Preserving Community in Hall’s Hill

Preserving Community in Hall’s Hill

New books highlight North Arlington neighborhood’s long role in black history.

<i>Note: Over the course of February, in observance of Black History Month, the Arlington Connection will profile some of the historical sites featured in the Black Heritage Museum’s new brochure, “African American History in Arlington.”</i>

In Hall’s Hill, walls kept a people segregated from the rest of the county, but persistence and a sense of community kept the neighborhood alive for generations.

The North Arlington community was predominantly black for the first half of the 20th Century. But the end of segregation brought new residents, and longtime neighbors are working to preserve the legacy of the area, now known as Highview Park.

“Hopefully we can hang on to part of it… so that those of us who are still around can feel we have a home to come back to,” said William Pelham Jr., a longtime resident.

Pellham joined dozens of other Hall’s Hill natives on Monday, Feb. 10, to celebrate the release of “Up on the Hill: An Oral History of the Hall’s Hill Neighborhood in Arlington County, Virginia.”

The book, compiled from journals by folklorist Tom Carroll in association with the cultural affairs division of county government, was three years in the works. Cultural affairs received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to work on the project, which recorded oral histories from dozens of Hall’s Hill residents whose experiences spanned more than a century.

Pelham said the Hall’s Hill he remembers has now all but vanished, as new houses have been built and long-time residents have been forced out by a skyrocketing cost of living.

Winnie Owens-Hart, the youngest person interviewed for the book, agreed that much has changed in the last 30 years. “The thing for me was that [Hall’s Hill] was a family-oriented place,” she said.

She recalled times as a child when she dared to play outside longer than her mother had permitted. Before she could get home, she said, she had been scolded by all of the neighborhood’s other parents. “There were a lot of checks and balances in the neighborhood, and everyone cared for and cared about each other’s kids,” she said.

It was common quality in traditionally black neighborhoods, and it’s a quality that should be preserved, she said. But Arlington is in danger of losing it.

PRESERVING THE HISTORY of places like Hall’s Hill is a goal of the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington, which included Hall’s Hill in its new brochure, “African American History in Arlington, Virginia,” unveiled last month on Martin Luther King Day.

The brochure highlights notable neighborhoods, churches, historic homes and other points of interest to the study of black history, and to the study of Arlington’s history.

Hall’s Hill evolved as a settlement of freed slaves following the Civil War. Landowner Basil Hall sold almost 300 acres of land at prices newly freed slave families could afford. The family-oriented makeup of Hall’s Hill became a signature of the neighborhood, as residents banded together to help each other throughout the days of segregation.

That segregation was evident in the neighborhood. Until the 1950s, a seven-foot-high fence surrounded Hall’s Hill on three sides, to keep residents from crossing into the surrounding white neighborhoods. Portions of the fence are still visible on 17th Street.

The fence remains a symbol for many of the racial inequality Arlington struggled with just a generation ago. “There is much for us to be proud of [in Hall’s Hill],” said county board chair Paul Ferguson, at Monday’s ceremony. “There is also much for us to be ashamed of.”

Preserving the neighborhood’s history is crucial to preserving part of the county’s identity for Toni Hubbard, Director of Arlington’s Parks Department, who has worked closely on projects in Hall’s Hill. “It shares many memories of family, of community, and what it means to survive,” she said.

NOW, EFFORTS CONTINUE to preserve and revitalize not just memories of Hall’s Hill, but the vibrant community so many residents remember.

Owens-Hart, now an art professor at Howard University, was commissioned to create a new gateway to the community. Her design, which will be installed this spring, centers on a 12-feet-high steel outline of a family holding hands.

The inspiration for the artwork came from her memories of growing up in the community. Adding to the sense of community of the new gateway project, residents designed bricks to line the pavement surrounding Owens-Hart’s work. “For the past three years I think it’s been a learning process for everyone involved,” she said.

Nearly 50 years after a wall of segregation came down, Hall’s Hill will have another monument: a gateway.