Honoring Local Black Struggle

Honoring Local Black Struggle

Residents recall days of segregation, racism in Herndon duing Black History Month

"Herndon's come a long way since I was younger," said Daryl Smith, a former Herndon resident and the town's first black police officer.

Smith, who was born in 1950 and grew up in the black community known as Oak Grove on the boundary of Fairfax and Loudoun counties, has spent nearly his entire life in the Herndon area.

But during the '50s and '60s, growing up and going to school in Herndon was much different than it is now.

"I remember that there were different buses that carried the black kids and the white kids to school," said Smith, who received his elementary education in a segregated school built at the location of the old Herndon Police Department at Sterling Road and Rock Hill Road. "It was a segregated community, all of the black people lived in one community and the white people lived in another. Even all of the staff at the school, the teachers, the principals, the janitors, they were all black."

While Smith remembers the times from the perspective of a small child, 80-year-old Sterling resident Jean Brooks, who spent most of her life living on the border between Herndon and Loudoun County, remembers segregation as a young adult. Brooks, who is Smith's aunt, was a substitute teacher at a black elementary school near Herndon during the days of segregation.

"It used to be that if you wanted to go to a restaurant in town, you had to go to the back door and order your food and you wait outside," Brooks said. "You couldn't sit near whites in public, you had to ride in the back of the bus, and you couldn't even try on hats if you went to the department store."

"We were segregated all around here for all of our lives, so we were used to that, it was nothing new to us."

Nonetheless, the Brooks family, which consisted of several veterans of the U.S. Armed Services, had always refused to order food from the back door of restaurants, she said.

"My mother always felt that we shouldn't have to do it," Brooks said. "I always thought that we had family who had fought for this country, who had worked for the government and that we should be allowed to do the same things as anyone else."

GRADUALLY, Brooks said, things began to change. The civil rights movement that originated in the later 1950s and 1960s started to have visible effects on Herndon and the rest of Northern Virginia.

Carlton A Funn, Sr., chairman of the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage, said that many Northern Virginians still remember the feelings associated with segregation and how it finally felt to see those limitations removed.

"After those changes, people began to treat you like a human being … you were able to sit down at the counter and order food, to go into the library," said Funn, 75. "There are a lot of things around this area that have changed a lot over the years."

And the advantages went beyond the ability to order food while seated at a restaurant, Funn said.

"Back when I was a student [at a segregated school], they used to give us the books from the white schools that were passed down and used over 10 years," he said. After desegregation "we started getting newer books and better opportunities for education."

The transition from a segregated society to an integrated one was not easy, said lifelong Herndon resident and former Herndon school office manager Elma Mankin, 82.

"I remember when the black students came and some of them were upset having to make the change to a school … where they came from all black children in their classes to maybe only one or two," Mankin said. "I remember some of the children crying."

The changes also required more sacrifice and dedication of the black students looking to integrate into the white schools, Smith said.

When he reached high school in the mid-1960s, Smith's parents worked to buy him a car so he could drive to a desegregated school. He could drive or walk several miles to the nearest bus stop in order to receive an equal education, he said.

His parents "saw it [desegregation] coming on, and wanted us to get used to it," Smith said. "But we were well-received, we never had problems with anyone."

DESPITE THE CHANGES that were occurring throughout American society, the community had yet to fully unite, according to Smith. He had just signed on as the first black police officer at 23-years-old in 1973 when he was confronted with one of the most challenging experiences of his life.

"When they hired me, things weren't that great in terms of race relations in Herndon," said Smith.

Within a few months of first putting on his badge, Smith worked alongside fellow Herndon officers responding to a race riot that had ignited in the town over the shooting death of a young black man by a Fairfax County police officer.

But it was in the wake of that incident that Smith said that race relations in Herndon and the surrounding area really began to improve.

"Because of the way Herndon reacted, we got a lot more people involved, we built the Herndon Community Center and started to bring the community together," said Smith. "The way the community bound together and decided to change is what made a lot of peoples' lives better."

Smith would eventually move on to become the town's first black elected official and the first black police chief of Purcellville. He had helped found Vecinos Unidos, an after-school study and activity program tutoring and teaching confidence and discipline to at-risk youth in Herndon.

"It's just a big difference now … everyone has a great opportunity to do whatever they want, it seems to me that everyone has a lot of resources at their disposal," he added.

THAT SOCIETY was once organized strictly around one's racial background is often difficult to grasp for younger people, said Mankin.

"It's hard to believe that these things happened, but that's how people lived back then," she said.

An understanding of that past and the struggles that people went through are sometimes overlooked by generations of young black adults today, Brooks said.

"If there is one thing I want people to remember … it's how hard it was for us to work so that we could get an education," she said. "I don't want them to forget it, what we went through to get an opportunity for a better life."

For Smith, the lessons of the civil rights movement can still be applied to modern times.

"I think we learned from our experiences that if we don't start treating people with respect, they're going to feel disenfranchised, they're going to feel separated from the community," Smith said. "But I still see it all the time, if it's not the young black kids, it's the young Latino kids who are starting to feel this way now."

"These kids were born here in this country and now there are a lot of people who are treating them like they don't belong here … and it's making them feel isolated," he added. "There are many good people in Herndon who help others, and I've always seen this country as one that works together, not one that excludes people."

"Our country's come a long way, and we're the greatest one on this planet, but if we don't live up to those that need our help, then everyone is going to suffer."