Many times in the past, Eleanor Monroe has taken the stage to speak to Arlingtonians. Monroe, a former school board member and community leader, is no stranger to public speaking.
But never before like this, taking the podium for her first public speaking appearance since the death of her son, the late County Board Chair Charles Monroe. “In the end, Charles was just a man,” she said. “He was not perfect, but he was special.”
Memories of the late Board Chair abounded when, for the third year in a row, the Arlington NAACP’s Freedom Fund Banquet drew a sellout crowd, filling the Hyatt Regency Crystal City ballroom Saturday, Sept. 27. The 57th annual event is the largest social function in the county.
Even with a packed house, “It’s just a gathering of the Arlington family and friends,” said Darnell Carpenter, a local NAACP member and civic leader.
This year’s banquet was dedicated to the theme “We will not forget,” honoring the life and legacy of Monroe, who died Jan. 11, just 10 days into his tenure as County Board chair.
“The message we’re trying to send is that we will not forget Charles Monroe,” said Talmadge Williams, president of the NAACP Arlington branch. “The legacy of Charles Monroe will not be forgotten.”
During his three years as a county board member, and years before that as a civic activist, Monroe fought for issues important to the NAACP, including open government, civil rights, and fair, affordable housing.
“He stood for people that didn’t always have a voice. He stood for people who played by the rules,” said Paul Ferguson, who succeeded Charles Monroe as Board Chair.
“I’m just excited about the opportunity to honor the life and legacy of Charles Monroe,” said the Rev. Leonard Smith, pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church, emcee of the banquet and Monroe’s former pastor.
Seeing so many people come together proved bittersweet. “I’m looking forward to the day when there will be no need for the NAACP because people will be recognized and respected, and people will be blind to color,” said Smith.
MANY ATTENDEES spoke of the need to continue working toward the goal of a colorblind society.
Many of the problems facing minorities are less overt than they once were, said Smith, but there are still a number of challenges.
Charlie Rinker agreed. “The economic issues are still there, and the affordable housing issues are certainly still there,” he said.
Rinker, founder of the Arlington New Directions Coalition and Buyers and Renters Arlington Voice, received the Charles Monroe Civil Rights Award. “There’s still institutional racism in our society,” he said.
Being honored for playing a part in fighting those problems was overwhelming, Rinker said. “To be a part of the legacy of Charles Monroe and also to be recognized by the NAACP, with all their history … is just tremendous.”
IN HER KEYNOTE address, Eleanor Monroe remembered her son’s youth, telling stories of events that shaped his personal and professional life. As a boy, Charles Monroe saw a friend get hit by a car while crossing Glebe Road. He felt responsible, she said.
Years later, she had to drive 85 miles through rush hour traffic to pick up her son — he had asked to be let out of a car because the driver had been drinking. When she arrived, he wasn’t concerned about her inconvenience—he was worried about whether the driver had made it home safely. Again, he felt responsible for the wellbeing of others.
“In these troubled times in which we live today, there may be a lesson for us here,” said Eleanor Monroe, “that each of us has responsibility — for our families, for our friends, for our neighbors, for our schools, for our communities — to do whatever we can to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem.”