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Opinion/Commentary: Black community's history comes to fore

Opinion/Commentary: Black community's history comes to fore

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Editor's note: This column was edited on Aug. 17 to correct the date of Arlington's hire of its first Black police officer.

Many current residents of Arlington County, which sits across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital, might be shocked to learn that the Ku Klux Klan maintained a regular and active presence there from the 1920s to the 1950s.

The Klan was so strong in Arlington that it sponsored a youth baseball team, had members employed by the county government and held weekly Sunday cross burnings back in the 1920s to which the public was invited, “weather permitting.”

I grew up six blocks away from one of the county’s all-Black neighborhoods, Halls Hill, a 600-home community carved out of a plantation in the middle of northern Arlington. I had no idea the KKK had such an active presence for decades so close to where I lived.

Reading a history of Halls Hill last week has helped me learn much about what residents of this nearby neighborhood endured, from the slights and outright intimidation of enforced segregation to their successful efforts to integrate public schools and open job opportunities for Black residents.

On Sept. 8, 1957, the Klan burned a cross on the front lawn of a Black physician, Dr. Harold Johnson, and his family in a failed attempt to get them to withdraw from a school integration lawsuit, author Wilma Jones writes in “My Halls Hill Family: More Than a Neighborhood.”

Jones writes that 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.

The state was trying to intimidate parents in school integration cases involving the NAACP as the legislature investigated the activities of groups influencing or promoting “racial activities in this state.” Although followed by the news media and made to feel extremely uncomfortable, her mother and other parents refused to drop their challenges to Virginia’s policy of keeping schools segregated.

Jones, herself a community association leader as her mother had been, writes that Black residents of the nearby Ballston and Cherrydale neighborhoods felt so intimidated by the KKK that they moved to Halls Hill to feel safer.

It was a full 10 years after the cross burning on Dr. Johnson’s lawn that Arlington hired its first Black police officer, in December 1967.

One incident with a white county police officer that took place when she was a young girl has stuck with her for the more than 50 years, Jones writes. Her father, George Mason Jones, was driving her to the Hecht’s department store when a police officer pulled him over and falsely accused him of making a right turn after failing to stop at a stop sign.

“He called my father a boy,” dressed him down and belittled him, stopping him just to show that he could, she recalls. After the officer let her father go with a warning, her dad broke the tense atmosphere in the car by joking that the officer “had a Roman nose — it’s roamin’ all over his face.” She said her dad had dealt with discrimination and racism without letting it change his perspective.

Her parents and a couple of older siblings had been involved for several years in the NAACP’s legal efforts to end Virginia’s segregation policy of “separate but equal” schools, which were far more separate for Black students than equal.

Her older brother, Michael, was one of the Stratford Four, the first four Black students to successfully integrate a Virginia public school, Stratford Junior High, at 8:45 a.m. on Feb. 2, 1959.

The arrival of the students, whose average age was 12, marked the end of Virginia’s policy of “massive resistance” to federal court-ordered desegregation.

Michael and his fellow Arlington students beat their counterparts in Tidewater, the Norfolk 17, in their court-ordered arrival at formerly all-white Norfolk schools by 15 minutes on that historic day.

Jones writes that the end, on that day, of “separate but equal” schooling in Virginia “dealt a fatal blow to foes of school integration across the South.”

Her history of Halls Hill is filled with stories of families living in the tight-knit, all-Black neighborhood from the late 1860s until 2018. Halls Hill remained an all-Black neighborhood in Arlington through the late 1960s, as its residents fought and won battles for civil rights and more equal economic and social opportunities.

Jones, an award-winning blogger, weaves in history of ongoing efforts for civil rights as she recalls generations of her family and others who loved this community. Four churches, a volunteer fire company and an indomitable work ethic helped sustain the residents of this community, which grew out of Basil Hall’s original 327-acre 1850s-1865 plantation. Many of the families there descended from the enslaved people who had worked during Virginia’s plantation days.

Until the 1960s, a 6-foot-tall wooden wall erected by surrounding white neighborhoods endured as a silent enforcer of physical boundaries of segregation.

Arlington residents should know this history, yet most of us did not. Many largely Black communities throughout Virginia experienced and fought against both legal segregation and de facto second-class citizenship. Their history also remains untaught.

Bob Gibson is communications director and senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Cooper Center for Public Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the center.

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