Imagine you had a great grandfather who was involved in a great national cause, such as World War I, and to recognize his service, someone put his name on a memorial. But, unlike the others inscribed on that memorial, his name wasn’t listed in alphabetical or service order. Instead, his name was put in a small grouping far below everyone else’s, as though those men in his group were somewhat less in value. And next to your great grandfather’s name, and the others, the memorial makers attached a racial descriptor, one that wasn’t necessary then, and shouldn’t be there today.
In Arlington, there sits an old, worn memorial erected in 1931 that lists the names of the local men who died in service to their country in the Great War of 1914-1919. Thirteen men are commemorated, in total. Eleven of those names have only their branch of service listed after their names. A few spaces below those 11, after a blank area, are listed the names of the other two deceased Arlington servicemen, as if they were an afterthought. But they weren’t an afterthought. Because following the name of each of these remaining two men is inscribed, “(COLORED).”
Why was that necessary?
In 2012, local discussion surfaced about perhaps changing that memorial, particularly because it was seen by some as offensive. But things were left alone. One commenter said the awkward wording was an example of “how life was at that time.”
You know what else “life at that time,” in 1931, consisted of? A Ku Klux Klan sign, erected on a road near county property. A sign that attacked a County Board candidate, who happened to be Jewish, with these words: “Let us show our strength. Defeat Albert H. C. for County Board. KKK.” And when it stirred controversy, you won’t believe who promised to find the culprit, “Howard E. B., the exalted cyclops of Ballston Klan No. 4,” according to an article on page 13 of The Washington Post on Friday, Oct. 31, 1931. The KKK cyclops said, “Any signs that have appeared have been erected by individuals and not by action of the organization.” He then promised not to remove the sign, but to offer a reward for apprehension of the culprit.
That’s how things were in Arlington, “at that time.” A Klan sign, and a Klan “cyclops” in Ballston, in our Arlington, Virginia.
Four years after that 2012 statement, Arlington’s NAACP president called for a change that would show equal recognition; though again, nothing was done. The article noting the NAACP objection began by suggesting that when the sign was erected, “few likely gave any notice” to how the names were arranged. That may have been true of white people, but for those who live every day with suspicious eyes staring at them, that order of names constantly called out again, “You don’t belong here.”
Last year the county accepted a grant to install at the memorial interpretive signs, the main goal of which would be “to provide historic context for the segregation of the names.”
Seriously? You would allow official segregation of those men to continue, and simply explain why they were thought less worthy?
Each day that sign remains (it has been reported to have been taken down in May to correct the spelling of one name), we are saying to every African American man, woman and child who walks by, “We didn’t think much of this Black family’s great grandfather then, and we still don’t today.”
Using the words Henry Louis Gates has said of Confederate monuments raised after Reconstruction, similarly, each day that “colored” plaque exists, it represents “a haunting symbol of oppression.” It may be small, but the hurt is not.
However it is done, that sign must change, or it should be taken out of public display. We no longer see, nor accept, KKK signs publicly displayed, as one was in 1931; and we shouldn’t have this 1931 plaque on display either. To allow it to remain proclaims inequality. In 2019 Arlington, that is simply wrong.
Nick Penning (www.PenningThoughts.com) is an Arlington freelance writer.