Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

County residents of all walks and ages take advantage of year-round pools at our three public high schools. But I’d wager few lap-swimmers think back to the controversies that preceded the opening of their original versions in 1973.

Consider the Arlington of the mid-1960s, as portrayed in coverage of the pools’ genesis by the Northern Virginia Sun. With legal segregation only recently banned, summer water fun in the county was still available only privately — two country clubs, neighborhood clubs (Arlington Forest, Dominion Hills, Overlee and Donaldson Run), Knights of Columbus, Cherrydale’s Northern Virginia Aquatic Club (I was a member) and dozens of home and apartment complex pools.

But for blacks there was only the crowded (and now-defunct) Veterans Memorial YMCA Pool in Green Valley. The limited practical option for those in Halls Hill was finding transportation to D.C.’s East Potomac Park. “The only reason there aren’t public pools is because whites have been afraid to put their bodies in the same water with black bodies,” said Charles Carroll Moran of the Parish Advisory Council at Blessed Sacrament Church. There was also demand for greater opportunities for swim lessons for all families.

After years of false starts, by 1967, a movement among churches and students (my friends among them) emerged to press the county board to float a bond referendum for public pools. A 1,000-person survey of “current problems” by the Arlington Jaycees found the county evenly divided on taxpayer-funded pools, a Sun editorial noted. A group of young people circulated a petition in spring 1968, and that summer, an Arlington Pool Group led by Lawrence Moscher Jr., with help from Green Valley block captain Tona Henderson, pressed the county board, promising a potential remedy for youth delinquency. Liberal member Tom Richards and conservative Ken Haggerty were also seeking new opportunities for youth recreation. The plan drew support from the Red Cross, the teachers union, the Arlington Democratic Committee, the Arlington Civic Federation and the Arlington Community Action Program. The Northern Virginia Swimming League pushed for the pools to be year-round.

The proposal to build indoor pools at Yorktown, Washington-Lee and Wakefield high schools (a fourth at Thomas Jefferson Junior High was also considered) was originally budgeted for $250,000. Builder Preston Caruthers, who was chair of the school board, massaged the plans, favoring use of a single architect, access separate from the school buildings, and a schedule that wouldn’t short-change south Arlington. The price eventually rose to $900,000.

In September 1969, opposition to including pools on the coming bond referendum came from Karl Spiess, president of a group called the Homeowners Federation. He had spoken out against publicly funded pools, and was joined by the Jaycees. A Sun editorial urged caution against “extravagance,” suggesting that private pools instead allow nonmembers on off-days. My friend and classmate Peter Kwass testified to the county board for the Arlington Youth Council, as reported in the Sun by a moonlighting Yorktown Sentry reporter Mary Overton, seeking to head off cost-cutting to assure the pools are “useful.”

The bond issue that November passed by a narrow 900 votes, and the first of the three pools opened, at Washington-Lee (now Liberty) 50 years ago this summer. Of course, all three were rebuilt in the 21st century when the high schools were redone.


My colleagues at the Arlington Historical Society made an exception to their nonpartisan educational tradition of avoiding public policy pronouncements.

Board members approved a letter from new president David Pearson backing the federal legislation re-offered last month by Rep. Don Beyer and Sen. Tim Kaine to rename Arlington House. It would switch from the decades-old “Arlington House—The Robert E. Lee Memorial” to the simpler “Arlington House National Historic Site.”

By repealing the legislation that put the controversial Lee’s name on the home created by George Washington Parke Custis, the change would better reflect the site’s modern exhibits incorporating the enslaved community, and, in Pearson’s words, “have a name that more accurately reflects the historical facts.”