Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Of all Arlington’s neighborhoods, I nominate Hall’s Hill as the most transformed.

This weekend I arranged a satisfying two-fer by taking the Walk Arlington official guided tour of that historically black area while enjoying the “Feel the Heritage Festival” celebration of African American history and culture.

The annual event held at the Langston-Brown Community Center drove home to how much the neighborhood has changed since I knew it as a boy in the 1950s-70s. It was long a place to which members of Arlington’s wary white establishment seldom ventured.

“Because of segregation, all of our streets dead-ended, and no one wanted to discuss this history,” I was reminded by Willie M. Jackson-Baker, president of the John M. Langston Civic Association, which comprises Hall’s Hill and four other diverse neighborhoods. When Arlington Hospital was established in 1930s, it did not accept black patients.

Unpleasant remnants remain, of course, and the tour included a view of “the great wall” of six-by-eight-foot wooden fences still visible along North Culpeper Street that for decades separated Hall’s Hill from surrounding white enclaves.

Yet nowadays, the neighborhood—renamed High View in the 1980s—boasts numerous new elegant homes and other trappings of suburban affluence that materialized as some families with deep roots sold their simpler structures and their land.

What still thrives, however, is the spirit of the tight-knit African-American community from across Arlington. “In the old days, everyone knew everyone through cousins; everyone was connected,” said our guide, Adreanne Bell-Justice, an official at Bank of America.

I was touched to witness many of them blending with visitors of all shades and backgrounds.

Organized by the Parks and Recreation Department, the four-hour festival for all ages offered performances of African drum music, a jazz harmonicist and gospel singers. Vendors sold Obama T-shirts, jewelry, purses, spices and cooking oils, as well as soul food—delectable collard greens and ribs. There were children’s craft tables, a YMCA obstacle course and a raffle for round-trip tickets to Africa. Along the walls were banners keeping alive old African-American neighborhood names such as Johnson’s Hill (south Arlington’s Nauck). Also displayed was a photo of the undefeated 1961-62 football team from the old all-black Hoffman-Boston High School.

The NAACP desk was manned for a membership drive, and planners of a neighborhood archive solicited oral histories, videos and memorabilia.

A wall lined with clippings documented the battle for desegregation from 1866 through the early 1960s. “Arlington White Schools Turn Down 8 Negroes,” read oneWashington Post headline telling the “story reported round the world.” Resistance in the 1950s was mainstream, voiced by such figures as Congressman Joel Broyhill and Chevrolet dealer Bob Peck.

Our outdoor history stroll in the cold took us by the 19th-century Mt. Salvation Baptist Church and Calloway United Methodist Church as well as High View Park, site of the annual Turkey Bowl community football game. It ended at Gateway Park on Lee Highway in front of Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe, a sculpture garden including signed bricks from the previous Langston School.

Walk Arlington manager Lauren Hassel posed trivia questions and rewarded us with promotional bags. The program aims to “get people out of their cars” for traffic abatement and health, fitness, the environment and community building, she said. And to its current 21 routes will soon be added a regular walk through Hall’s Hill.