Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Our citizenry harbors an unquantifiable demand for a special nostalgic item: souvenirs in the form of now-removed street signs for the old Lee Highway.

In the 10 months since the county board changed the century-old road to Langston Blvd., transportation staff have received several requests for the objects from 74 intersections now sitting in storage. “I’ve been a resident on Lee Highway (now Langston Boulevard) at three different addresses since 1994,” Tom Wolfe, active on the Plan Langston Boulevard initiative, told me. “I have lived at my current address for 23 years. I’d like to have a Lee Highway sign to remember what five miles of Arlington was called for almost a century.”

Sorry, says the county. “Following their removal in February, a number of the `Lee’ street signs were put in storage at the Center for Local History,” said county spokesman Benjamin Aiken. “The center does not have an immediate plan for future use. Several signs were provided to the Arlington Historical Society. We did field inquiries by the public. However, given the potential for the signs to be used in ways the county may not support, the decision was made not to satisfy individual requests.”

Given continuing resistance to the name change from traditionalists and defenders of Robert E. Lee, the county appears worried some might post the signs to protest. That could cause confusion given the ongoing mélange of labels on the thoroughfare. If you drive by N. Woodstock St. and the also-renamed Cherry Hill Rd. (formerly Old Lee Highway), you see three apartment house signs still labeled Lee Highway: Lorcom House, Balmoral and Oak Crest.

The eight green Virginia Department of Transportation signs on I-66 still say Lee Highway. (VDOT says they are working with Arlington on the change.) And the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is sitting on a December recommendation from a Confederate Names Task Force to remove Lee’s name from that county’s Lee Highway and Lee-Jackson Highway. (One candidate: Langston Boulevard.)

Meanwhile, those upset by the demotion of Lee might study up on the abolitionist lawyer, academic pioneer and Congressman John M. Langston. True, his direct connection to Arlington is minor. I scanned his autobiography and the 2017 biography by Linda Salisbury and found only three references. Mercer lived in what then was Alexandria County beginning in 1867 as inspector general for the War Department’s Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. That brought him to the village on what was Arlington House land, but his larger charge took him to several states. He was sworn in 1885 as president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute by a justice of the peace in Old Town.

In 1925, Arlington named Langston Elementary School more because of the Virginia-born African-American’s general accomplishments. As author Wilma Jones reports in “Halls Hill: More Than a Neighborhood,” our school board in November 1969 was scolded for racial bias by United Black Front leader Rev. Douglas Moore. He asked board members whether they knew who Langston was. Each replied no.

On May 7, citizens of Green Valley gathered to dedicate John Robinson Jr. Town Square.

The five-year $3.25 million remake of the park in this historically black community created a peaceful rock garden with plantings, benches and open water drainage. The dominant vertical is the FREED sculpture, built from interconnected “slave badges” recalling emancipated blacks from nearby Freedman’s Village.

During my visit an African-American man was immersed in conversation with an Asian-American mom and her two toddlers.

A wonderful biographical tribute to my Arlington Historical Society colleague Gerry Haines is posted on the website www.arlingtonhistoricalsociety.org.

The 79-year-old Ph.D. who died April 8 had a stellar career as an archivist at the National Archives, the National Security Agency, the CIA and National Reconnaissance Office. A sought-after lecturer, Gerry became a TV personality clarifying the government’s explanations of UFO sightings, reported his friend and neighbor retired Arlington Treasurer Frank O’Leary.

An athlete as a youth in Detroit, Gerry was also a force in his N. Highland St. neighborhood and a preservation activist for our history group.