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.
I published my third book, “My Halls Hill Family: More Than a Neighborhood,” on October 25, 2018. Since that time, I’ve keynoted events, spoken to over a hundred groups, been interviewed on radio shows and podcasts, presented at Zoom meetings and workshops for schools, churches, and organizations all over Arlington and the DMV. I am thankful and grateful for the positive reception and continuing invitations to share the history and legacy of the experiences of Black people in Arlington.
I’ve been a civic activist and community leader in Arlington for almost 30 years in the Halls Hill – High View Park neighborhood. I’m the fourth generation of my family to live on Halls Hill and I am proud of the contributions our community made to help Arlington become what it is today.
However, I was totally surprised when I was asked to consider developing and hosting a television show for Arlington Independent Media! After thinking about it, I decided to go for it. One of my goals for writing the book was to tell the stories of the Arlington Black community. I wanted to help ensure that our history won’t die with the fierce gentrification happening in Arlington. I believe that doing the TV show will be an opportunity to expand that goal and reach more people to expose them to the history and stories of Black Arlington. So get ready for “UNTOLD: Stories of Black Arlington.”
Let’s be real, I know a lot, but I don’t know all the stories, especially those of Green Valley, Johnson’s Hill, Hatsville, Freedman’s Village, Queenstown, PelhamTown, and other communities less well-known. I will be researching and exploring at the Arlington Center for Local History and the Library of Virginia. I’ve already reached out to the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington’s leader, Scott Taylor to gain his support for this endeavor. And of course, I am reaching out to those who are wiser in the specific story areas we will share to provide knowledge, assistance, and probably to be a show guest, too. I am also open to suggestions for show topics from viewers.
The plan is to start taping shows this month via Zoom, due to the pandemic. If you live in Arlington you’ll be able to view the show on Comcast channel 69 or Verizon channel 38. If you live outside Arlington, you can stream the show live on the Arlington Independent Media website, and I hope it will be archived on the station’s YouTube channel, although that is not confirmed.
We will have a time slot soon so make sure you’re on the email list. Stay updated on the latest information as we progress to the premiere of our first show. I am excited, a little nervous, humbled, and overwhelmed in a good way with everything that is happening. Please send prayers and good wishes for the success of the show!
I am getting a lot of interest from people on social media about my book, which provides a history of the Halls Hill neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia. The levels of Jim Crow racism, discrimination, and institutional racism Black Arlington residents endured and overcame that I describe in the book is eye-opening to some who don’t understand the level of racism Black people endure(d) in Arlington. The actions those Black Arlingtonians took and the courage they showed to impact change helped make this County what it is today. But we still have far to go, as the current environment shows us. In schools and communities, I am encouraged with the curiosity people are showing to learn and do more.
I must admit that I think to myself, FINALLY.
There are so many aspects of Black History in Arlington that are not well known.
I wanna start here: It’s time to admit that the reason students in Arlington County Public Schools are not taught about the real Black History that happened in this County is because of institutional racism.
The School Board has never acknowledged the ugly past of the real story of the steps that led to desegregation. There is an annual program to commemorate the desegregation of Virginia Public Schools which happened in Arlington at Stratford Junior High School on February 2, 1959. But there is no discussion about the full truth that efforts for desegregation began in 1947 and did not end until 1971. Even now some schools in North Arlington are becoming even more segregated with the latest school boundary changes. I learned just days ago that critical programs for children with IEPs are offered at some Arlington elementary schools but not at Drew Elementary School, a school that serves a large contingent of Black and Brown children and has been consistently disenfranchised by the Arlington Public School leadership and the School Board for decades. Drew was one of the last segregated schools in Arlington County in 1971. Yes, you read that correctly. 1971.
Sorry, I digress. Let me stay on point. A more comprehensive description of Arlington school desegregation.
It began with Constance Carter, a resident of the Green Valley neighborhood. Her family sued the Arlington County School Superintendent and the Arlington School Board in 1947. She wanted to enter Washington-Lee High School because Hoffman-Boston, the segregated school for Blacks did not offer the advanced courses which she wanted to enroll. At that time, Hoffman-Boston was not an accredited school. Graduates could not attend college with their diploma. Two other Black students filed suit against the County in September 1949. All these cases were denied, but by October 1949, Arlington County was paying for 33 Black students to attend a vocational school in Manassas, rather than allow them to take the courses at Washington-Lee High School.
Court cases, rulings, and appeals continued across Virginia and other Southern states until some cases were combined and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling was made on May 17, 1954. But that did not deter Virginia or Arlington County from their efforts to deny equal education to their black constituents. The NAACP filed more lawsuits in Virginia than any other state to force integration following the Supreme Court ruling. The Arlington lawsuit was filed on May 17, 1956, exactly two years after the Brown ruling.
U.S. Senator Harry Byrd and his cronies developed the legislative strategy for “Massive Resistance,” to keep Virginia Public Schools segregated. This was an organized effort to defy the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court. By the summer of 1958 the federal lawsuit for Arlington, Thompson v. County of Arlington School Board had over 30 student plaintiffs. The School Board lost ruling after ruling. They filed appeal after appeal to deny, then delay as long as possible, the day of desegregation. Finally on February 2, 1959, four Black students were allowed to enroll in Stratford. Desegregation trickled after that date, with students from North Arlington offered more opportunities to enroll in formerly all-white schools over time. The School Board closed John M. Langston School in 1966, the neighborhood elementary school in the Halls Hill community, rather than have White students go to school in a Black community. (Arlington’s answer is ALWAYS to bus Black students to achieve desegregation.) More importantly, the County continued to segregate Black students at Drew and Hoffman-Boston Elementary Schools.
As an excerpt from an Arlington County publication states, “By 1969, Arlington’s junior and senior high schools were all desegregated. Hoffman-Boston Junior-Senior High School had closed in 1964, and Black students were placed in formerly all-white schools. At the elementary school level, however, there were still two schools that were virtually entirely Black.” After yet another series of lawsuits, Arlington finally desegregated by again busing ONLY the Black students to formerly all-white schools in 1971. It took 24 years to fully desegregate this County’s schools. Such a shame. Over 17 years after the U.S Supreme Court ruling.
It’s time to acknowledge the full history. Warts and ugly scars along with the celebration of the small steps we are continuing to take toward equal education for all in Arlington County Public Schools.
To my old readers, yes, I am stepping out of the “Halls Hill History” box a little bit. But its past time to tell the history and share the stories with a new intention and mission. So every Sunday I am going to share a little bit of the history of this County from my perspective. Some things will be from my Halls Hill book. But look out for other historical information I think needs to be shared from any part of Black Arlington.
We can start a conversation here on the blog. Just comment below.
Oh, if you’re a troll, you’ll be blocked. Only thoughtful, insightful, intelligent conversation allowed.
Known as the longest continually operating business in the Halls Hill community, Miss Allen’s Store was originally called, “Allen’s Store,” when it opened in the early 1900’s. The owners were a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Wash Allen.
As I described in “My Halls Hill Family: More Than a Neighborhood,”
Close to “The Bottom,” at 1821 North Columbus Street, Wash Allen and his wife, Rose, operated Allen’s Store, which was the longest continuously open business on Halls Hill. Mr. Wash was a good friend of our Uncle Dede’s. After Mr. Wash’s death, his wife, whom everyone called “Miss Allen,” operated the store and the name eventually morphed into “Miss Allen’s Store.” You could get freshly sliced lunch meat, including bologna, liverwurst, hog’s head cheese, and more. The store had penny candy, potato chips, pork rinds, beef jerky, and those big, deep, round, ice-filled coolers that you dug down into to get a supercold soda from the bottom. And, of course, jars on the counter held sour and dill pickles and pickled pigs’ feet.
A few months after my mom died on Thanksgiving Day 2017, my siblings and I got together to go through family papers and photographs. Each picture or document brought back a flood of memories and lots of discussion. So much laughter and shared stories were exchanged in those hours. As the hours went by and we went through the boxes, one picture brought us all back to Miss Allen’s Store:
Oh my goodness, we howled when we saw this pic! They look so cute!
In case you don’t know them, this is Jay and Cornell Washington, two of my dad’s nephew’s sons. The pic was taken in the mid-1960’s, I am guessing, based on how old they look. The Washington family lived about a block away from our house. Like all the neighborhood kids, we all hung out playing on the playground together. Then all the kids would go to Miss Allen’s to spend our pennies. We also ran errands for our parents because Mrs. Allen knew us all and we were safe to run to the store with our siblings and friends.
We then began to remember stories about our experiences and memories of Miss Allen’s Store. The Rock Creek Fruit Punch. Who else hated Wise Potato Chips? What was the best penny candy? And how good that bologna tasted, freshly sliced on that big green meat slicer that is in the pic behind my cousin’s up on the counter?!
My sister, Audrey’s first job was at Mrs. Allen’s. Mine was, too! Who else worked at Mrs. Allen’s? What are your memories? Share in the comments below.
This week a true son of Halls Hill joins us to share remembrances of his family and experiences of the neighborhood. Sydney’s grandfather was Dr. Edward T. Morton, the first African-American physician on Halls Hill. He was a leader in the community and everyone who was in the neighborhood respected him. He even ran for a seat on the County Board!
Listen as Sydney shares his stories.
Let me know what you think about the interview in the comments section. I will be back with additional Halls Hill stories, interviews and more.