Our View: The implications of our history

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619 S. Lee St. has been owned by former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, former Alexandria mayor Edgar Snowden and Thomas Vowell, a prominent Alexandria merchant. (Courtesy Photo)
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The history of a place encompasses more than buildings. History is too complicated and layered to be contained just by structures, even ones as beautiful and significant as those in Alexandria.

It’s the people who came before us that really matter. Who were they? What did they accomplish? How were they treated? How did they treat others? We look at structures for insights into our predecessors and their eras.

Three pieces in this week’s Times nudge us to ruminate about the various facets of history. The first and most publicized is the Hugo Black house and city council’s decision on Tuesday night to allow an addition that encroaches on 6 percent of that property’s open space despite the existence of an open space easement.

We are not going to rehash the particulars of that case – our story on page one, “Black house renovation advances,” does that. Nor are we going to opine again on the merits of the issue. We stated our position in an April 4 editorial, “No ease-y solution.”

Rather it’s important to remember that this house is notable primarily because of former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. And while the house is a significant structure, it’s just that, a building. What happens to a building does not alter the significance of Black’s life or his accomplishments. His legacy endures.

Two other pieces in this week’s Times deal with the most difficult aspect of Alexandria’s history, that of race, and specifically the treatment of our mostly minority school custodians.

Our page one story, “Hutchings proposes custodian plan” is about an innovative proposal by Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D, to slow the privatization of custodial positions. We think this proposal shows compassion for those affected, as long-serving custodians would keep their jobs.

It would also creatively make up the budget shortfall by having ACPS administrators who are licensed teachers substitute teach once a quarter. This would not only save money, but would enable those administrators to have a better understanding of students’ learning levels and current-day classroom conditions. That looks like a win-win from here.

Finally, the letter to the right on this page, “First integrated are first eliminated at ACPS,” touches on the “how were they treated” and “how did they treat others” facets of our history. The letter writers, all prominent civil rights leaders and educators, point out the painful history of ACPS custodians. City custodians before integration were all black, and those who worked in whites-only schools saw first-hand that separate was not equal.

While institutionally-enforced segregation is gone, the history persists. It’s history that we must not forget, which makes this custodial privatization issue more than just a dollars and cents calculation.

Long-term, privatizing the cleaning of ACPS schools does make sense. Private companies specialize in cleaning large facilities quickly and at lower cost than that of maintaining an in-house custodial staff.

It’s probably time to face the reality that this change needs to happen. But our city’s history requires that this transition take place gradually and with sensitivity.

We hope the school board approves Hutchings’ plan and that only those with less than five years of employment have their positions privatized, with the remaining privatization taking place through natural attrition.

Old homes require constant maintenance to prevent them from falling into disrepair. Dealing with the implications of our history is also an on-going task.

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