Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Monday night, I saw “It’s Just Me …,” in a program celebrating Black History Month at the Arlington Central Library.

The documentary was produced by Arlington Educational Television in 2001 to commemorate the integration of Arlington’s Stratford Junior High School (now H-B Woodlawn Alternative Program) in 1959. It is a remarkable story – if for no other reason than it ended up being relatively uneventful (meaning no violence) in an age of great tension and frequent violence over the issue of integration throughout the country.

It was not a bright spot in the history of Virginia. There were ominous signs that the state might close all of the public schools rather than integrate, and in fact some counties actually did so. I know people who were high school age in Arlington whose parents were prepared to send them to live with relatives in other states should the schools be closed.

Brown vs. The Board of Education brought quick retaliation in Virginia. The powerful Byrd political machine announced its policy of Massive Resistance and threatened to close any school system that attempted to integrate. Nevertheless, in the mid-to late 1950’s the Arlington School Board began to prepare to integrate the system. An organization, Citizens for Better Schools, formed to promote integration, The League of Women Voters got involved, and several Arlington churches and civic organizations joined the fray.

There were also some very negative forces in Arlington, George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party immediately comes to mind, and there were always threats of violence. The day finally came to pass, and Stratford Junior High School accepted for four African American students during a day fraught with tension, but without any violence.

There are many events scheduled in Arlington in connection with Black History Month. You can see then all listed on the Arlington County web page. Here are a few that have captured my attention:

  • A performance of PS24 at the Shirlington Branch Library on February 7 from 3 to 4:30 p.m.. PS24 is an “alternative folk/hip hop trio composed of musicians Psalmayene 24, Waldo Robertson and Jali-D. Their music has a unique urban/world flavor.”
  • Black History Month Film: “Killer of Sheep (1977) at the Shirlington Branch Library on February 11 from 7 to 9 PM. The film “Examines the black Los Angeles ghetto of Watts in the mid-1970s through the eyes of Stan, a sensitive dreamer who is growing detached and numb from the psychic toll of working at a slaughterhouse.
  • The 17th Annual Feel the Heritage Festival on February 12 from 12 to 5PM at the Drew Community Center. “Enjoy an array of music and dance performances by regional artists, great food, and craft vendors.” I have been several times, and it is great fun.
  • HB-Woodlawn Celebrates 50 Years of Integration at H-B Woodlawn School on February 21 from 6:30 to 9:00 PM. Featured will be a panel discussing the integration of Stratford, music and dance by the Mt. Zion and Macedonia Baptist Churches, and an address by William Newman, Chief Judge of the Arlington County Circuit Court.

All of this stunning history becomes far more poignant with the inauguration of the first African-American as President of the United States. We may have a long way to go, but we have come a long way, too.