Today it’s hard to imagine gravel roads in Arlington. But Wilma Jones has the scars on her knees from childhood bike wrecks to prove they existed.
“Until white businessmen got involved, we couldn’t even get paved streets,” she told an audience of more than 40 at the Alliance for Housing Solutions’ September 17 happy hour.
Wilma, a fourth-generation Arlington, has chronicled the stories of the historically African American community where she grew up in a book titled “My Halls Hill Family: More than a Neighborhood.”
Her talk was one of the Alliance for Housing Solutions’ educational events to promote understanding of issues surrounding housing affordability in Arlington and Northern Virginia, including the impact of racial discrimination in housing and zoning laws.
The story begins with Bazil Hall, a white landowner who refused to sell property to black people after the Civil War. And yet, the community that grew there was entirely black. Many of them, including Wilma’s great-grandparents, were former slaves who came to work for white families in Arlington.
Over the years, Wilma said, “segregation and Jim Crow impacted African-American neighborhoods in many ways.”
In addition to restrictions on buying property and having their neighborhood walled off so they couldn’t walk through white neighborhoods, white firefighters wouldn’t respond to fires in Halls Hill and other black communities in Arlington. For many years hospitals in Arlington wouldn’t serve African Americans. Once they did it was still dicey—if a black woman had a baby at the hospital and her roommate didn’t want her there, she would be moved to the hallway. Jobs were limited and schools were segregated.
Things began to change when schools were integrated. Two weeks before school started a section of the Halls Hill wall was removed so 67 children could walk four blocks to school instead of 18. In 1967, four new county board members decided that black people could hold office jobs with the county—prior jobs had been limited to the sanitation department, custodian work, and “scrub woman.”
These changes also meant changes to the neighborhood. Gradually, white people moved in—and black people moved out, many of them priced out of the neighborhood where their families had roots that went back generations.
At last official count, Jones said, the Halls Hill neighborhood was 22 percent African American. She believes that number has dipped even lower—her estimation is 10-15 percent—due to gentrification.
“Private developers have raised rents. Families are gone,” she said. With the arrival of Amazon’s second headquarters she worries the community will be even more “under siege” as the cost of housing continues to go up. Wilma would like to see the county do more to preserve affordability so families like hers can stay in Arlington.
Meanwhile, she’ll keep telling the Halls Hill stories—of family, friendship, and people who thrived in spite of their circumstances.
Attend an interactive program The Color of Housing: The History of Racism in Housing in Arlington on September 28, 2019
Read about the impact of discriminatory housing practices discussed at the 2018 Leckey Forum
Watch video of a portion of the Halls Hill wall that was destroyed in the July 8, 2019 flood and learn more about the history of the wall
Read “Steeped in Family History” - Arlington For Everyone’s feature of Wilma Jones
Visit the Halls Hill website
Learn about the story of school desegregation in Arlington (Arlington Library)