In a crowded ballroom last week, former City Manager Vola Lawson bumped into former School Board Chairman Ferdinand Day. The unexpected meeting, which happened shortly before the mayor’s annual Unity Breakfast, sparked old memories between the two longtime city luminaries. Sharing a laugh at how many years have gone by since their first meeting, the pair recalled the occasion that brought them together: the 1970 City Council campaign.
"It’s hard to believe that was almost 40 years ago," said Lawson. "It seems like only yesterday."
Lawson and Day were both supporters of independent candidate Ira Robinson, a black corporate lawyer who rejected slots on the Democratic and Republican tickets to run a spirited campaign challenging the city’s entrenched powers in the 1970 election. Robinson’s successful campaign — making him the first black member of City Council — was a long, hard slog complicated by a series of race riots that were sweeping through Alexandria just as the springtime campaign was heating up. The street violence was sparked by a May 29 shooting that took place at a 7-Eleven at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Glebe Road, where a white assistant manager shot a 19-year-old black man, whom he felt was trying to rob the store. Violence became so commonplace that a June 5 front-page Alexandria Gazette article announced "No Firebombing Last Night."
"We certainly had some troubled times back then," said Day. "But we overcome them, and we’ve certainly come a long way since then."
FLASH FORWARD TO 2007. Mayor Bill Euille is the city’s first black mayor, and he has transformed his "One Alexandria" campaign theme into a November tradition by conducting a "Unity Breakfast" on the day before Thanksgiving. The fourth annual "Unity Breakfast" last week brought Lawson and Day together along with hundreds of other Alexandrians to celebrate a diversity of perspectives with a singularity of purpose. The contrast between those 1970 race riots and the 2007 feeling of unity was striking, especially when the mayor took the stand and defended a controversial resolution regarding illegal immigration in which City Council members unanimously declared that Alexandria city officials "will neither make inquiries about nor report on the citizenship of those who seek the protection of its laws or the use of its services" beyond what is required by state and federal laws.
"Until I die I’m going to take with me, in my heart, that we did the right thing," said Euille as the crowd swelled into a rousing ovation.
The breakfast, held at a West End hotel ballroom, featured a number of speakers who spoke in favor of diversity and unity — twin maxims that form the double helix of Euille’s appeal to city residents. Speaking on the topics of "unity," "faith," "hope," and "prosperity," the young people of the city were represented by groups such as Latino Youth for Excellence, Project Discovery and the Alexandria Youth Council. The Rev. Faye Gunn delivered the keynote address, encouraging all Alexandria residents to work together in shared purpose.
"Unity has to be demonstrated — even in the political process," said Gunn, interim pastor at Alfred Street Baptist Church. "We must never let our diversity separate us."
THE CROWD MINGLED as the Al Williams Quartet played a jazzy version of "Amazing Grace," swapping business cards and greeting old friends. T.C. Williams Principal Mel Riddile said that the city’s new high school was a tangible manifestation of the city’s shared purpose, and City Manager Jim Hartmann called Euille "the binding fiber" that holds the city together. At each table, artwork from Jefferson-Houston Elementary School interpreted the theme of the morning: "We are Family."
"About 95 percent of the children who made these centerpieces are from single-parent households," said School Board member Ronnie Campbell. "I think that shows how families are changing — how our city is changing."