A seldom discussed but still potent reminder of Arlington’s, and Virginia’s, segregationist past has been turned into a celebration of perseverance of the county’s African-American community.
Civic and political leaders turned out Feb. 26 for the dedication of an historical marker detailing the history of a “segregation wall” that for 30 years in the mid-20th century was a demarcation line between black and white.
“This is a phenomenal occasion. It just touches my heart,” said Alexandra Bocian, president of the John M. Langston Citizens Association, which represents residents Halls Hill/High View Park, the historically African-American community that straddles Lee Highway north of Ballston.
It was residents of that community who in the 1930s found themselves walled off from the adjacent (and all-white) neighborhood now known as Waycroft-Woodlawn. White residents along 19th Road North put up fencing to separate the two communities.
The status quo would not change until 1966, when – bowing to community pressure – the Arlington government purchased two homes on the white side of the line and tore them down to make a passageway. The new signage is located close to that spot, at the intersection of North Culpeper Street and 17th Road North, where some of the original fencing remains in place.
Portia Terrell Haskins, an Arlington native who helped spearhead the effort for the signage, said it was a chance to honor Halls Hill/High View Park, which over its 150-year history has been “a community that . . . worked together, loved one another and helped anyone who was in need.”
“This is not only about our neighborhood, but about unity,” Terrell Haskins said at the event, which drew about 150 people.
Many county residents, even those who have lived in Arlington for generations, have little to no knowledge of the segregation fence.
When he moved to the county in the 1980s, “I didn’t know anything about that. I was just stunned,” said Mark Schwartz, who now serves as county manager.
Schwartz said it’s a positive thing that the fencing – made at various points of chain-link, brick and cinderblock – remains.
“I’m glad there’s a remnant to remind us,” he said. “The past is always prologue.”
School Board member James Lander, one of two African-American elected officials in the county, encouraged young people to “absorb the moment.”
“Take advantage of the opportunity of the time you live in,” he said at the ceremony. “Carry the torch of freedom, resilience and progress.”
The Halls Hill community (sometimes referred to as “Hall’s Hill,” including on the historic marker) came about in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, when a white landowner agreed to sell lots to newly freed slaves. It apparently was less an act of charity than one of post-war financial desperation, as Bazil Hall previously had earned a reputation as a harsh slaveowner.
Emerging nearby was another African-American enclave, High View Park. The two effectively merged into one community in the 20th century.
The effort to get historic recognition was led by Halls Hill/High View Park Historic Preservation Coalition with the support of the county government. It took time but paid off, said Cynthia Liccese-Torres, who heads the Arlington government’s historic-preservation efforts.
“It’s really so reassuring to see so many people here today,” Liccese-Torres said at the dedication. “Our history is so important.”