I am getting ready for new interview projects on an NPR show and I am super-excited. I was asked to provide a roundup of any interviews or articles on my work to spread Halls Hill history and related projects since my book, My Halls Hill Family: More Than a Neighborhood was published in late 2018. I decided to share this list of highlights with my website family. I hope you can check them out if you’re unfamiliar.
Stay tuned for more information about the upcoming interview right here on HallsHill.com!
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.
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!
How Do We Confront the Racism of Our Nation’s Past?
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.
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.
The poll tax in Virginia originated when it was still a colony int he first meeting of the General Assembly in 1619. At that time it was not a prerequisite for voting, that was not instituted until 1876 when the state constitution was amended.
In 1950 Mrs. Jessie Butler, a resident of Halls Hill, began a fight to eliminate the requirement for payment of the poll tax. It began in Federal Court where the state attorney general attempted to have the case dismissed. Note they tried to blame the low number of Negro residents who have registered due the the “shifting population.”
Mrs. Butler then filed another lawsuit against the Arlington County Registrar and other officials who prevented her from voting because she failed to pay the poll tax. In the original case, Mrs. Butler was unsuccessful with the federal judges in Alexandria. Undeterred, she decided to appeal her case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The appeal failed when the court upheld the Virginia Poll tax.
Mrs. Butler’s attorney, John Locke Green requested his name be withdrawn as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar in his continuing opposition to the Poll Tax. In March 1966, fifteen years after Mrs. Butler’s appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled the Virginia Poll Tax unconstitutional in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections.
Read more Halls Hill history in My Halls Hill Family: More Than a Neighborhood
There has been a lot of discussion over the past month regarding how Arlington County elects its government. The Virginia General Assembly approved a Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) proposed bill creating an option for “ranked choice” in voting legislation. The Arlington Civic Federation is standing up a committee to explore the Arlington Form of Government. I was recently interviewed about my perspective on this issue. It had me thinking about the only Halls Hill resident I am aware of that ran for Arlington County Board, Dr. Edward T. Morton.
Dr. Morton caused quite a stir in Arlington when he made the decision to run for elected office as a County Board candidate in 1931. A Black person had not previously run for elected office since 1903, per a Washington Post article that reported on Dr. Morton’s candidacy.
Note that this election was the first under a “new form of County Government.” Unfortunately, Dr. Morton was not elected to the County Board. To my knowledge, we have had three Black County Board members since 1932, William T. Newman (the first elected Black County Board member in 1987), Charles P. Monroe, and Christian Dorsey. And to my knowledge, only one Latinx County Board member has ever been elected, J. Walter Tejada.
I certainly think it is time to look at the way our County Board and School Board members are elected. You would expect there to be more diversity among our County leaders so the leadership more closely resembles the community they govern.
The fight to desegregate Virginia Public Schools in the years following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Boardruling was full of intimidation and institutional racism. The government did everything possible to deny Black children an equal education in separate facilities, and definitely not in schools with white children.
As Gibson informs in his article, “Jones writes the state of Virginia used its own forms of intimidation as it tried to keep the neighborhood’s residents out of all-white public schools. A state legislative committee just days after the cross burning summoned the author’s mother, Idabel Greene Jones, to appear and answer questions before the Committee on Law Reform and Racial Activities.”
Following the January 31, 1957 court ruling that elementary schools in Virginia must desegregate by September, the Virginia legislature acted in special session to create laws to fight pubic school integration. They were basically laws to intimidate and criminalize the activities of Virginians pursuing the desegregation of schools.
The incident that Gibson recounts is following the Saturday, September 14, 1957, federal court ruling on the Arlington case when a supplemental decree directed the admission of the plaintiffs to white schools. The order was immediately delayed until the state could appeal, but the racists, both within and external to the government were upset! The following day, Sunday, September 15, 1957, the Committee on Law Reform and Racial Activities summoned my mother, Idabel Greene Jones, and others, to appear before the committee on Thursday, September 19th. As you can see from the picture of the summons below, the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office received the summons on Monday, September 16, 1957, at 11:24 AM. They served my mom that same day.
That was a tough day for my mother, who was a 35-year-old wife and mother of six children. She did not seek the limelight and was scared and intimidated by the television cameras and reporters who pursued them at the state capitol building. But she had been prepared by the NAACP attorneys and she did what she had to do.
There were a few parents who decided to withdraw from the lawsuit during that time, but the overwhelming consensus for the majority of the group was to proceed further to achieve their goal. Of course, it would be two more years before the desegregation of schools would begin in Virginia in February 1959.
In 1924 children in the segregated Halls Hill neighborhood of Arlington County attended the Sumner School on north Culpeper street. It was a one-story frame building with two classrooms and one office. It was severely overcrowded and chronically underfunded. I was unable to determine when the Sumner School opened but in 1913 the principal was Mr. L.C Baltimore, and the two teachers were Mrs. E. B. Holmes and Miss B.V. Thomas.
It was well known that segregated schools in Virginia and the other former Confederate states did not provide a decent education for Black students. This was true in Arlington, where Black schools received only hand-me-down books and supplies from white schools. The facilities were woefully undersized. Residents of Halls Hill had requested a new school building from the County government for years before 1920 with no progress.
A collaboration between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald created the project to build “Rosenwald Schools,” to educate Black students to attempt to allay the chronic underfunding of schools in the Southern states. Booker T. Washington was an educator and philanthropist, and the founder of the Tuskegee Institute. Julius Rosenwald was a clothier who became a part-owner and president of Sears, Roebuck, and Company. Their collaboration required both the Black community and the white local government to contribute to funding the school construction. The local school board was required to operate and maintain the schools. Almost 5,000 schools were built in the former Confederate states and Maryland, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Missouri. These schools educated almost one-third of black students in the country.
As noted in Wikipedia, “The school building program was one of the largest programs administered by the Rosenwald Fund. Using state-of-the-art architectural plans designed by professors at Tuskegee Institute, the fund spent more than four million dollars to build 4,977 schools, 217 teacher homes, and 163 shop buildings in 883 counties in 15 states, from Maryland to Texas. The Rosenwald Fund was based on a system of matching grants, requiring white school boards to commit to maintenance and black communities to aid in construction.”
The Halls Hill community took advantage of the collaboration and the Rosenwald Fund opportunity. They raised $500 to contribute toward the construction of an elementary school. The project was approved for funding after the Arlington County School Board agreed to contribute toward the construction of the building. The local school board consented to operate and maintain the facility. The Washington Post archives screenshots below report that 96 years ago this week, on Friday, August 15, 1924, the Arlington County school district opened bids for the construction of the building.
On Sunday, November 8, 1925, only 451 days later, the school was dedicated and subsequently opened to the community’s children. My dad was one of the proud first graders to enter the building that first day. The Washington Post’s Arlington Bureau reported on the dedication as seen in the screenshot below.
As described in an excerpt from my book, My Halls Hill Family, “More than 1,000 people attended the installation of the cornerstone for the new school, to be named John M. Langston School after the abolitionist, attorney, educator, activist, diplomat, and politician who was the first dean of Howard University Law School. The Grand Order of Odd Fellows Hopewell Lodge No. 1700 laid the stone. The lodge was a prominent membership organization on Halls Hill. Led by Moses Jackson, George H. Hyson, Shirley Snowden, Joseph Bolden, and Horace Shelton, in August 1888, they purchased a one-acre parcel of land on Halls Hill from Basil Hall to build their lodge’s hall.”
Black residents of Arlington neighborhoods worked hard to advocate for themselves and their communities, despite Jim Crow racism and discrimination in Virginia. The importance of Langston, (even though it’s been rebuilt), to the High View Park -Halls Hill community is based on the deep roots of the institution and it’s almost 100 years of history.