The historically black community of Halls Hill/High View Park kicked off a series of look-backs last week to mark its sesquicentennial (1866-2016).
At the Mt. Salvation Baptist Church, I witnessed a stirring program in the company of some 200 congregants, county board members, Arlington history buffs and one veteran of the 1959 integration of Stratford Jr. High (Michael Jones).
The program was anything but dry and dusty. The main event, a local history lecture, was bookended with prayers and gospel hymns (“The Lord is Blessing Me”) and a reading of an 1857 court deposition about a slave named Jenny. She was convicted of murdering the wife of namesake plantation owner Bazil Hall by pushing her into the fire.
Carmela Hamm performed living history in laborer costume, quoting from the Crystal Stairs poem by Langston Hughes and imploring young people to “plant a seed” to preserve their heritage.
Halls Hill, as explained in a handout, was created after emancipation when Bazil Hall sold 300 acres to former slaves for $10-$15 an acre, which laborers then worked typically for 50 cents a day.
But Sunday’s formal talk was broader. Lauranett L. Lee, founding curator of African-American history at the Virginia Historical Society, recalled how, as the only black in her 4thgrade class, she shied away from history after reading in the Virginia history text that “slaves were happy.”
The Richmond-based society that now employs her was founded in 1831 – the year of Nat Turner’s rebellion – to house the records of “elite white families,” Lee said. But thanks to modern technology, her society’s “Unknown No Longer” online database contains thousands of records of Virginia slaves. The original documents are “crumbling and fading, with chicken-scratch writing,” Lee said. “At 5:00 when the society closes, the names stay with me, and I have nightmares about the daily assaults” on enslaved people.
She encouraged youth to “interview your elders, be interested in their lives, take the time” to ask about the days when blacks and whites didn’t use the same schools, parks and water fountains. “We’ve come a long way, and our history is worth preserving. If you don’t, it can be twisted.”
Only weeks before Sunday’s event, I interviewed another Halls Hill stalwart, who also grew up attending Mt. Salvation. Amelia Edwards, who at 87 continues her late-life career as the school crossing guard for Nottingham Elementary, recalled the decades she spent at 2318 N Dinwiddie St., a dirt road when Lee Highway was single lane. Her father – longtime janitor at the four-room Langston Elementary School – and her mother raised six children in three bedrooms with no indoor plumbing and an outdoor well.
“We raised our own food – hogs, ducks, chickens, squirrels and pigeons,” she told me, recalling growing string beans in the garden and shooting invading rabbits with a shotgun. She and her friends had to take buses downtown to attend black junior high and high schools.
She recalls minor violence – drunkenness among neighbors and cross burnings on the Lexington Street lawn of famed physician-to-the-black- community Harold Johnson. Edwards also worked at the segregated unit at the newly established Arlington Hospital after it opened in 1944 before beginning a federal career at the Government Printing Office.
Recalling the old Halls Hill now that she lives in an apartment in Westover, Edwards says, “We had a good life.”
Six months ago, a landlord bowed to public outcry and canceled a lease for the controversial NOVA Firearms, which was in the process of setting up shop in Cherrydale.
Last week, I noticed the First Cash pawn shop (formerly National Pawnbrokers) – just blocks up Lee Highway in Lyon Village – displays a window sign that reads: “Now Accepting Guns; Pawn-Buy-Sell.”