We Have to Wrestle Our Demons in the Daylight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUY MY HALLS HILL FAMILY AT AMAZON NOW !

Interview with WDVM-TV

Screenshot from WDVM-TV
Screenshot WDVM-TV

Things happened really quickly in February. The combination of Black History Month and the commemoration of the 60th year since my brother, Michael Jones, Lance Newman, Ronald Deskins and Gloria Thompson desegregated schools in Arlington created a lot of interest in Halls Hill and the book.

Local television station, WDVM-TV contacted Michael and I and here is the interview.

Thanks to Kiona Dyches, the reporter who had an interest to share the story of our community. It really was more than a neighborhood.

Halls Hill: A Poem by Carolyn June-Jackson

Hall’s Hill

Bordered by George Mason, Glebe Road, and Lee Highway
A closely knit community where Black folks lived and played
From Culpeper to Emerson; numbered streets in between
Proud African-Americans tied to no one’s apron strings

A beautiful oasis surrounded by a Jim Crow County
A community where Black folks owned their property
Mt. Salvation Baptist, Highview Park, and Calloway
Three spiritual havens where we often went to pray

A neighborhood surrounded by the country club’s elite
Yet, Black folks lived a simpler life without outside conceit
A wall divided neighborhoods experiencing neglect
The county looked the other way, showing no respect

Many businesses established by our own entrepreneurs
May not have been wealthy but neither were they poor
Federal, state, and local workers lived on every street
Hicks and Allen’s general stores, we had our own elite

Our Citizens Association was very much concerned
Held monthly meetings and kept residents informed
Joined Martin Luther King in the cause for civil rights
Marched for integration, put an end to racial fights

Langston Elementary is where we earned good grades
Our dedicated teachers ensured that rules were obeyed
When the schools integrated, our parents did not tolerate
Their children at white schools being treated second-rate

Cameron playground where scuffles would break out
Danced to the latest tunes were all teens thought about
Hanging on the corner under dimly lit street lights
Played “Simon Says” during those hot summer nights

Dressed up in the latest fashions was always the rage
House parties attended by those under drinking age
Frequented Suburban Night or Goolby’s Chocolate City
Building razed so long ago by county board committee

The traditional Turkey Bowl held on Thanksgiving Day
Young men and old-timers like joining in the fray
An annual reunion where we love to meet and greet
Rekindling old memories that are always bittersweet

Many homes are torn down or property’s been sold
Young and old have passed away; parents growing old
Hall’s Hill is in transition and will never look the same
Now been overtaken by those with strange surnames

We now sign up on Facebook, just to keep in touch
Talk about the good days and how they meant so much
No matter where we live, no matter what time zone
We’re proud of our village, Hall’s Hill is still our home

©Carolyn June, August 1, 2013

Today in Hall Hills History: IN THE BEGINNING

IN THE BEGINNING

 

My Halls Hill Family Logo Black

Halls Hill was inhabited by former slaves and some free black people following the Civil War. Although black people who were slaves in captured Union territory became free after the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Lincoln in 1863.

Halls Hill was known as “Halls Plantation,” prior to the Civil War. Halls Hill was named for its location—a high hill in what had initially been Alexandria County—and the original property owner, Basil (also spelled Bazil, in some writings) Hall. Hall, a white man born in 1806, purchased 327 acres of land in 1850 for approximately $5,000 and started a plantation. Like most plantation owners in Virginia prior to the Civil War, Hall owned slaves to provide manual labor to work the land and animals.

The Halls were well known for the brutal way they managed their slaves. One of their female slaves, Jenny Farr, reached her breaking point with Hall’s wife, Elizabeth. She threw her in the hearth, murdering her. Jenny was convicted and hanged on February 26, 1858.

Hall remarried, and the plantation thrived until the South addressed the issue of slavery. Virginia had voted to secede from the union, and although Hall voted against secession, he did not fare well during the Civil War. His property was the site of many Confederate and Union troop skirmishes, and in August 1861, he fled his home. The Union Army used the site as a camp for the remainder of the war.

Following the war, Hall returned the plantation, which was staffed by laborers. Many of them were freed slaves who lived in rented shacks on the plantation. Hall continued his cruel treatment of the black people who worked on the plantation and was eventually charged with assault and battery and inhuman treatment of black people in his employ in 1866. In the post–Civil War era, the courts in Virginia would not hear any cases brought against white people if black people were the persons harmed. The federal government had established a military court with a provost marshal to adjudicate these cases. Despite sufficient evidence, Hall’s attorney convinced President Andrew Johnson to intercede in the matter. Johnson directed the military provost to drop the case and have it addressed in civil court. Of course, no court in Virginia would proceed with the case, so Hall was never punished.

Hall attempted to sell his land as one lot in 1872 but was unable to make a deal. He then began to sell smaller lots of property to white men. These men established farms using black laborers, who rented shacks on their respective farms. Black people inhabited Halls Hill, but it wasn’t until November 9, 1881, that black people were able to purchase land. Hall sold one acre of his land to Thornton Hyson and Charles W. Chinn for $108 and continued to sell his land to black people until he died in 1888. One other black man, a former slave named Moses Jackson, owned property on Halls Hill in the 1880s. Jackson’s owner gave him the land on what became part of Halls Hill upon his freedom.

There are many descendants of the Hyson, Chinn and Jackson families that lived in Halls Hill for generations. A few still reside there now.

Did you know the about these black men that purchased property to start building this neighborhood?

 

 

The People: Rev. James Eugene Browne, Sr.

Rev. James Eugene Browne, Sr.

The Rev. James Eugene Browne was the assistant pastor of Mount Salvation Baptist Church when Rev. N.R. Richardson was the senior pastor. Rev. Browne and his wife, Hazel initially resided in the Cherrydale community in when they came to Arlington from Texarkana, TX.

Rev. Browne spoke about the racism and influence of the Ku Klux Klan in Cherrydale in the 1930’s in the period when they first came to this area.

James and Hazel Browne Pic 1

The family eventually moved to 2011 North Culpeper Street in the Halls Hill neighborhood. They had two children, Lillian Browne Fernanders and James E. Browne, Jr.

Rev. Browne often told the story of the Halls Hill streets not being paved when they initially moved to the neighborhood. This caused his shoes and pants to be dusty and dirty if he walked to the church. As a result he drove each week, even though Mount Salvation was only a block away.

Rev. Browne led youth groups at Mount Salvation in their activities with the Northern Virginia Baptist Association, taking them on many trips across the state and southeast region for conferences and events. Mrs. Browne was the manager of the Langston elementary school cafeteria for many years, and she also ran the summer playground programs for Arlington Recreation.

Rev. Browne was a former president of the John M. Langston Citizens Association, the neighborhood civic organization on Halls Hill. He was also very active in the Arlington NAACP, serving in leadership roles for many years, including president during the fight for school desegregation in the late 1950’s.

What memories do you have about Rev. and Mrs. Browne from Langston elementary school, Mount Salvation church or just in the neighborhood?