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Adding to Black History

A panel of Restonians reflects on black history.

Reston’s black history came alive last Wednesday through words and stories.

Roosevelt Calbert, who came to Reston in 1971, spoke of spending the day with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Ala. in 1967, five months before he was assassinated.

Cathy Hudgins, Fairfax County Supervisor (D-Hunter Mill), spoke of standing with Embry Rucker years ago against a student fundraiser designed to auction off students as servants for the day.

Michelle Ellison, who moved to Reston from Ethiopia when she was 7, spoke of the first time she experienced racism.

Vern Wingert, also a long-time Restonian, spoke of camping out on the Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1968 as part of the Poor People’s Campaign.

THE FOUR-PERSON panel, part of the Reston Museum’s discussion of black history, all had something in common — they were early residents of Reston. The four invited speakers have amassed 130 years living in Reston.

The animated discussion, which was moderated by Ellen Graves, another long-time Reston resident who helped establish Reston’s Multicultural Festival, covered various black history subjects, including the civil rights movement, the integration of Reston and current race relations in Reston.

Graves started the program reflecting on the founder of Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson. Woodson, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, launched Negro History Week in 1926. The distinguished black author and historian, who was home schooled and finished high school in two years, also served as dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Howard University.

“Eventually the week evolved into Black History Month in 1976,” said Graves. “We’re here tonight to honor our heritage and appreciate our diversity.”

THE PANELISTS NOTED how important it is to learn the history. While things today are very different, Calbert talked about the day-to-day struggle and some of the violent realities of the civil rights movement. “To me, I go back and I think about how far we’ve come,” said Calbert, who was one of the first black families to integrate Lawrence, Kan. while he attended the University of Kansas. “But I’ll always remember all the people who gave their lives for this movement.”

Wingert, who was a staffer for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. from 1966 to 1967, worked in Chicago on the “open occupancy” campaign, which was designed to integrate blacks into white neighborhoods. Housing discrimination was rampant, recalled Wingert. “I’m glad we had the demonstrations and the marches, so those things got changed,” said Wingert.

Hudgins said that for far too long black history was hidden. “The idea is to ensure that the contributions of black Americans are folded into the history of America,” she said.

ALL THREE OF the black panelists, Calbert, Ellison and Hudgins, said that one of the reasons they came to Reston was its inclusiveness. “I think Reston does serve as a model for where people can live,” said Hudgins. Others agreed. “My neighborhood was called a ‘little U.N.,” said Wingert, “and my daughter really benefited from that.”

Yet, things weren’t always perfect. “It gives me a lot of pride to know where I came from,” said Ellison, who graduated from Herndon High School. “But I didn’t like Black History Month when I was growing up because when I was in school the contribution that blacks made wasn’t in the history books.”

Ellison talked about a situation when a speaker for Black History month had come to her school. Over the loud speaker, students were told about the speaker. But in Ellison’s class, the teacher said that students could go only if they were black. “I wanted to say ‘you’re missing the whole point,’” said Ellison. “Some people were still using it as a divisive tool, which was really upsetting.”

While Reston was built on a welcoming spirit, Ellison’s story prompted a discussion on how much Reston has changed. The panelists emphasized that Reston’s cultural diversity should be nurtured. For Hudgins, it has meant preserving the available affordable housing in Reston, which is one of Reston’s founding principles. Robert E. Simon founded Reston to include housing for people with a variety of incomes.

“We have to complete Bob Simon’s dream to make sure that those who could afford to live here can still live here,” said Hudgins, who recently challenged her fellow supervisors to double the amount of money for affordable housing.