Saturday, December 3, 2011

On The Edge Of Hall's Hill

A while back, I opened the Sunday paper to find a little sidebar with the headline "this week in the Civil War." It was startling. That's the kind of news you get when you get into bed backwards and oversleep, I guess.

My first cup of coffee clarified that this was to be a retrospective series recapping the events of the Civil War 150 years ago. I'm really looking forward to it, because I don't know much about it. I had no interest in history at all when I was a kid.

I knew what history was. It was a record of things that happened to white people. Other colors of people didn't write anything down. They may have had better memories. Also, it was stuff that happened Before Murr. Most everything B.M. held no interest for me. There was a large war that had happened in the decade before I was born and it might as well have been the Crusades as far as I was concerned. The only time history was fun for me was when we could go to Williamsburg, Virginia, and stick my sister in leg stocks.

I recently began to be interested in American history because I was writing a novel that took place B.M. and felt the need to be more up-to-date on it, if it is possible to be up-to-date on history. The Civil War period baffled me. But I paid greater attention to the Ken Burns film when it was reprised. In the last fifteen minutes of the documentary I was surprised to hear that one of the generals had led his men up Hall's Hill. I know Hall's Hill! I had no idea it had historical cachet. Robert E. Lee I knew, because he had a famous highway named after him that I grew up a block away from. And Hall's Hill was just around the corner, down Lee Highway. Hall's Hill was where we kept all our colored folk in Arlington, Virginia in the fifties. Al's Bar and Grill was at the top end where you could see it and there was never any reason to go down any of the other streets.
Overlee

Northern Virginia is more cosmopolitan than the rest of Virginia: I don't remember seeing any helpful signs on the drinking fountains to let you know what color water you were dealing with. Mostly we did without that sort of thing, because we had all the colored people bunched up in Hall's Hill all neat and tidy, and all we had to do then was zone things around it. So there was a colored school, and there were the Regular schools, and that was that. You were assigned based on your address alone, and it worked out just fine without anybody having to spell anything out. Sometimes there were slip-ups. I do remember we couldn't get into the Overlee swimming pool because our house was stuck like a scab on the edge of Hall's Hill and we were zoned out. They didn't want any black kids in the Overlee pool in case they made the water turn color, but that was silly--all the kids did that at one time or another.

Anyway, I did some checking, and it turns out Hall's Hill was the first place they established for freed slaves right at the end of the Civil War, and their descendants stayed put for a good hundred years. They didn't start leaking out until just about the time I went away to college, and I haven't been back. That's not why, though.

It's interesting both to learn and live through history. It affects us. For instance, I never really learned how to swim. I imagine other people suffered even greater consequences.

50 comments:

  1. Most of us, unless we had a very special teacher in high school, only get turned on to history when we're in our forties and the hormones have begun to let go enough to allow us to look around dazedly and ask, "What just happened?"

    I was lucky to have one of those high school teachers who taught history like he was imparting charms from a book of practical magic. He turned me on to historical fiction and, after I'd wallowed in Natty Bumpo's War of 1812 for a year, I just kept going.

    So, I'm your first customer of the day for that novel you mentioned.

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  2. When we went to school (this is Canada mind you) most of the history we studied was American. Years later I felt the need to learn about our own history. Now I know why we studied American history. Canadian history is dullsville man.

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  3. You're HILARIOUS!!!!!!!!!!!! I'm still laughing, but better yet, you held my attention through every word. I. Did. Not. Skim. (Not that I ever skim while blog hopping.)

    Thanks for stopping by my blog so I could find yours.

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  4. Yes, the Murr has a gift for humor, that's for sure. I also look forward to the aforementioned book. I remember seeing one of those drinking fountains in the South when I was growing up and was really confused. Why would anybody want to drink colored water?

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  5. Having grown up in New England, my view of history is different. I never saw anything marked "Colored" in Connecticut. I'm sure it wasn't perfect for black people here, but our black neighbors were nicer people than our white ones. That's why reading The Help was such an eye opener.

    I always enjoyed biographies but did not like history until I had a good college teacher. When I began to see how history tied the biographies together... Wow! I'm still reading history.

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  6. I just checked my dictionary. I was right---there's your picture right under the listing for "brilliant".

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  7. I grew up in a diverse small town in central oregon. We had tall white people, short white people, fat white people, thin white people, old white people and young white people. During potato picking season, some Mexicans came to town for a few weeks. And the Indians would come to the local grocery store once a month when the government checks showed up, but mostly they preferred to stay on the rez. And I heard there was a jewish family, but you couldn't tell by looking at them. No one bothered to teach me about racisim because it was so efficiently practiced. My ignorance remains vast, and I found "The Help" shockingly enlightening.

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  8. John Quincy Adams has a twitter feed, excerpts from his diary. I find it adds a fascinating perfume to the usual snark and drama.

    https://mobile.twitter.com/#!/JQAdams_MHS

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  9. Interesting post about the Civil War! Or as Southerners like to call it, The War Between the States. And your first paragraph cracked me up-- did you feel like you'd entered a time warp?

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  10. Growing up in North Carolina during the 1960's as a gay catholic, current events was really all I needed to study in order to determine that the northeast might be a more suitable place for me to live.

    I never could figure out why those four AT&T students didn't pick someplace fancier than the Woolworth lunch counter...

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  11. Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, the civil rights movement touched only lightly on our little corner of the world - or maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention, being in the grip of teen hormones and all. I worked in the attendance office at the high school and we answered the main phone lines. I remembered answering the phone on the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and we had the flag flying at half-staff. Some ill-mannered mouth-breather called and asked why we had the flag lowered for that (very bad word). I hung up on him, then immediately reported myself for rudeness to the attendance office manager. She said that was just fine, and exactly the right thing to do. Somehow I did the right thing, probably by accident.

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  12. Well I'd like to say how much I love reading history but for me it's kind of like reading fantasy. I don't "get" either of them. But, I still love your sense of humor.

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  13. Well, if any of you have any favorite historical fiction books, I want to hear about them. I'm ready to dive in and that seems like the funnest way. Nance, thank you. My novel isn't much about history, but a person does need to know things like what happens when the clothes get dirty, what the clothes were, and whether somebody had to skin them first, and did they drink whiskey, sarsaparilla or Coke? So I read some history books and Googled my fanny off. (That is just an expression, no peeking.)

    Roxie and pcflamingo: oh yah! Growing up in the Pac NW would be a different experience. I hear where Oregon had a big slab of KKK to its, uh, credit? Right now I'm living on the edge of the Alameda neighborhood which zoned The Coloreds out when it was platted.

    Bill? Even at the mention of "Woolworth's Lunch Counter" my brain supplies the funky popcorny smell.

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  14. I'm the white token in my office at the community college, providing support to Public Safety programs for first responders, and I love this, Murr. I also hated anything BMMF but have developed more of an interest in the history of why black folks don't bird or appreciate nature and why they don't like to swim. We joke about it in the office often! LOL!

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  15. My part of Ohio was pretty quiet during the Civil Rights movement -- I inherited my dad's interest in history and current events but never had met or talked with any black people until high school when I started competing in speech and debate tournaments and the young men and women I met what I'd long suspected from my voracious reading: they were really just like me.

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  16. pcflamingo, I love this quintessentially Pacific Northwest behavior: "I hung up on him, then immediately reported myself for rudeness to the attendance office manager."

    Oregon has never been nearly so liberal or blue as many people think, and you don't have to scratch the surface hard to find the racism here, but it is a remarkably civil place.

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  17. I grew up outside of Syracuse, NY, in the 50s and 60s. No one in our little lily white town to be prejudiced against, until the late 60s, when blacks showed up occasionally on tv. My parents were appalled. I was appalled at them. It just had never occurred to me to hate someone based on anything. I'd never heard anyone act like that before-no need to-we all looked the same.

    When I moved to Georgia, I met a woman who went on and on about the "War of Northern Aggression" and my lack of guilt for the North's part in it. I got so frustrated that I finally said, "Well, we won." She countered that I shouldn't be proud of that.

    That was my cue to give up. You can't argue with intentional ignorance.
    Great post!

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  18. Most native Georgians refer to the Civil War as "the war of Yankee aggression." I'm not a native; I only live here ... since '71. Growing up in MD, racism wasn't as blatant as it was in the south, but when my mother had to be hospitalized following a car accident in '58, the "white section" was full, so she was temporarily put in the "black section" of the hospital. The differences in treatment, food, and even the dishes between those two sections of the same hospital in an otherwise genteel town was appalling.

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  19. Real solid ending, Murr !

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  20. Your first comment of the day hit home for me (thanks Nance). I had zip, zero and possibly less than that interest in history until a few years ago, and steadfastly ignored any attempt to teach it to me. Now I regret it. How I regret it. (but I can swim).

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  21. Good one, Murr. People who didn't actually experience segregation have no idea. White people in general have no idea. Young white people REALLY have no idea.

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  22. I don't know why I got so hooked on history... I only ever had a really great teacher my final year of High School... although I think the two I had in middle school were pretty good as well... and I did spend my time with my head lost in historical novels (all hail Alexandre Dumas and Walter Scott!) so that probably had something to do with it...

    Funny you should mention the Civil War right when I've come home from watching Robert Redford's latest film The Conspirator about the trial after Lincoln's assassination... I love coincidences! ;o)

    Did you ever write that novel?

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  23. Good thing "there was never any reason to go down any of the other streets." They actually built a high wall around Hall's Hill, so most of the streets do not go through! As for Overlee Pool, I lived across the Highway from it and my parents joined it so we kids could learn how to swim. I never hung out there because I thought the other kids were too snooty. You didn't really miss anything on that score.

    When we were in high school, I never liked History; it seemed to be an endlessly boring series of dates that had to be memorized. All dry facts, no human interest. In college, I had a wonderful professor, Warren Blackman (who just died last month) who really made History come alive in his teachings by making it human. He used to end each lecture with: "but THAT is another story." Well, I still suck at History, to the point where I will never make the finals on Jeopardy, but at least I have developed an appreciation for it. Reading some "historical fiction" and autobiographical works has helped. Not to mention the perspective on the subject I have gained from being on this planet now for as long as I have. Keep up the good work! Elaine

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  24. I feel lucky that I grew up loving history because of my Dad, who read as much of it that he could get his hands on, so I did too "because it was there". {*ahem* Canadian history is NOT dull despite what they tried to teach us in school. Try "Champlain's Dream", Delores.}

    I wonder how many years it takes for a nation to heal the scars from a civil war. Driving home from the inlaws' winter home in Florida in the 80s, we happened on a KKK rally around a Confederate statue in a small town in Alabama! Scared the almighty tar out of us and we lead-footed it out of there as fast as we could, just gobsmacked that this stuff was still going on.

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  25. I spent most of my years in Southern California and graduated from high school in 1970. I can remember that whenever the civil war was discussed for history lessons, they made the people of the south and in VA (and surrounding areas) sound like horrible, hateful people. When the KKK was discussed I was so shocked. How could people be like that.
    I was pretty sure that not all of the Southerners were so prejudice for I could not imagine it that way.
    In the late 70's after I was married, I took a trip with my mother-in-law back to her hometown of Lynchburg, VA. I felt like I had stepped back in time. She really shocked me during one incident. We were headed into a restaurant and a nice black gentleman held the door open for us and tipped his hat. Once inside, she turned to me and said, "See, they know their place here." I was so surprised at that comment that I did not know what to say. I realized then that there are still prejudices.
    Me, I just do not like to be around drunks.

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  26. Rose, I don't like to be around drunks now either. That was one of the benefits of drinking too much--drunks weren't so annoying. I was horrified to hear similar stuff when I first moved to Portland. It's especially horrifying when it comes from people you assume are your peers. I used to be flabbergasted, but I've got ready comebacks now. Probably a good subject for a blog post...

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  27. Interesting how something can stimulate one's curiosity about historical events. I experienced that myself, which led to my novel, Volunteer for Glory, published in March of this year. Alice Lynn

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  28. No link, Alice? You captured the era so well. I enjoyed your book. You know your way around wordage.

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  29. Like Roxie, I grew up in a very diverse (shapes and heights of white) town. Never knew my grandpa was a racist until I was in high school and we went to Pullman to see my uncle receive his PhD. Boy howdy, was I shocked to hear my grandpa then!
    Murr, my favorite historical fiction book is Bright's Passage by Josh Ritter. Takes place in West Virginia, right after WWI. Good stuff.

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  30. Rose - your story reminds me of a quote I read from a black woman...white folks are just as prejudiced up north; at least in the south they are up front about it, and you know where you stand. Of course, that was in 1963. Hopefully it's a little better now? It's hard to tell. I live in Detroit, which has never been known as a hotbed of racial tolerance.

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  31. The South shall rise again! They were still fighting the Great Wah of Nawthan Aggression when I left TN in the 60s and they were still fighting it when I returned 10 years ago. And they're still fighting it. YeeHaw!

    Thanks to my reference librarian mom, I'm actually one of those weirdos who loves history. Because of her and her side of the family I was able to escape the Southern plague(s). The other side is still fight'n that wah.

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  32. Hi Murr! I find myself ridiculously uneducated about a whole load of relevant topics with deep roots in history. And you know, I'm sure the folks that run the world prefer it that way. So thanks for this! Indigo

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  33. Always interesting to discover bits of history where you live(d).

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  34. I learned an interesting tidbit from Covert Bailey, the healthy diet guru who developed the dunk tank for determining body fat. Seems most black people sank to the bottom. Turns out that blacks have about 10% more bone mass than whites so they don't float, ergo swim, as well. I guess that's also why they are such good prize fighters.

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  35. I also go right to the bottom of the pool. I've never known why. Anyone looking at me would think I could sit right down on the surface and not even get my shirt wet. Maybe I've got leaden bones.

    Kat, thanks for the recommendation!

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  36. Those signs over the fountains ... I can't imagine. Can't imagine trying to explain to my children why they were being segregated from the "superior" race. Sickening.

    When I was a kid - in very white Utah - we had one of those musical chiming doorbells. My parents taught me and my siblings to politely invite people in and ask if they would like to sit in a chair. So when I was 5 and opened the door to a black salesman wearing a suit, I invited him in and told him to have a seat while I ran to get my mother. He politely accepted.

    When my mother entered the living room and saw our guest she looked like she'd been sucker-punched. She quickly escorted him to the door, shut it behind him, then turned to me shaking her finger and growled, "Don't you ever let one of THOSE PEOPLE into the house again!"

    I just remember feeling embarrassed for her and knowing she was wrong. The fact that she was wrong about some things had never occurred to me before so it was a bit of an eye-opener. Shocking, really.

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  37. For my Dad his disdain was reserved for "Japs". He was in the Navy in the South Pacific during WWII. Oddly he NEVER spoke about it. My mother always wanted to go to Hawaii but my dad would have nothing to do with the idea; my uncle told me Dad has been stationed in Pearl Harbor during part of the war. Dad took those secrets, and his feeling about Japs, to his grave.

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  38. Cog, and Robert, listen to all these stories! All these people so disappointed and horrified by their elders. Are most children so thoughtful and good at recognizing wrong behavior in adults, or is that just typical of this readership? I hope it's the former.

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  39. I've always been fascinated by history. Not so much the times and places, but the people who inhabit the texts and lectures. When I look around here (in Canada) there are lots of darrig-do types, who made this country what is, perhaps in spite of themselves.

    That's history, for me.

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  40. I wasn't a fan of history when I was a kid either. Now I watch the History Channel, Science, and NatGeo a lot. I also get into bed backwards and wake up completely disoriented. All just party of my history . . .

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  41. Having lived in Richmond, VA 8yrs, albeit the 80s, I wad surprised by the overt rascism people displayed. One co-worker, born & raised there, said she preferred knowing how people felt, I.e. open prejudice, to the hypocrisy so many from the north displayed. Yes, she was black.

    I'm somewhat uncomfortable relaying the remark but the irony has stayed with me all these years.

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  42. The retired history teacher says, "interesting perspective." I enjoyed reading your little history. :)

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  43. Growing up in San Francisco, we really didn't see much in the way of racism, except that the black people mostly lived in less desirable areas. We had black kids at our schools always. I dated black guys in high school as well as Asian guys and just about any flavor you can think of.

    When my daughter and I were flying to Oklahoma City to visit family. I was sitting on the plane next to two black preachers. Charming guys and we chatted the whole way. I asked them where there church was in OKC and they told me. I mentioned that my Aunt and Uncle and my daughter and I would perhaps come for services. They looked rather uneasy. I asked why and they explained that in OK, churches are pretty much segregated. I really had no idea what he meant, and for a moment, I thought it was that you had to be Baptist to go to their church.

    They laughed and said "Oh no. If you came, everyone would treat you kindly. It's just that it isn't done here." Damn! This is not ancient history either. Weird how we treat each other, isn't it?

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  44. I grew up as one of the few Asian kids in a town called Grand Prairie, TX. I got my education early on about how people are treated differently and how to grow a thick skin and pretend not to notice the difference.

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  45. A lot of us standard-issue whites are able to get through life without the education, Elizabeth.

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  46. My kids are wonderful at knowing humans come in all sizes, shapes, colours and cultures. Me? I don't understand me at all when it comes to some of my reactions. My head and heart both know better. I have to work at it. Yet if someone picks on someone I want to kill. The water fountain and swimming pool made my blood boil.

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  47. I’ve been doing a bit of historical research myself and recently came across your blog post in a Google search. It’s interesting what people find humorous. I’m not a follower of your blog, but I didn’t find this post humorous.
    What an appropriate title for your post, On the Edge of Hall’s Hill, it really highlights your lack of knowledge about the community and the fact that you don’t know Hall’s Hill. You were on the edge so how could you know anything about our community and the people who lived there? While your research gave you a tiny bit of information about the historical significance of our community, it appears that your perspective about people of color remains stuck in the fifties and still uninformed.
    Rest assured we did not leak out of the neighborhood. We walked out and in, whenever we wanted. While the white neighborhoods attempted to make us feel caged in, believing a physical fence could keep us locked in and limited, our parents and our teachers made sure ignorance did not shape our possibilities and beliefs in our abilities. They knew we’d be confronted with ignorance and insensitivity, particularly by white classmates at Stratford and Williamsburg Junior High schools, and Yorktown and Washington-Lee High schools, who often shouted “nigger” and threw water balloons at us as we walked home from school. And we attended college and graduate school, just like you.
    Hall’s Hill remains a predominantly African American community today although white people are “leaking in” like crazy, standing on the sidelines like vultures waiting for their opportunity to reside next door to your colored folks and their descendents.

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  48. I could not agree with you more. My style is tongue-in-cheek. I believe presenting the prevailing attitudes as they were/are, with all the language common in the time, reveals the horror of the reality you describe more effectively than a political screed or rant would. At any rate, that is my intent. Regular readers will know the sort of people I don't mind offending, and that wouldn't include you.

    Thank you very much for taking the time to write.

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  49. Thanks for responding to my post. It's helpful to understand the point of view you wish to convey through your writing.

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