By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Alexandria City Public Schools cut down the 150-year-old oak tree, named the “Witness Tree” by activists, at T.C. Williams High School on Wednesday.
Community members had banded together over the past month to protest ACPS’ plan to remove the tree to add a new concession stand, bathrooms and recreational equipment storage for the Parker-Gray Memorial Stadium modernization project.
When resident McArthur Myers, who has helped spearhead the citizen action to protect the tree, heard the sound of chainsaws Wednesday morning he knew the community had lost more than just a tree.
“With this tree at T.C. Williams on public property, it was a responsibility to respect that community and respect the legacy and history of that tree in that community,” Myers said. “So, they missed an opportunity of healing.”
Residents were notified that ACPS would start moving equipment onto the site at the beginning of September. However, they were not informed when the tree would be cut down, according to Myers.
The tree stood in the Woods neighborhood adjacent to T.C. Williams, and, for residents, felling this tree is the latest in a long, controversial history of mistreatment.
In the 1960s, the city seized the land of the predominantly black neighborhood through eminent domain and built T.C. Williams on the site. The city paid displaced residents for their homes well below market value and agreed to build them new homes on Woods Avenue.
Residents allege that the city and ACPS also entered into a verbal agreement with residents that stadium lighting would never go up at the school. In October 2018, city council approved the stadium project, with the inclusion of stadium lights, and several groups of neighbors filed lawsuits against both the city and schools.
When ACPS announced it would be cutting down the tree, residents banded together to protest the plan. They started a Change.org petition that had 2,871 signatures as of Wednesday. Some residents quickly started calling the tree a “witness tree,” a testament to the historical significance of the oak tree.
ACPS maintains that if there had been another option for locating the concession stand, the school division would have pursued it.
“We empathize with the members of the community who wanted to see the tree remain and want to assure the community that had there been a viable alternative, it would have been pursued,” Helen Lloyd, executive director of the Office of Communications at ACPS, said in an emailed statement. “Our architects looked at all other options for siting the new facilities on the Parker-Gray field and there was simply no other option.”
ACPS will be planting 31 new trees on the site, “although we know that this in no way makes up for the loss of this mature tree,” Lloyd said.
Meyers said the public should have had more of a say in how the situation was handled. He felt ACPS did not adequately explore using the tree as part of the stadium’s design. For an institution focused on educating the next generation of Alexandrians, Myers said he was disappointed to see the school division mishandle such an historical artifact.
“They have no respect for history. That’s the bottom line,” Myers said. “… I’m going to be a steward of the legacy and history and a caretaker for the next generation. But if you cut it down and cut it up, you have no respect for the generation to come.”