To mark this February’s Black History Month, Central Library’s Center for Local History mounted a fresh exhibit of photos called “Growing Up Black in Arlington.” The shots of school kids, scouts and sports teams come mostly from the collection of Ernest E. Johnson.
A commemoration of a different sort sprang up spontaneously on the Facebook page “I Grew Up in Arlington, Va.”
Sydney Williams, a 68-year-old Washington-Lee High School graduate now living in West Bay, Cayman Islands, lit up the site with bittersweet recollections of growing up in Hall’s Hill. Some of his posts stirring up memories of segregation were “liked” by 300 or 500 Arlington alumni.
“Hall’s Hill was a self-contained community. As children we did not have to venture out for much,” wrote Williams, who has a master’s in theology and worked in corrections in Virginia. “Ms. Allen’s store sold everything a kid could want — two-for-a-penny cookies, cold soda, fried bologna sandwiches, chips. If you did not want to walk down from the playground, you could go to Mr. Montrose’s bus (converted into a store). Hall’s Hill [was] self-sustained, walled-off, isolated, safe and secure. Segregation was great!”
Williams did not mean the Jim Crow laws and customs were fine. From 1950 to 1962, Hall’s Hill was “like a county within a county. I could not go to the movies [or] the pools” or use the close-by Arlington Hospital, he noted.
“When I attended Stratford [Junior High], we still were not totally accepted as blacks,” he wrote. “I was the only black on Stratford’s basketball team…. Every night I had to walk through the white neighborhood in the dark by myself. I moved at a fast pace through dark places. I did not feel safe until I got to Lee Highway Peoples Drug Store.”
Williams pays tribute to his grandfather, Edward T. Morton, one of the first black doctors from Hall’s Hill. “We had black educators, professional race car drivers, dentists, [and] excellent athletes,” he continued. Other colorful characters were called Popcorn, Chick or Mother Goose, and Pop Burrel. “Pop provided softball equipment for us before” before the Recreation Department would, he said. Often saluting, Pop “would dress in his World War II uniform and march to the playground with a burlap bag of balls and bats and gloves for everybody. The only catch to him providing the equipment was he had to umpire. He was the worst.”
Several white respondents mentioned the historic plaque for the segregation wall Arlington erected last March. Another white Facebooker recalled finding the 1951 deed to her North Arlington home that contained a covenant saying only Caucasians and gentiles could buy it.
My brother Tom recounted regretfully the time as a Cherrydale kindergartener, he got talked into riding his bike to Hall’s Hill and hollering ‘N****r’ for the prize of 50 cents.
Williams apologized for the unexpected discourse. “Even though it may appear that because of the racial climate of the times that it was hard or bad or unfair, that is not the case. Our parents prevented and shielded us from even thinking it was bad. Our childhood was wonderful, funny and interesting.”
Williams does not minimize segregation. But he added, “Please don’t feel bad for us or apologize for what we had to go through. The truth is it made me the man I am today.”
Caution, bicyclists! I’ve noticed a tragedy-waiting-to-happen on the W&OD bike path.
When I drive my shortcut on N. Kensington St., between Wilson Blvd. and Carlin Springs Rd., I’ve had to slam on my car’s brakes for cyclists who come barreling onto the street from out of nowhere.
There are, ahem, stop signs on the bike path on both sides of Kensington, and, yes, they apply to bicyclists.