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Looking Back, Looking Ahead

The elders of Arlington’s black community gather to remember the past and ponder the future.

Dr. Fred Taylor, a retired UDC professor, grew up in post-WWII Arlington, an era when the county, the state and much of the south was still segregated by law.

To get home to the Green Valley area, now known as the Nauck neighborhood, from school in Washington, Taylor and his classmates took a bus in Rosslyn for five cents.

"Most adults avoided [that] bus because there were always a lot of noisy kids on it," Taylor recalled.

But one day after school, a white woman got on the bus and the kids had to move to the back. "Something came over [us] that day," Taylor remembered, "and we said ‘We’re not going anywhere.’"

In response, the white bus driver refused to move the bus until the black children moved to the back. A tense standoff ensued that ended when the white woman voluntarily got off the bus.

"But then the bus driver closed the door and drove us from Rosslyn straight to the Arlington County Courthouse," Taylor said. "The policemen came out and all they told us was, ‘You kids know how to act. Why don’t you all do what you’re supposed to?’"

After the scolding, Taylor and his friends were released and they went back to Green Valley. But the children never told their parents about the incident because, as Taylor puts it, "During that time, you just didn’t run afoul of the police. If we had told our parents we would have been in trouble."

The situation was uneasily defused. But had the police officers decided to keep the kids at the station, things might have transpired differently.

Taylor and his friends might now be recognized as the catalyst for the modern civil rights movement instead of Rosa Parks. And Arlington might have replaced Montgomery, Ala. in the history books as the town where the whole movement began.

THIS STORY AND MANY OTHERS were shared last week at the Walter Reed Senior Center’s celebration of Black History Month. Longtime Arlington residents got together to talk about their experiences during the civil rights movement and about the future of Arlington’s black community. The event’s keynote speaker was Mary Taylor, a 93-year-old Arlington resident who is Dr. Taylor's aunt.

Vivid memories of the struggle for equality in the 1950s and 60s poured forth. One woman told of her experiences as the first black sales girl at a newly-integrated retail store. Another spoke about being arrested for picketing the then-segregated Arlington Theatre, now known as the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse.

Mary Laverne Greene, an 81-year-old former teacher, recalled her time at the Syphax Child Care Center, the first integrated pre-school in Arlington. From her decades of experience with children, she learned that racism is not a natural phenomenon but, instead, is learned. "There has never been a bad child anywhere," Greene said. "They only imitate what they see."

Several of those in attendance recalled attending the March on Washington in 1963 where Martin Luther King made his iconic "I Have A Dream" speech. Milton Rowe remembers taking a bus from Lomax Church on South 24th Road in Arlington to the march. He also recalled Dr. King coming to Lomax and giving a speech in the historic church’s parking lot.

"[The March on Washington] was an experience you can’t put into words," Dr. Taylor said. "It showed how a group of people could collectively influence decision makers."

But he also noted that, before the march, the black community was "a little apprehensive because we saw on television what happened to other marchers in the South." Because of this, Dr. Taylor said that he "appreciated it more after it was over than when [I] went through it."

Mary Taylor said she felt this way about the entire civil rights era. She, too, was unable to appreciate it when it was happening because of the pervasive anxiety of the times.

"We never really had a good feeling about the movement until after it was over," she said. When King was assassinated in 1968, she recalled watching it on television at her home on Kenmore Street and feeling sad but not surprised at the killing, almost as if she had known it was coming.

FORTUNATELY, MUCH HAS CHANGED since those chaotic days. "To be honest, we have come a long way," Mary Taylor said.

Now Arlington’s black community is trying to honor and preserve its own rich history. Indisputably its most important historical aspect is Freedman’s Village.

When General Robert E. Lee’s estate was confiscated towards the end of the Civil War, the U.S. government turned it into a refuge for newly-freed slaves, dubbing it Freedman’s Village. Throughout the late 19th century, the area flourished and became ground zero for Arlington’s black community.

Around the turn of the century, when the federal government purchased the land and turned it into what is now Arlington National Cemetery, many of its residents moved into outlying areas such as the Nauck neighborhood. But the black community is still very connected to the area, as is evidenced by the more than 3,800 original Freedman’s Village residents that are buried there.

The Black Heritage Museum of Arlington (BHMA) is attempting to honor Freedman’s Village by constructing its Arlington Heritage Center on land overlooking the cemetery. BHMA President Joan White said its planned location will be the 4.3 acres currently occupied by the Navy Annex, which is being vacated by the Department of Defense after 2013.

Craig Syphax, a member of the BHMA and moderator of the event at the senior center, said that all of the Navy Annex buildings will be torn down except for two which Arlington County will renovate and turn into the Arlington Heritage Center.

Ironically, while the black community is working hard to honor Freedman’s Village, many of its less historic but still important landmarks in the Nauck neighborhood are being lost. Some of the first black-owned businesses in Arlington have disappeared because booming development in the Shirlington area has spilled over into the adjacent Nauck neighborhood.

Dr. Taylor, who is president of the Nauck Civic Association, is trying to keep the memories of these community landmarks alive. "We can’t stop progress," he said, "but we can stop the loss of our history."

MARY TAYLOR IS GRATEFUL that society has progressed so much during her lifetime. But she sees the struggle for civil rights as being far from over.

"We’ve come this far because of the grace of God," she said, "but we have a long way to go. What Dr. King did was just the tip of the iceberg. Some people still hate the guts of a black person."

She has been around long enough to know that it is impossible for true equality to come overnight. "It’s going to come but it won’t be tomorrow," she said. "We need to stop thinking that we can [end racism] fast."

Despite the struggles in the past and the long road ahead for the black community, Mary Taylor isn’t discouraged. Instead, she believes that, because of those struggles, the black community has a responsibility to continue to work for equality. "Our forefathers died in slavery for us," she said. "We’ve got to continue on for our children."