Leaders of Northern Virginia’s African American community gathered at the Hyatt hotel in Crystal City Saturday night for the Freedom Banquet, hosted by the NAACP.
Celebrating the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the court case that ended segregation in American schools, the banquet drew members of Arlington’ school board and its political representatives. Before an audience of more than 500 people, County Board Chair Barbara Favola, honoring the NAACP’s history in Arlington, said it “has been a long-time partner in this community. Their leaders have worked hand in glove with Arlington County’s leadership to substantially improve our community. The NAACP has always challenged Arlington to do the right thing, to be fair, to be judicious and, goodness, to get on with it.”
Favola added that Arlington’s public schools are working to close the academic gap between white and minority students.
“The school system right now is putting more resources into student assistance and tutoring,” she said. “This is exactly the kind of thing we should be about tonight, improving our quality education.”
In an interview, Williams said education is one of the NAACP’s top priorities in Arlington through initiatives that are designed to address teachers in the classroom.
“We help the teachers to teach better,” he explained “They’ve said there is need for help with parent involvement so the schools can do better and we’ve been working on that. We’ve had parent workshops and we continue to push parents. We have a program with George Mason University, where we’re going to teach parents called Parent Allies for Student Success. We’re going to assign people to work as allies for parents so their children can do better.”
The NAACP also works with Arlington Police, Williams said, in their work with the black community.
“We are friends with the police department and we want to work with them to make sure they have all the tools they need,” he said. “We don’t do any policing but we assist them to help them do a better job.”
On his work with the Black Heritage Museum, Williams explained the project is still in its infancy.
“We’re still in limbo about that,” he said. “We’re going to build a black heritage museum. As far as where it’s going to be built, we’re still in the discussion phase of that now.”
But one focus of the Museum, he said, is to further research into the history of Arlington’s black community and how it has changed.
“You go back to the 1860s and 90 percent of the population in Arlington was African American,” he said. “Today, it is less than 10 percent. Through the Black Heritage museum, we’re in the business of finding out who those people were.”
US Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) criticized the No Child Left Behind Act, saying the programs are under funded.
“The concept of separate but equal is a thing of the past,” Moran said. “Schools are no longer separate but they are not equal and they are not going to be equal until we invest properly and equitably in them.”
Moran added that NCLB punishes schools for failing to meet standards but doesn’t provide the resources to meet them.
“It’s wrong to test on the one hand and force failures and not to give money to not make up the difference,” he said.
To close the academic achievement gap among minority students, Moran said government must pay closer attention to predominately minority schools.
“It all goes back to slavery, discrimination and segregated schools,” he explained. “You can’t just wish it away. You have to undo the damage.”
Linking education to the issue of gun control, Moran said Congress’s failure to extend the national ban on assault weapons has endangered children in school.
“It was a crime not to extend the assault weapon ban,” he said. “Black males represent six percent of the population and 45 percent of the firearm deaths.”
Moran closed by hailing Talmadge Williams, president of Arlington’s NAACP chapter for his efforts to create a black heritage museum in Arlington. But finding a site for the museum, he added, has become a challenge. The proposed site borders Arlington National Cemetery, which has plans to expand.
“Arlington Cemetery just wants more and more land,” he said. “You can understand why they do but they want to pick up this piece of property too and so we’ve been fighting for it.”
Moran’s Republican challenger in the coming November election, Lisa Marie Cheney, was also on hand. Cheney greeted the audience with a message of tolerance and community, drawing an example from her two children.
“We must all take a lesson from our children,” she said “My children, when they play with their friends, they don’t see color, they don’t see religious preference, they don’t see race. They see a friend.
She added that, “We must nurture that innocence. That allows us all to be better because our children are our future. They are our future leaders, our future workforce, our future innovators and it would be detrimental to our country to rob that future. It is important to educate our children all well and all equally. Everyone in this room, we are a community and we are Americans and that is what we should always be first and foremost.”