in their lives.

I have since reconnected with many of my fellow classmates from high school on Facebook. Very few from elementary school. A few years ago, my White friend from Reed school reached out. It’s been great to re-establish our friendship and meet each other’s children.

After I published My Halls Hill Family: More Than a Neighborhood, I heard from a lot of my old classmates. They gave me feedback and discussed their thoughts of those old times. But most of the interactions were not deep exchanges. I often wondered after those exchanges what they really thought and experienced during those times.

On Thursday, June 25, 2020, I received a Facebook message that let me know my book was bringing back thoughts for an old classmate. He wasn’t afraid to address his family history and have courageous communication with me about how the book impacted his perspective.

You may or may not remember me, although I am cursed with a memorable name.  We met when we spent time in school together in Mr. Marsh’s and Mrs. Scharff’s classes at Reed elementary.   I remember you as curious, and very confident. I also remember that you were very fast.  Funny the things we remember.  

Last week I read your wonderfully personal book about Halls Hill.  I was envious of the familial feel you described, the sense of community.  I was proud that you were describing a neighborhood in my hometown.  I lived in Woodlawn at 14th and Buchanan.  Through your eyes I was able to see what I had missed growing up.  Four blocks away, on the other side of the wall, my perspective was different.  My perspective was mis-informed.

I should tell you that I hovered over the purchase button for your book a few months ago.  Sometimes I don’t know why I act or procrastinate, but this time it is clear.  George Floyd sent me back to buy the book.  And he sent me to you because our paths crossed way back when.  Black lives matter.

Whoa! I was like, what the what?! Needless to say, I was shocked.

He goes on to explain the disconnect in his elementary school mind, of the things he heard from his Alabama relatives about Black people, compared to the experiences he had in his classroom in Arlington, Virginia. And based on his experiences with Mr. Marsh, our Black male fifth-grade teacher.

Although my parents were very rarely overtly racist, I never recall speaking about differences. I do recall being exposed to overt racism when visiting extended family.   Our vacations in Alabama were littered with relatives who laughed at dropping fireworks into the bathroom stalls when the rest rooms were integrated, or who taught their dogs to bark at the N word.  Really.  

I do recall trying to square the impression I was getting from this environment that blacks were inferior with the experiences I was having that would tend to indicate otherwise.  As a traveling PE teacher, Coach Willie Jones was assigned to Woodlawn as well.  I remember him encouraging me with my sprinting form.  I also remember his “no cuttin’ up” rules, applied equally to black and white kids. He was a good role model.   Hank Aaron was my baseball hero.  I recalling being sad when I read about the death threats and ugly notes he received while chasing Babe Ruth.  Mr. Marsh was a hero.

These are the tough conversations that are starting to happen with more frequency. I am happy that my book helped to drive this dialogue with my old elementary school friend, N. King Prather as he confronts his past with his present and the efforts he is making to be anti-racist in his village in North Carolina today.

Fast forward……..Throughout my professional career, I worked with my employers on diversity efforts.  Today I am working on Governor Cooper’s DRIVE Task Force here in North Carolina in an effort to increase the number of minorities teaching in the classroom.  Life has taught me the invaluable advantages of diversity, and the reality of systemic racism in so many areas that remain impactful today.  I also believe that we all owe a contribution to the community woodpile.  It takes a village.

Today, King sent me a link to an article published on WRAL.com, We are all ancestors of ourselves where he states, “Black lives matter. Justice is a process, not an outcome. Silence is complicity.” I am proud that the “rambling letter” he sent to me last summer was the beginning of the thoughts that became this article.

As I wrote to King this morning, “I think it’s through this type of introspection…that real change in this country will finally happen.” And he responded, “We have to wrestle our demons in the daylight.” Well said, my friend.

BUY MY HALLS HILL FAMILY AT AMAZON NOW !