A Island Where Racial Equality Bloomed

A Island Where Racial Equality Bloomed

For 40 years, Reston plays role in Virginia's struggle with race relations.

Hanging in the back corner of the Reston Museum at Lake Anne Plaza is an old Reston advertisement, featuring a double-sided face — one face white, the other black — beneath the slogan, "Reston: An Open Community."

The poster's message of tolerance underscores what was at the time a revolutionary ideal put forth by Reston founder Bob Simon — Reston should be a place of racial equality.

Now, after four decades, local historians and longtime Black Restonians say that ideal of tolerance has been largely successful.

"Reston was an island of tolerance in a sea of inequality," said Tom Wilkins, the first and only black president of the Reston Association.

When Reston was founded 40 years ago in November 1964, Virginia was largely segregated, interracial marriages were illegal, and overt racism was apparent. Simon, on the other hand, reached out to the black community and offered them a place to live alongside whites.

Blacks were featured prominently in early Reston advertisements, emphasizing different races living together in harmony, said Harry Hilton, director of the Reston Historic Trust and curator of the Reston Museum.

"Featuring African-Americans prominently in advertising meant more than it does today, especially in Virginia," Hilton said.

After Gulf Oil Co. took over the management of the town in 1967, Reston advertisements continued to feature blacks and whites together. When an ad was published without any blacks, Reston residents were quick to express their outrage on the pages of the local newspapers, according to an examination of old newspaper clippings.

Wilkins, who moved to Reston in 1969 because he had heard it was an inclusive community, said black families came to Reston because elsewhere in Virginia was segregated and marked by overt discrimination.

"Bob opened up this community to us when no one else in Northern Virginia would sell homes or apartments to us black people," Wilkins said.

In the late 1960s, approximately 45 of Reston's 878 families were black, just higher than 5 percent. Today, 5,145 Restonians are black, slightly more than 9 percent of the total population, according to U.S. Census figures.

ALENE SMITH and her late husband, Rodney E. Smith, moved to Reston in August 1969 with their two children after seeing a promotional film about Reston. All the talk about racial harmony in Reston, Smith found, turned out to be true.

"Blacks and whites all got along together," she recalled. "Black and white kids played together. It was just a heavenly place to live."

Because early Reston was mostly immune to the racial tension raging elsewhere, black children were shocked when they left for college and experienced racism and intolerance, Smith said.

"The kids saw that people from all different races can live together and work together in a peaceful, loving way," she said. "But they found out, it was sort of unreal."

The early black community in Reston was almost like a family, Smith said, because family support structures were left behind when they moved to the new community.

"We had to support each other, blacks and whites together," she said.

To facilitate better communication between whites and blacks, Alene's husband held forums every Saturday at Lake Anne Nursery Kindergarten. Principals, politicians and Restonians of all races attended the discussions, which focused on tolerance and equality.

Also, because there were so few black families in the late 1960s, the Smiths helped found "Reston Black Focus," an educational and social organization devoted to being the voice of Reston's black community.

"This was a new and growing community and we wanted to make sure that the black culture and lifestyle didn't get lost in that growth," Smith recalled.

Reston Black Focus organized the first Reston Black Arts Festival in 1969, which was held at Lake Anne Plaza. The organization also planted a tree in the Hickory Cluster in honor Martin Luther King, Jr.

DESPITE THE IDEALS of tolerance, there were a few incidents in Reston that showed no community could escape racism and ignorance.

Apart from the occasional racially insensitive remark by a teacher or public official in the 1970s, the racial tension in Reston was never more evident than when someone spraypainted racial epithets on a public building, drawing the black community en masse to a rally at Lake Anne.

Also, in the early 1970s, Virginia tried to force all black children to be tested for sickle cell anemia at their public schools. Reston's black community was outraged, Smith said, with many parents refusing to allow their children to be subjected to the tests.

"Our kids were already the only black children in their classrooms," she said. "And they were the only ones being forced to take these tests."

Later, in 1977, the black and white community mobilized together to stop a Sambo's Restaurant from opening in Reston. The restaurant was denounced because it used objectionable black imagery in their corporate logo.

Overall, however, Reston has been an ideal place to live and raise black children, Smith said.

"I love Reston," she said. "I just love this place."

FOR 21 YEARS, Reston resident Ellen Graves has been a prominent member of the community, helping to promote diversity and multiculturalism.

Graves helped found the Reston Multicultural Festival in 2000, an event she says is a natural extension of Reston's founding ideals.

"That's why Bob Simon founded this community — to bring together different cultures," she said.

Graves, who is black, speaks admiringly about Reston, saying it actually is a community where people from all races and economic classes can come together.

"I've never once felt segregated or that I was different," she said.

In fact, in the 1960s, interracial couples moved to Reston because they were shunned everywhere else.

"They moved here because they could live comfortably in a quality community and be accepted," Graves said.

A RECENTLY DISCOVERED set of documents at the Reston Museum includes a copy of a 1967 article from Ebony Magazine titled "Racial Integration in Reston." The article chronicles the early days of Reston and centers on how blacks from around the country were moving to Reston to enjoy its ideals of liberalism and tolerance.

According to the article, Reston was viewed by neighboring communities as crazy for its support for open housing and racial equality.

"Whites in nearby Herndon still shake their heads at 'the crackpots' in Reston," the article observed.

Also in the article, Taylor Williams, then a Reston resident and a high school principal, said Reston was just what the black community had been waiting for.

"You don't identify in racial terms out here," he told Ebony. "You're just an individual. You're either a gentleman or a lady and that's it. They make you feel a part, like you're in a democracy or something."