In accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace in December of 1964, Dr. King spoke of the significance of the recently passed Civil Rights Bill and the role that non-violent protest had played in achieving this landmark legislation. But he cautioned and encouraged his listeners about the road to the promised land of freedom and justice in these words:
We must still face prodigious hilltops of opposition and gigantic mountains of resistance. But with patient and firm determination we will press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope, until every mountain of pride and irrationality is made low by the leveling process of humility and compassion; until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality or opportunity; and until the crooked places of prejudice are transformed by the straightening process of bright-eyed wisdom.
The events of recent years, and particularly the violence of January 6th, show clearly and searingly that Dr. King was right about how long, how arduous, and how perilous the journey to freedom and justice is.
Falls Church’s Tinner Hill historic site provides hope and inspiration for that struggle and for its success. It is a pivotal place, a place where all residents may find answers to the issues roiling this country today.
African American life in Falls Church predates the 1700s. Enslaved and free African Americans lived, worked (too often as enslaved labor), struggled and prospered for generations before the Civil War. The Tinner Hill community began right after the Civil War when Charles and Elizabeth Tinner purchased land and divided it among their nine children. The Tinners, outstanding craftsmen, and highly skilled stonemasons in the 19th century, created a solid and thriving community which, remarkably, continues today. The Tinner Hill neighborhood is a noteworthy array of vernacular homes dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, owned and occupied primarily by Tinner descendants.
The persistent survival of the Tinner Hill community, despite racism and prejudice in the Jim Crow era and beyond, is cause enough to revere this place. But one event provides an even greater reason.
In 1915, in the home of Joseph and Mary Tinner, nine African American leaders of the Falls Church community, met to plan how they could defeat a proposed ordinance that would segregate Falls Church, forcing all African American families to live in a small, designated area of town. Confronted with this grave injustice, endangering their community and their right to choose where they lived, the men met to plan their resistance. They organized, they strategized, and they reached out to others. Their non-violent efforts worked. The ordinance that would have created a segregated black community was never implemented. Those nine men are heroes worth remembering. In line with today’s Black Lives Matter sensibilities and as we commemorate Dr. King’s birthday, let us remember and learn the names of the nine individuals who salvaged civil rights in Falls Church in 1915:
Mr. Joseph Tinner, host of the meeting and elected president; Rev. John Colbert, elected vice president; Dr. Edwin B. Henderson, called the meeting and elected secretary; Rev. George Powell, elected treasurer; Mr. Melvin Tinner; Mr. Robert J. Evans; Mr. George W. Simmons; Mr. William Carpenter and Mr. Louis Summerall.
These men, joined by other male and female members of the black community, pooled their resources, hired lawyers, and filed a lawsuit. They petitioned the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), newly founded in 1909, to become a chapter. Calling themselves the Colored Citizens Protective League, they blocked the town from enacting the legislation. In 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that residential segregation, and such ordinances were unconstitutional.
By 1918 the Falls Church group was a full-fledged chapter of the NAACP and continued to fight successfully for equality in education, equal access to public services, and voter participation in the Northern Virginia area. These local leaders and those who joined them went on to fight against segregation laws in Virginia and for equal rights and opportunities for all people.
If, as some scholars have written, freedom is the hallmark of American democracy, then the freedom fought for and won by African Americans in Falls Church, before and after the pivotal 1915 struggle, is a stellar example of freedom triumphant. It is a particularly American story but with universal implications. It is one small but important step on the road to full justice and equality that Dr. King spoke of in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
Because of what these men did in 1915 and in Fall Church — nonviolently, without storming a sacred civic structure — we have all gained immeasurably. When justice triumphs, we all triumph. We invite all citizens to visit the Tinner Hill historic site to learn more about a place of hope and inspiration, conscience, and compassion. It is, we believe, a place where we can remember what is at the heart of this country, where we remind ourselves what freedom is, how important justice is, and where we renew our dedication to fighting for the cause championed by Dr. King — a promised land where justice and freedom reign.
Irene Chambers is the president of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation