Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

During Black History Month a Yorktown High School grad named Jack (class of ’65) spawned a rich discussion on Facebook’s “I Grew Up in Arlington, VA.” Why, with such thorough coverage of the history-making integration of Stratford Junior High in 1959, there was less clarity on when Yorktown integrated?


I bore witness to some of that drama at my alma mater.


Facebookers responded that the school boundaries were “gerrymandered” in the early ‘60s by a Republican county board and appointed school board. That meant most of the African-American students from Halls Hill after desegregation (and the close of Hoffman-Boston High in 1964) went to Washington-Lee (now Liberty).


“In its place in time, Arlington was attempting progress in a very conservative state,” noted Terry ‘67. Others recalled only one or two Black classmates, and one Black teacher (Government instructor Harvey Wright).


Sterling ’69 provided the text of a 1965 U.S. District Court case (Wanner v. County School Board of Arlington County) brought successfully by white parents objecting to their kids being zoned into the newly integrated Thomas Jefferson Junior High. The county had declared all the schools officially integrated, having appointed a committee in 1964 to redraw boundaries and asking to be relieved of the 1956 order to desegregate.


Several alumni recalled just one or two Black classmates at Yorktown in the early and mid-‘60s. English teacher Eric Christenson told me he cultivated long-term friendships with two of those isolated souls, one of whom “did well in our class to adjust to the change.” The other “was “a sullen and angry young man” who in later life launched a successful business and apologized to Eric for not taking better advantage of opportunities.


Math teacher Wilmer Mountain recalled how integration altered Yorktown’s climate. “We were called `The Country Club’ school, and with additional non-club members there was a general change in the perception of our school.”


Posting as a onetime student reporter from the class of ’71, I underlined a difference between de facto and de jure integration. For most of the ‘60s, the one or two Black students in each class lived on the north side of Lee Highway, now Langston Blvd. In fall 1968, new boundaries took effect. We then had dozens of Black graduates of Swanson Junior High who previously would have gone to W-L. By my senior year, they numbered about 60, or 4 percent of the student body—as I reported in the Sentry. Students set up a Black-White Relations Committee, and I polled the Black students— who expressed alienation and plans to organize against discrimination.


Brian ’70 recalled days of tension and wondering why Black kids sat together at a lunch table “as if that meant they somehow weren’t friendly when they were just sitting with their friends like everybody else.”


My friend Charlene Gardner, one of those isolated African Americans, told me she resented being “invisible” to some of those currently debating integration who still “did not acknowledge our existence. “When I was at Yorktown I received hate mail at my house. My mother and I read it, discussed it and, being the person she was, she taught me how to put it aside and go to school and get educated. So, Yorktown as an institution was a place Blacks had to get through, not necessarily to enjoy.”


Area jurisdictions recently recalled how our public libraries got integrated. The Arlington Public Library’s Center for Local History researched how African Americans in our county—barred from the fledgling mainstream library system— created the Henry Louis Holmes Library.


It existed from 1940-49, first at the Mount Olive Baptist Church on S. Ridge Rd, then at 13th and South Queens streets. It operated separately from the volunteer-created Arlington Library Association, which became a county department in 1937.


The Holmes collection comprised 2,334 books and was named for a onetime slave who was Alexandria County’s Revenue Commissioner from 1877-1904. Its building was razed after the 1950 integration.