My View | Arminta Wood: Time to stand up for equity

My View | Arminta Wood: Time to stand up for equity
Arminta Wood (Courtesy photo)

Thank goodness our country is finally waking up to the need to address racial equity. Whether you are a lifelong Alexandrian or new to our city, all of us need to know Alexandria’s history. In addition to what happened long ago, we should remember what happened less than two years ago when our city had an opportunity to take a stand for racial equity – but made another choice.

At 94 and as an African-American Alexandrian, I would like to share publicly what I have believed privately for far too long.

As there seems to be broad consensus to consider renaming T.C. Williams High School, let’s remember the history of how this school came to be. The neighborhood where T.C. Williams sits was one of the few in Alexandria in which African Americans were allowed to purchase and own our own property after the Civil War.

The families living there in the 1960s, including mine, had owned and occupied their homes for generations. Alexandria back then still had large tracts of undeveloped land.

Yet, Alexandria’s elected leadership, in cooperation with the avowed segregationist School Superintendent T.C. Williams, determined that this African-American community, which included our own school, store and church and extended from Quaker Lane near Bishop Lane all the way back to Chinquapin Park and across King Street up to Braddock Road, would be the location for a new high school.

The new school had to be built after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision ruled that segregated schools like Alexandria’s were unconstitutional. Disparaging remarks about the condition of our homes and the lack of paved roads and city sanitation – which were, of course, responsibilities the city had ignored – were used as justification for the displacement of our families. Residents of our community were paid pennies on the dollar for our homes, and nothing for the vast land around our homes.

Similar to most American families, these homes and land were our families’ largest economic asset, and what the city did was an economic and moral tragedy. Many families could not afford to purchase one of the new, smaller homes along Quaker Lane, Woods Avenue and Woods Place and were forced to move from the city.

The descendants of those original families who could purchase a new home, like myself, still live in many of the homes in this community, as they have been passed down from generation to generation. One of the families still residing in our community today owned a home at 3330 King St., which is the address of T.C. Williams High School.

When our families were displaced, we were told that the football field would serve as a green buffer between the new homes and the large school building. A promise was made that the field would never have stadium lights due to the extreme proximity of our homes to the field and the acknowledgment that stadium lights would diminish the value of our homes.

This promise went unquestioned for 40 years. When it was time to rebuild the high school in 2004, the permit to build the new school contained Condition 85, which prohibited the installation of lights at Parker-Gray Stadium.

But in 2013, then-Mayor Bill Euille stated during a council meeting that the city needed to discuss lights at the stadium. He acknowledged that the agreement existed, but he said that agreements were meant to be negotiated.

In spite of the promise made in the 1960s and the addition of Condition 85 in 2004, Alexandria City Public Schools took the mayor’s words in 2013 to heart and began planning to remove Condition 85.

In October 2018, city council voted 6-1 to support the ACPS plan to remove Condition 85 prohibiting lights and move forward with a multi-million-dollar renovation of Parker-Gray Stadium, which includes install- ing permanent lighting on the football field.

Then-Mayor Allison Silberberg was the lone vote against removing Condition 85. She offered the first public apology by any city official regarding the shameful displacement of our families in the 1960s, and said she would honor the promise made and not ask our families to once again sacrifice our quality of life and the value of our homes, as our ancestors had been forced to do decades earlier.

Unfortunately, when the rest of city council, including our current mayor and two current council members, had the opportunity to stand up with her and acknowledge that our African-American community had not been treated fairly in the past, and that this legacy of inequity should not be perpetuated, they instead chose to take the politically popular path of removing the protection our community had been promised.

We urged them to find another, more suitable location for a first-class city stadium for our student athletes that would not require more sacrifice from our community. Those pleas were ignored.

The recent hiring of a race and social equity officer by the City of Alexandria to “ensure that policy decisions advance race and social equity for all Alexandrians” is a visible step in our goal to become a more equitable community.

But as city and school elected and appointed officials write and talk about their commitment to racial equity and justice and the renaming of T.C. Williams High School, I urge them to reflect upon and reverse the 2018 decision to add lights to Parker-Gray Stadium.

It is time to stand up for equity, instead of merely giving it lip service by writing and talking about equity. This would send a message to the young people in our city that equity is not always about doing the popular thing, but it involves making decisions that do not perpetuate a long legacy of racial discrimination against communities of color in our city.

Our lives should have mattered more in the 1960s, they should have mattered more in 2018 and they should matter more now. Black lives have always mattered.

-Arminta Wood, Alexandria