I was working as a teaching assistant for the first half of Georgetown University’s U.S. history survey when the country elected Donald Trump. The class met Tuesday and Thursday evenings to grapple with North American history from indigenous peoples and colonization to the Civil War and Reconstruction. On the day of the election we had been discussing Jacksonian America (was this when America was great?)—an age when most U.S. citizens either accepted or encouraged indigenous removal and slavery’s expansion as the cost for increasing white male political participation. Then the election happened. What was I going to say to my 53 students on Thursday? A proud sexual predator and smug serial liar was going to be running the country from the city they called home.
I turned to history.
Northern Virginia, where I now live, remained segregated as the 1950s melted into the 60s. While it had been several years since the Warren Court ordered the desegregation of public schools in Brown vs. Board, officials in the commonwealth of Virginia had implemented Massive Resistance, a delaying tactic which included the shuttering of public schools; the establishment of taxpayer-funded, all-white private academies; and a general politics of segregationist feet dragging.
On 2 February 1959, four black children integrated Virginia’s public schools when they successfully enrolled at Stratford Junior High, a modest brick building located in Arlington County’s Cherrydale neighborhood and named after Robert E. Lee’s birthplace. This was the same year that Prince Edward County, a chiefly rural and heavily-black county about 170 miles south of D.C., closed its entire public school system—twenty buildings—rather than desegregate. The brand new Prince Edward Academy immediately took up the task of educating the county’s well-to-do white children—a task it continues to this day under a different name. Although the black residents of Prince Edward responded by organizing a community-funded, integrated free school, the county failed to graduate any black students from 1959 to 1964.
Thus began desegregation in Virginia: a bang undercut by a retreating echo.
In 2004, 45 years after Stratford Junior High admitted its first black students, Arlington County erected a historical marker commemorating the event near the school’s front entrance, now called H.B.-Woodlawn. Yet debates rankled the community as to the best way to commemorate the building’s role in advancing racial justice in Virginia. There was a tension between the desire to preserve the physical structure for posterity and the simple fact that local public school children needed a larger facility. In June 2016, the county board designated the old Stratford School a local historic district. Any new development will have to showcase the building’s history, and the historical marker will stand.
I researched all of this the morning after Trump’s election upon learning that Arlington County had not yet erected a historical marker commemorating the 1960 Cherrydale Sit-ins that led to the desegregation of lunch counters in Northern Virginia. I decided that I was going to try to change that.
The story of the 1960 Cherrydale Sit-ins is rather incredible. It is one of those profound reminders of how far the United States has progressed in the past half century, as well as the fragility of that progress. On Thursday, June 10, a group of fifteen black and white protesters sat-in at three drug stores and a restaurant along Lee Highway (yes, that Lee) in the Cherrydale neighborhood of Arlington. Many were students from Howard University’s Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), which was committed to the tactics of the burgeoning civil rights movement.
Managers shut down lunch counters rather than serve the integrated clientele. Segregationists surrounded the demonstrators, hurling insults and lit cigarettes and threatening more severe violence if the activists refused to disband. That evening two black men were arrested for trespassing at a Woolworth’s that would not serve them. Several gun shots rang out in the streets, thankfully missing their targets. Yet the civil rights activists remained seated and held their ground. Facing bad press and the possibility of a coordinated embargo, business and community leaders agreed to desegregate dining spaces throughout Northern Virginia two weeks later.
One of the sit-in leaders was an eighteen-year-old Howard student named Dion Diamond. Another was a nineteen-year-old white woman and Duke University student named Joan Trumpauer, whose very presence at the demonstrations incensed white male segregationists. The two were part of a group that suffered the physical and emotional harassment of George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party at the Drug Fair that afternoon. Both risked their lives to bring justice to Cherrydale. Both went on to join the Freedom Riders.
“We used to have a saying, ‘Bloom where you’re planted,’” reflected Joan Trumpauer Mulholland in 2013, who still lives in Arlington. “Look at what’s happening right in your immediate situation. Try to act there.” This is what I told my students on another Thursday afternoon, some half a century later. That local history matters. That it’s tangible in a way that learning the stories of nations simply isn’t. That it can unearth role models, reshape communities, and provide a guide forward. That it is powerful.
Inspired, I chose to bloom where I was planted. The day after the election, I wrote the director of the Arlington County historic preservation program to learn what I had to do to publicly commemorate the Cherrydale sit-ins. To my great joy, the county board was already in the process of developing a historic marker. I turned over my research to the historic preservation planner, John Liebertz, and felt a rush of gratitude and hope. I told my students this story because I wanted to give them the same gift that Diamond, Trumpauer Mulholland, and all of their allies, past and present, had given to me. History had restored my optimism.
One year later, the project is nearing completion. The research is done, permissions in order, and all that remains is selecting the exact site for the marker. According to Mr. Liebertz, the plaque will have a QR code that directs curious passersby to an online archive. Dion Diamond, who is now retired in D.C., has even agreed to share an oral history that the county will preserve in the Center for Local History at the Arlington Public Library.
This is history for the twenty first-century. As monuments to Confederate soldiers come down, it is our prerogative as community members to select and elevate their successors. Choosing not to commemorate hateful figures is not the same as “erasing history.” It is instead condemning hate to the past, and in doing so removing it from our future. In an age of Trump, it seems to me that what we need is more Trumpauers.
Activist history has helped me heal. It is, at its core, a means of using the past to move forward. The Activist History Review will continue supporting workers in this shared endeavor.
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If you have the ability, consider donating to the Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Foundation, a nonprofit that facilitates better Civil Rights Movement education.
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