Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Growing up white in north Arlington, schoolmates and I were aware of the African-American enclave of Hall’s Hill — sadly, we were scared to venture there for fear of getting beaten up.

So I felt my share of the emotions that poured from denizens of that historic neighborhood who spoke Nov. 13 at the event titled “Learn From This Place: Bringing Arlington to Halls Hill.”

The auditorium at Virginia Hospital Center rung with multi-generational music, nostalgia and tears of pain expressed by four who lived through Arlington’s (ongoing) transition out of segregation.

As part of a multi-day event funded by a Virginia humanities grant, they shared bittersweet recollections of the 1950s, when blacks weren’t allowed in Arlington Hospital, or in movie theaters or pony rides.

Wilma Jones Killgo, author of a history of Hall’s Hill, presented African-American heritage songs performed on cigar box banjos by middle school students in Career and Technical Education.

Traditionals such as “You Are My Sunshine” and “Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” were adapted to Hall’s Hill memories of being forced to walk ten blocks to school after the Langston school closed, and being late for faraway Little League games. To guitar and harmonica strains of a blues duo, Junious Brickhouse performed a muscular dance.

The gray eminence among panelists was retired teacher William Vollin (who taught at Langston and Glebe, where he was principal). Born in the defunct Arlington neighborhood of Queen City, he recalled the Hoffman-Boston all-black K-12 school with its “hand-me-down books” and no science lab. At Langston, the “food staff and custodians were like counselors,” he said. Decisions on school boundaries were made by “racist” school boards so as not to “upset folks on the other side of Lee Highway.” Once asked by officials for the racial breakdown of Glebe Elementary, Vollin replied, “We’re 100 percent human beings.”

Michael Jones, one of four blacks tapped to integrate Stratford Junior High in 1959, said at Langston Elementary “there was no remediation — we just fit in.” Growing up with seven people sharing a bathroom “made us closer.”

The adjustment to being “socially marginalized” at white schools was jarring after early years in a Hall’s Hill “that taught us we had a lot to offer, to love, give and trust,” said Kitty Clark Stevenson, now a human resources consultant. At Swanson, the drama teacher told her she couldn’t appear on stage, and a counselor said she would “make a very good maid.” Stevenson described “ragged” textbooks from which they had to “erase crude, profane language. Thank you, Arlington,” she said, “for the best cuss words I learned.”

Saundra Green, retired from Arlington Parks and Recreation, recalled “wonderful role models” in Hall’s Hill, where “your school teacher may also be your Sunday school teacher,” and a shopkeeper “your scout leader.”

When switching schools, she had to give up plans to be a cheerleader or sing in select chorus. When she came to work professionally as director at the Lee Community Center, Green overheard a staffer calling her a monkey and being asked, “Are you the new custodian?”

That staffer and she later became friends.

A spiritual vibe enveloped the Nov. 14 gathering of Arlington’s affordable housing advocates when leaders and beneficiaries cut the ribbon for Gilliam Place. That new $71 million, 173-unit apartment building is the fruit of the 2012 decision by the declining Arlington Presbyterian Church to sell its land off Columbia Pike at S. Glebe Rd. to fill a housing gap.

The result: living space for the low-income or disabled combined with community rooms and retail that make it the first mixed-use project of the nonprofit Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing. County Board Chair Christian Dorsey welcomed Gilliam as part of the board’s “equity resolution.” Clergy quoted the Prophet Jeremiah, and secular activists thanked the architect, builder, construction workers, permitting office, planners and funders federal, state, local and private.

Church elder Susan Etherton hailed the “new front porch of our church,” the gleaming building alongside a contemplative park with a sign (“Sit, Pause, Rest,”) bearing the name of Arlington Presbyterian.