Your Views: Eulogy for the Witness Oak

Your Views: Eulogy for the Witness Oak
A 150-year-old oak tree on the property of T.C. Williams High School. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

To the editor:

Born possibly in 1870 from an acorn of uncertain origin, this tree began as a sapling on land belonging to Black families, many of whom had been freed from slavery only years before. The young tree grew slowly as these families built their homes. Over the decades, citizens of Alexandria went to Europe to fight in the First and Second World Wars. It shaded young families who cried when their sons returned, and those who learned that their sons would never come home.

The Witness Oak stood as the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. It saw the surrounding land taken from the Black landowners for the construction of a new high school. The tree watched as this school was built and opened its doors in 1965.

The tree saw young men leave to fight in Vietnam, and students protest against this war. It watched Alexandrians clash over integration of the new school, and saw violence erupt in 1970 following the shooting of T.C. Williams junior Robin Gibson. Two days after Gibson’s funeral, citizens went to the polls to elect Alexandria’s first Black City Council member since reconstruction, Ira Robinson. 

The oak watched the high school doors open to students of all races in all grades in 1971. It stood over the school’s fields that same year as the Titan football team won the Virginia state championship. Over the ensuing seasons, it watched thousands of sporting events. 

The oak saw countless students play, learn, love, perform, march and graduate to the next stage of their lives. The tree watched as the school was rebuilt in 2007 to accommodate more students, with a new gym named after Gerry Bertier, a linebacker the tree had seen on the field in 1971.

Over the decades, the Witness Oak shaded and cooled thousands of students and their families, friends and neighbors from rising heat as they sat under its growing canopy.  It provided food for countless animals and limbs for countless nesting birds. The tree absorbed thousands of pounds of air pollution and tens of thousands of gallons of stormwater for its neighbors every year.

Despite its long, proud and silent tenure as a member of the community, and its invaluable contributions to the city, the Witness Oak was cut down Sept. 2, to make room for a concession stand.

May this eulogy serve to help all Alexandrians acknowledge the countless quiet contributions the T.C Williams Witness Oak made to our community over more than a century, remind us how irreplaceable such a life is and prevent further witness trees from being felled in the City of Alexandria.

-Samantha Ahdoot, Heather Jelks, Alexandria