Remembering Sydney Williams

sydney williams
sydney williams
Mr. Sydney Williams

Yesterday when I opened my Facebook app, I was stunned to read the news of the passing of Sydney Williams, who was a good friend and a great man. Sydney was the eldest son of Muriel and Mervin Williams, who were lifelong friends of my parents and our families were close.

I wanted to post about Sydney today because he was a leader and activist and until the end, he always spoke his mind and his truth. In 2018, Charlie Clark of the Falls Church News- Press wrote about Sydney’s perspective of growing up in Halls Hill in his column, Our Man in Arlington. Here’s an excerpt for you:

A commemoration of a different sort sprang up spontaneously on the Facebook page “I Grew Up in Arlington, Va.”

Sydney Williams, a 68-year-old Washington-Lee High School graduate now living in West Bay, Cayman Islands, lit up the site with bittersweet recollections of growing up in Hall’s Hill. Some of his posts stirring up memories of segregation were “liked” by 300 or 500 Arlington alumni.

“Hall’s Hill was a self-contained community. As children we did not have to venture out for much,” wrote Williams, who has a master’s in theology and worked in corrections in Virginia. “Ms. Allen’s store sold everything a kid could want — two-for-a-penny cookies, cold soda, fried bologna sandwiches, chips. If you did not want to walk down from the playground, you could go to Mr. Montrose’s bus (converted into a store). Hall’s Hill [was] self-sustained, walled-off, isolated, safe and secure. Segregation was great!”

Williams did not mean the Jim Crow laws and customs were fine. From 1950 to 1962, Hall’s Hill was “like a county within a county. I could not go to the movies [or] the pools” or use the close-by Arlington Hospital, he noted.

“When I attended Stratford [Junior High], we still were not totally accepted as blacks,” he wrote. “I was the only black on Stratford’s basketball team…. Every night I had to walk through the white neighborhood in the dark by myself. I moved at a fast pace through dark places. I did not feel safe until I got to Lee Highway Peoples Drug Store.”

Williams pays tribute to his grandfather, Edward T. Morton, one of the first black doctors from Hall’s Hill. “We had black educators, professional race car drivers, dentists, [and] excellent athletes,” he continued. Other colorful characters were called Popcorn, Chick or Mother Goose, and Pop Burrel. “Pop provided softball equipment for us before” before the Recreation Department would, he said. Often saluting, Pop “would dress in his World War II uniform and march to the playground with a burlap bag of balls and bats and gloves for everybody. The only catch to him providing the equipment was he had to umpire. He was the worst.”

“Even though it may appear that because of the racial climate of the times that it was hard or bad or unfair, that is not the case. Our parents prevented and shielded us from even thinking it was bad. Our childhood was wonderful, funny and interesting.”

Williams does not minimize segregation. But he added, “Please don’t feel bad for us or apologize for what we had to go through. The truth is it made me the man I am today.”

**

Sydney was a big supporter of my book, website, and the work I am doing to expand the knowledge of the untold history of Arlington’s Black community. When he visited Arlington a few years ago, he graciously granted an interview for this blog. I am sharing the interview again today to help remember Syd.

My condolences to Sydney’s wife, Floretta, and his daughter, Indigo. Much love.

Sydney was a force in the Universe and he will definitely be missed by so many people who loved and respected him. He positively impacted and educated thousands as a thought leader, a minister, a counselor, and a friend.

Roundup: Halls Hill History

Interviews and Articles

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!

Alliance for Housing Solutions

Stay Arlington: Spotlight

Arlington for Everyone

ArlingtonNow: Progressive Voice Column

Curious About Our Roots Radio Show/Podcast

Arlington Connection: It’s a Beautiful Day in the (Hall’s Hill) Neighborhood in Arlington

The Roanoke Times: Gibson: Virginia’s untaught history

Arlington Magazine: Once There Was a Segregation Wall in Arlington

Arlington Historical Society: Learn From This Place

Dennis Price Radio Show

Our Man in Arlington: Charlie Clark

Arlington Magazine: You Want to Build It Where?

WHUR-FM Radio: Taking It to the Streets Segment

WDVM-TV: Flash Floods Damage Segregation Wall

Lee Highway Alliance: Renaming Lee Highway Video

Cigar Box Project Video

Cigar Box Guitar Project from Kenmore Middle School on Vimeo.

Inside NOVA: Cigar Box Project Article

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Were Our Communities the Foundation of Our Black Power?

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.

Clip from UNTOLD: Stories of Black Arlington S1: E2, Lydia Jones Cole, Author, “You Must Be a Jones”

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.



NOTE: UNTOLD premieres Sunday, April 4th at 9 PM, will also air on Monday, April 5th at 8 PM, and Friday, April 9th at 3 PM.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Arlington’s Black Neighborhoods in 1900

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 the geographical 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.

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Halls Hill Resident Fights Virginia’s Poll Tax to the U.S Supreme Court

Mrs. Jessie Butler Refuses to Back Down

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.

As the Encyclopedia of Virginia notes, the “State Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902 met for the express purpose of disfranchising as many African American voters as possible [and they] reinstituted the poll tax as a prerequisite for voter registration.” 

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

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Halls Hill Resident Runs for County Board

Dr. Edward T. Morton Ran in 1931

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. and Mrs. Edward T. Morton on the porch of their home at 4842 Lee Highway

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.

Check out Dr. Morton’s grandson, Sydney Williams interview.

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.

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Virginia Fights Back: The September 14, 1957 Ruling

Audio: Virginia Fights Back: The September 14, 1957 Ruling

The fight to desegregate Virginia Public Schools in the years following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board ruling 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.

Recently I was contacted by Bob Gibson, a writer for the Roanoke Times and the Charlottesville Daily Progress newspapers. (Bob is also communications director and senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.) Bob grew up in Arlington, near the Ballston area and he recently read, “My Halls Hill Family: More Than a Neighborhood.” He wrote an opinion column in both papers about the book. One event he highlighted speaks to the level of governmental institutional racism that Black people endured while fighting for equal education in the 1950’s.

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.

My siblings and I discovered the original typewritten summons in my mom’s papers after she died in 2017.

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.

My Halls Hill Family: More Than a Neighborhood

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