Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Our racial history commemorators have thoroughly marked the 1959 integration of Stratford Junior High School, a first for long-segregated Virginia.

But those four African American student pioneers stood on the shoulders of a select group of older peers, whose legal efforts have gone relatively unsung.

A remedy for that injustice came May 13, when activists for the John M. Langston and Halls Hill civic associations gathered with county officials at the Langston Community Center. With prayers, a poem and narratives, they acknowledged the “courage and fortitude” of 28 black students whose parents in the 1950s challenged the Arlington school board to desegregate (during state-level “massive resistance”) via the court case Thompson v. Arlington.

Organized primarily by Halls Hill chronicler Wilma Jones — who succeeded in assembling 14 of the 28 alumni, or their survivors — the ceremony highlighted the 85th anniversary of the John M. Langston Civic Association (the county’s oldest). Attendees admired historic photos curated by Ernest Johnson and referenced neighborhood events such as the newly begun reconstruction of historic Fire Station No. 8 and a renewed Halls Hill mural behind McDonald’s.

Jones’s research assembled news clippings describing how a federal court ruling in 1956 had approved desegregation in Arlington, but our school board refused to enforce it. Hence five of those plaintiffs, along with 27 additional students, became the plaintiffs in Thompson.

School officials had the black applicants evaluated by a psychologist for the Virginia Mental Hygiene Department, who recommended rejecting 12 for psychological reasons or an inability to adjust. The start of the 1958 school year was delayed while attorneys clashed before Judge Albert Bryan, NAACP attorneys against school board attorney Frank Ball.

In the celebration’s dramatic statement, current school board member Reid Goldstein told the crowd he “apologized for the behavior” of the ‘50s board in treating black citizens “so badly.” Speaking for all current board members, Goldstein said, “We’re at a critical moment in society where it’s important we establish schools where all feel welcome.”

The 63-years-late celebration was planned with School Superintendent Francisco Duran and chief of staff Brian Stockton. Also in the audience of 100 were Julius Spain Sr., president of the NAACP’s Arlington branch, and county board members Matt de Ferranti and Takis Karantonis, who read a proclamation of support.

Memories of growing up as Arlington desegregated came from keynote speaker Deborah Brittain, a graduate of Drew Elementary, Hoffman-Boston secondary school, Wakefield High (’64) and Howard University. She recalled that the Langston civic association was created in the late 1930s, a time when FDR was president, Joe Louis had out-boxed a heavyweight white man, and the Scottsboro Boys were convicted in a racially explosive rape case.

The Arlington plaintiffs “were 10 – 15-year-old children living normal lives in Halls Hill and Green Valley,” recalled Brittain, a past president and board chair of the Association of Junior Leagues International. It was the parents who chose to go to court, but “we knew our behavior represented our family and communities.” Those Arlington black neighborhoods — Halls Hill, Green Valley, Johnson City, Hatsville — made a “loving” community in which “we hardly ever locked our doors. But we had to travel all the way to the District to go to the movies.”

Today, Brittain said, “As communities get more diverse, the needs of citizens may differ.” The challenges are “not for the faint of heart.”

After decades as an institution, the newly refurbished Jennie Dean Park athletic field near Shirlington was re-dedicated May 21 with music and a parade.

Just blocks along Four Mile from the long-spiffier Barcroft Park, this facility enjoyed by Green Valley African-Americans was named for the pioneer educator who rose from slavery in the 19th century and founded the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth.

The $15 million, three-year upgrade came from the county, which in 1944 bought the land used during segregation for football, softball, baseball, tennis, picnics and dancing, according to newly posted historical plaques.

The shiny green diamonds are named for popular African-American coaches Ernest Johnson and Robert Winkler.