Arlington's oldest African American resident, 97-year-old Rebecca Massie, was honored in a ceremony at the County Board room on Courthouse Plaza Friday celebrating Black History Month.
Barbara Hargrove, chairwoman of the county's Black History Month Committee, said it took weeks of research to determine the county's oldest black Arlingtonian. Massie, she said, has witnessed the county's transformation from the time of segregation through the civil rights movement and into the modern era.
“With that age comes wisdom,” said Hargrove.
Massie attended the ceremony with her family. Her son accepted a plaque awarded by the county, on her behalf. Speaking on the legacy of the civil rights movements and African Americans who dared to break the barriers of segregation, guest speaker Jerrauld C. Jones, director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, drew from his own life as a child in Norfolk and from such figures as Martin Luther King Jr. Looking to his own past, Jones recalled the day when, at the age of 9, he and his family rode a ferry across the Chesapeake Bay on their way home to Norfolk. The ferry had segregated bathrooms, he added.
“It was on that ferry that we heard the news over a radio that my father had been appointed to the Norfolk School Board,” Jones said.
AT THE TIME, Jones' father was the first African American to hold such a position. He later became the first one to sit on the state's Board of Education. Jones himself succeeded in integrating his elementary school in 1961. He went on to become the first African American law clerk in the Supreme Court of Virginia. He was later elected state delegate for the 89th District, the City of Norfolk. Men like King and John F. Kennedy, he said, became role models for him as a young man, but his deepest source of inspiration was his father. Jones said he strives to carry on his father's legacy.
“It is not enough to take up space and stay out of trouble,” Jones said, mingling his speech with words from King, Kennedy and other civil rights leaders. “We must be prepared to reach out to others.”
Jones also pointed to the legacy of Rosa Parks and of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League baseball. The chain reaction that Parks began by refusing to give up her seat to a white man during her bus ride home from her job as a seamstress in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955, created “a legacy that has elevated us all,” Jones said. Her stand violated the laws of segregation. A 381-day bus boycott, organized by King, followed. By Nov. 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a prior ruling that declared segregation on buses unconstitutional.
In 1944, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army named Jackie Robinson took a stand similar to that Parks made nearly a decade later. Robinson refused to sit at the back of a military transport bus. He was jailed for insubordination. Robinson would go on to attend UCLA. He played his first Major League game for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, finishing the year with a .297 batting average and leading the League in stolen bases. He was also named Rookie of the Year.
“He did not wait for change,” Jones said of Robinson. “He charged in with all he had and created a legacy that remains to this day. He did not wait for permission to be great. He seized the moment.”
The event also included a dance performance. It was part of an ongoing series of programs the county is hosting throughout the month. Next week, Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, civil rights leader and pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., will speak in the County Board room. The program begins at 11 a.m. on Friday. The legacy of the civil rights movement, according to the event's master of ceremonies, deputy county manager Kenneth Chandler, continues to this day.
“We'll always need to remember that it is a legacy that is building and renewed every day,” he said.