Growing Up Confident in Strong Black Neighborhoods
It’s interesting that many times people think growing up in a segregated neighborhood was a negative experience. Now from an infrastructure perspective, it wasn’t fun. We knew our streets, homes, school books and supplies, were not like those offered to white people. But the love, comfort, connectedness, and confidence we gained was far more important to our growth.
I’ve talked about it in previous blog posts. In my local access cable television show, UNTOLD: Stories of Black Arlington, episode two, which premieres tonight, Sunday, April 4th at 9 PM, my sister Lydia Jones Cole speaks about one of her perspective’s on segregation and racism and it’s affect – or lack of – growing up in the strong Black neighborhoods of Arlington.
The show features Lydia speaking about her book, “You Must Be a Jones: A Family Memoir,” and Dr. Alfred O. Taylor, Jr. Author of “What an Amazing Journey!” His journey and family history really is amazing! Both books include their perspective on growing up in segregated Arlington and so does our conversation. I hope you can join me this evening. Watch on Comcast channel 69 or Verizon channel 38 in Arlington, Virginia, or streaming live on the Arlington Media homepage.
I love to swim. I learned at around six years old at the Baptist Center Camp in Gainesville, VA. My best friend’s uncle was the camp lifeguard. At that age, I was only allowed to visit the camp with my friend when her grandfather came to service the pool on weekends. I naturally “took” to the water and over a few visits in the summer, I learned how to swim.
I recently began to regularly workout at the Arlington Aquatic Centers at the two Arlington high school facilities near my home, Washington-Liberty, and Yorktown. It’s great exercise and it also allows me to have a way to meditate, thereby killing two birds with one stone.
As I counted my sets in the water yesterday evening, I began to think about the fact that I didn’t learn to swim in my hometown of Arlington. Racism and discrimination permeated every facet of Black children’s access to recreation facilities, whether playgrounds, amusement parks, or pony rides. But as I began to read more about our access to pools, I was surprised by the level of hate and violence Black people endured just because they wanted to enjoy a dip in the pool. The effects of this racism endure today.
There was one public pool in Arlington where Black people could swim when I was a child, and that was the Veterans Memorial YMCA Pool in Green Valley. The “Y” opened in 1949. The building had a Community Room where they had dances and showed movies for the neighborhood youth. But because we lived on Halls Hill and didn’t have any relatives in that neighborhood, I only went swimming at the “Y” during Arlington Recreation summer camp day trips.
The first pool in Arlington was opened in 1924 at the Army-Navy Country Club off of South Glebe Road. As Charlie Clark details in his Falls Church News-Press column, Our Man in Arlington, “Arlington’s postwar boom brought subdivision membership associations. Arlington Forest got there first in 1954, with its handsome pool nestled below the Carlin Springs Road. Dominion Hills Pool on Wilson Blvd. wrote its bylaws in 1955 and built on the site of the 19th-century Powhatan Springs. My own Overlee Community Association formed on Lee Highway in 1957.” These private pools did not allow Black people to join when I was a child.
Pools in D.C. provided an alternate option for Black youth to swim. The Negro Recreation Section of Arlington County used to take children to the East Potomac Park swimming pool at Hains Point on day trips in the 1950s. In communities across America, pools were just another example of discrimination that Black people endured just trying to enjoy life.
I was stunned to read about the desegregation of pools being the cause of the first “Race Riot” in Washington, DC! In 1949 after the Anacostia Pool was desegregated Black swimmers were attacked by Whites. The aftermath of these uprisings across the country against Black people trying to swim in pools with White people was described in the book, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, “millions of white Americans who once swam in public for free began to pay rather than swim for free with Black people; desegregation in the mid-fifties coincided with a surge in backyard pools and members-only swim clubs. In Washington, D.C., for example, 125 new private swim clubs were opened in less than a decade following pool desegregation in 1953
In 1973 Arlington opened its first public pools at the three high schools. It took a long time for the County government to approve the new pool system, and I’m sure in the early years when it was considered, interracial swimming was one reason to delay. I am proud to say I was an employee at W-L pool under the late Don Quesada, the pool manager, for quite a few years as a teenager. Although I didn’t learn to swim in an Arlington pool, I am happy to be able to get my swim on today in the public pool.
Henry Louis Gates’ PBS Special and Companion Book Bring Back Memories
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
The new Arlington Independent Media television show UNTOLD: Stories of Black Arlington will premiere on Sunday, November 29th at 9 PM. Watch in Arlington on Verizon channel 38 or Comcast channel 69, or on the web at Arlington Media’s website.
Arlington history tells the story of how the suburb’s Black neighborhoods developed under segregation and Jim Crow discrimination. I have been researching Arlington’s segregation walls for a project and the institutional racism the Black community faced beginning in the late 1800s was successful in its goal to rid the community of Black residents. At the turn of the 20th century, Black people comprised over 35 percent of Arlington County’s population. Today, we number less than 9 percent of the community.
There are two researchers whose work was very helpful in looking into the development of Arlington’s Black communities. One was Built By the People Themselves – African American Community Development in Arlington, Virginia, from the Civil War through Civil Rights, a dissertation by Lindsey Bestebreurtje. The other was Nancy Perry, who focused her dissertation on thegeographical aspects of segregation for the African American community in Arlington, VA
I was aware of Freedman’s Village, started by the federal government in 1863 for formerly enslaved Black people. The Black Heritage Museum of Arlington has information online and a physical Freedman’s Village exhibit. And I knew about the efforts to disenfranchise the residents from the 1880s until the closing of the community in 1900. Black residents were not given fair compensation for their properties and businesses. Many relocated to other Black communities in Arlington, especially Green Valley and Johnson’s Hill.
As you can see in the map above, in 1900 there were 12 Black neighborhoods or enclaves in Arlington. The largest Black neighborhood, Green Valley has its roots in 1844 when it was inhabited by free Black people. East Arlington was a large Black community that was boded by Queen City, both established not far from Freedman’s Village by former residents. Both those neighborhoods were taken by the government, and once again residents were not fairly compensated for their property.
Only the Hall’s Hill-High View Park, Johnson’s Hill – Arlington View, and Green Valley communities exist as historically Black neighborhoods, although they are all greatly gentrified.
There is so much more Black history to share on these lost Black neighborhoods. More to come in next week’s post.
I’m pretty much a “blue sky” kinda person. I try to see the positive in everything. Most of the time. And sometimes that means that I am a little more optimistic than realistic about my target timelines for meeting goals and objectives. This time I missed the mark.
My goal to debut the new TV show, UNTOLD: Stories of Black Arlington in mid-September was a little too aggressive. I couldn’t get everything completed in time. There was required training to be authorized to produce the show. I needed to complete preshow research. Secure guests. And then develop the production, review with my supervising producer, and secure an editor. Although I thought I could accomplish everything in four weeks, it took twice that time frame.
Although I am a little tardy, I am thrilled to announce that we are scheduled to tape the first episode tomorrow, October 5th! Our show topics this first season include revealing information on a little known division of the Arlington Recreation Department known as the Negro Recreation Section. We’ll expose perspectives about attending and teaching in segregated schools. And we’ll learn what it took to build, grow, and pass on a business to the next generation, despite barriers, discrimination, and institutional racism, from Black businessmen who did just that in Arlington.
I am hopeful everything goes well tomorrow to kick off the taping. We have an exciting schedule planned for 15 episodes in season one. I don’t have the entire season nailed down in stone yet, so if you have ideas, send them to me! Please email me at Wilma@WilmaJ.com.
I will update everyone on when we have a confirmed date for the premiere of the first episode. Thank you for all your support!
Read more Halls Hill history in My Halls Hill Family: More Than a Neighborhood
Arlington Moves Forward to Change the Name of Lee Highway
In July the Arlington County Board gave its “blessing,” to the Lee Highway Alliance to establish a working group to develop a list of potential names for the Board to consider to rename the highway. As a community activist in Arlington for almost 30 years, and a member of the Lee Highway Alliance, I have been asked, and I’ve agreed to participate in the working group.
Today I was one of the participants in the production of a video discussing the history and impact of Lee Highway to people who live or have lived near Lee Highway. It was an opportunity to share the perspective of this highway that was called “Falls Church Road,” before the racist leaders in control of state government transportation departments decided to rename the road. Like many other roads, as well as buildings, monuments, and bridges Lee Highway was named in honor of the loser president of The Confederate States of America (CSA). In case you’re unaware, the CSA was a collection of 11 states that seceded from the United States in 1860 following the election of President Abraham Lincoln. Then they lost the Civil War.
Interestingly enough, these Confederate names were adopted many years after the end of the Civil War. Why? Well, History.com names it clearly, “white backlash.” From the website, “Why do schools have these names in the first place? Some received their Confederate names between 1900 and the 1920s, when Jim Crow laws segregated the south and Confederate monument construction in the country peaked. Others came much later. Of the 100 schools that retain Confederate names, at least 32 were built or dedicated between 1950 and 1970 amid white backlash to Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights movement.”
I have had a few folks give me suggestions for new names. But I am going into the process with an open mind. As open as a 61 year old Black woman can have about a road that has been a part of my life forever. First memories of good stuff at Langston Elementary School and Fire Station 8. Not so pleasant memories being followed by Miss Dottie at Robertson’s 5 and 10 Store every Saturday when I went to purchase a bat and ball, a set of jacks, or a deck of Old Maid Playing Cards. But there were far more good experiences than bad. Going to High’s to get ice cream. To Mrs. Adele’s to get my hair pressed for Sunday service.
But what about Lee Highway now? What do you think about the renaming? What name do you think the Working Group should consider proposing to the County Board?
Coming in September: UNTOLD: Stories of Black Arlington
I found this account by Mrs. Nellie C. Stewart written back in the 1960s of the history of Langston School in my mom’s papers. I thought I would share it because it has details that are not common knowledge. One item of interest is that Lee Highway used to be called, “Falls Church Road.” There is also more detail about the school that preceded the Sumner School. I had no idea there was a school in a place called the “Wonder House.” Rather than paraphrasing Mrs. Stewart’s history, I decided to let you read it (or click below to listen to the audio) for yourself.
Ask any Black person who grew up in Arlington during the 1950’s to 1970’s about Jennie Dean Park in the Green Valley neighborhood and I guarantee they will have a story to tell. It will be a story of friends. Of fun. And most of all, a story of community.
I interviewed Mrs. A. Saundra Green of the Halls Hill – High View Park neighborhood about Jennie Dean because she is without question a living treasure of Arlington Black History knowledge. I knew Saundra could provide details about the “Negro Recreation Division,” in Arlington County Parks and Recreation Department based on her experiences growing up in Arlington and as a staff director in Arlington Parks and Recreation Department for decades. Jennie Dean Park was created for Black Arlington as one of only seven parks in the segregated system.
As “The Early History of Arlington Parks and Recreation Department explains, “Until 1962, the Arlington parks system was segregated. The Negro Recreation Section was designated by the parks department for African-American members of the community who were denied access to County parks. Created in 1948, the Negro Recreation Section provided sports and arts-related programming and held public events, which were often held at the Langston Recreation Center or Hoffman-Boston School. Mr, Ernest E. Johnson served as its supervisor from 1948-1962.”
Jennie Dean was the largest of seven playgrounds in the Negro Recreation Section. All of the special events in recreation that were County-wide for Black Arlington residents were held at Jennie Dean because of its 22-acre size. Saundra listed off the segregated neighborhoods that were “Halls Hill, Green Valley, Hatsville, and Johnson’s Hill, where the smaller neighborhood playgrounds came together for festivals, track meets, little league softball, and other big events at Jennie Dean.”
Saundra went on describe Jenny Dean, “as a place where African-American children from around the County met each another.” She went on to explain that before children went to (segregated) Hoffman-Boston Junior-Senior High School, they had met children from other County neighborhoods during recreation events at Jennie Dean.
When I was a teenager in Arlington in the late 1960s and ’70s, although Arlington Recreation was integrated, services were still provided by neighborhood, especially in terms of summer camps and drop-in recreation. Of course, redlining in housing was still prevalent, though illegal in the County, so most Black people lived the historically segregated neighborhoods. Friday nights in summer were all about watching or participating League Softball games at Jennie Dean. Basketball tournaments and the ice cream truck song competing with the music playing and spectator’s cheering and telling stories of bragging rights for the winning team.
Jennie Dean holds additional significance to Black Arlingtonians because Ms. Jane Serepta Dean, or “Miss Jennie Dean” was a formerly enslaved woman who founded the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth. This secondary school was one of few secondary schools serving African American youth. In 1948 Arlington County Public Schools was paying the tuition for 33 students to attend the school in Manassas rather than allow them to attend all-white Washington-Lee High School. In 1944 when Arlington County purchased this park, land where Black people from Green Valley played baseball since the 1930’s, it was named Jennie Dean Park in her honor.
Today, Jennie Dean Park is the subject of neighborhood concern due to the recent decision by the County Board to establish a temporary parking lot for television station WETA down the block from the station. The Green Valley Civic Association leadership expressed their displeasure about the County’s stating in 2018 that, “acquisition of the property is essential for the expansion of Jennie Dean Park.” Then the Board made the decision to use the land for private parking for an undefined period of time. There was no notice given to the neighborhood. No email sent to the Civic Association. No notices posted on social media. Only a notice in the Washington Times.
It’s no wonder the Civic Association feels Arlington County government has “failed” the Green Valley neighborhood by their inability to communicate and work in partnership this project at a place that holds so much historic significance to our community. Let’s hope the County Board and Manager make a sincere effort to improve communication and partnership with Green Valley as the County’s oldest and most revered historic African-American neighborhood.