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Our Back Pages: Arlington’s Own Declaration of Civil Rights

In observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we look back at a document from a few years earlier, for a glimpse of a still-segregated Arlington…

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law as various Civil Rights leaders look on, including the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo courtesy of the LBJ Library, photo by Cecil Stoughton .

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law as various Civil Rights leaders look on, including the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo courtesy of the LBJ Library, photo by Cecil Stoughton .

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the signing into law of the Civil Rights Act of 1964– one of the most important pieces of Civil Rights legislation of the twentieth century. The Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Likewise, the Act outlawed racial segregation in public accommodations, and ended unequal application of voter registration requirements.

In observance of this landmark piece of legislation, we would like to share a transcription of “The Negro Citizen in Arlington,” a leaflet that was published by the Arlington Council on Human Relations, a multi-racial, multi-faith organization that advocated for Civil Rights for all Arlingtonians. 

Published just a little over a year after Arlington became the first school district in Virginia to desegregate, this document is a powerful reminder that despite those four students integrating Stratford Junior High in 1959, segregation in Arlington was still far from over. Many institutions in Arlington remained segregated, and this document specifically enumerates some of them: from sit-down restaurants and movie theaters, to maternity wards, to playgrounds and pony rides for children.

Item six contains one of the leaflet’s most powerful observations: “It is the uncertainty about so many aspects of his life that is trying for a Negro in Arlington. Some years ago he knew exactly what his limitations were. He didn’t like being limited but he knew what to expect. Now he is tired of being unknowing about his status.” In the years leading up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, this was indeed the reality for many Blacks in the South.

This document powerfully evokes a time of both hope and deep uncertainty in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, when they had begun to affect positive outcomes on a local level, but those advances were tempered by lingering segregation, inconsistent statutes and enforcement, and the long historical shadow of Jim Crow.


A Negro in Arlington, Virginia can, like any of the white residents of our community, call an efficient Fire Department if his house is burning. He can send his child to school and know that an alert officer will stop traffic if need be so that his son or daughter may make a safe street crossing. His wife can buy meat at the nearest super-market with the assurance that it has been inspected and is fairly weighed and priced. In most matters the Arlington Negro lives out his days with the same elements of risk and with the same measure of civic protection threatening him on the one hand and supporting him on the other as is the common lot of the rest of us in modern situations. But there are areas of his life where being a Negro makes a difference in his days. Believing that many people may be unaware of this difference, the Arlington County Council on Human Relations would bring the following facts to the attention of concerned people.

1.   If an Arlington Negro man wants to take his family out to dinner, he will have to go to the District of Columbia to find a restaurant of high quality where they may be seated. They would be turned away from all the better eating places in Arlington. If his family is in the mood for an informal meal, he may buy food to carry home at an Arlington Drive-in Restaurant but he cannot expect the kind of curb service which many white families enjoy at the end of a busy day. It is not clear to what extent restaurant restrictions are related to the legal ban on mixed seating in public and to what extent they are related to the prejudices of white patrons.

2.  If an Arlington Negro wants to see a movie, he must also go to Washington. He cannot walk to a neighborhood movie or go to any Drive-in Theatre in the Arlington area because they are all closed to Negroes. Nor can he go to a public bowling alley or skating rink. He cannot stop for his children to have pony rides at a pony lot.

3.  Highly qualified personnel direct the Arlington recreation program for Negroes but whereas the playgrounds and summer recreation programs for white children are located in the neighborhoods where white children live, only two small playgrounds are available for Negroes. Both of them are inadequate and the largest one, where full-scale ball games might be played, is in the southern tip of Arlington, inaccessible to the large number of Negro youth in North Arlington. Negro children live very near some of the large playing fields designated for white children. They can only watch from the sidelines. If friendly youngsters call out to them to join the games, they must ignore the invitation or accept it with the risk that they might be sent away, or, failing to leave, might be taken to the police station.

4.  A Negro man may rush his child to Arlington Hospital for emergency treatment or for hospitalization in the non-segregated pediatrics ward and he may go himself as an out-patient or as a bed patient in the Negro ward. But when his wife is ready to give birth to their baby, he cannot take her to the community hospital where white babies are born. He must take her miles away to a hospital in the District or in Alexandria. Perchance her baby can’t wait for the Washington hospital, the Negro mother will be attended as an emergency case in the Arlington Hospital but she cannot then be placed in the maternity ward. She will be put in the general ward for Negroes where she might be exposed to any one of a variety of infectious diseases. The general ward for Negroes actually becomes a receiving ward for all overflow patients because though a Negro may not be placed in sections of the hospital designated for whites, if the white sections are full, the white patients needing space are placed in the Negro ward. This ward is not as carefully controlled for visitors as the maternity ward is, making it the more unsuitable for post-delivery cases.

5.  Many Negroes in Arlington own their homes and home ownership is a thing of special pride to them. Many of Arlington’s Negro citizens are native residents of the county and live on property which was owned by their parents or grandparents. But when young Negroes marry, even though they are well educated and have good jobs, they cannot find, in Arlington, homes which they may buy or land where Negroes may build. There is little rental property available to them. So they must leave neighborhoods where they have friends, must leave churches where they have roots and responsibilities, and whether they like it or not, must live in Washington. Older Negroes sit precariously on their front porches in Arlington because they feel that expansion of public building in the past has been at the expense of Negro land and they ponder when some new expansion will take their property and leave them homeless.

6.  It is the uncertainty about so many aspects of his life that is trying for a Negro in Arlington. Some years ago he knew exactly what his limitations were. He didn’t like being limited but he knew what to expect. Now he is tired of being unknowing about his status.

The Negro knows that merit hiring permits him to apply for and, if he is qualified, to receive a Civil Service job in the Arlington community. He does not know to what extent racial prejudice may influence the decisions of the department head who is responsible for his promotions.

The Negro knows that by Federal Law his children are now guaranteed public school education on a non-segregated basis. He does not know how long it will be before Negroes in Arlington can expect that without individual court appeals, their children will all be accepted in neighborhood schools just as other children are.

These certain limitations and uncertain opportunities which daily confront Negro citizens in Arlington are felt by those who participated in the survey, to be a blight upon the county and a burden upon all of its residents. How change and improvement may best be brought about will be a matter of continuing concern to those persons of several races and of various faiths who compose the membership of the Arlington Council on Human Relations.

Comments (1)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I just happened upon “The Negro Citizens in Arlington.” As an African American woman residing in Arlington County, I would like to provide my personal views regarding Arlington’s continued segregation of its County. Perhaps my comments may be a sequel to “The Negro Citizens in Arlington” to that of: “An African-American woman racial experiences in 2014 living in Arlington County.”

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