Our Man in Arlington

December 26, 2012 6:28 PM0 comments

Arlington’s progressive political establishment is well entrenched for many reasons, not least of which is the continued presence of many of its dedicated forebears.

An exemplar is Martha Ann Miller, still in her prime at age 101, who just published an Arlington-centric autobiography “The First Century: And Not Ready for the Rocking Chair Yet.”

I met her at the Arlington Committee of 100 and purchased a copy to learn of her adventures in the 1940s and 1950s organizing to improve Arlington’s then-mediocre schools and her eyewitness memories of the historic integration of Stratford Junior High.

Her addition to the spate of new Arlington books is proof that our county is a great place to think globally and read locally.

The Indiana-born Miller arrived in Arlington in 1937, having married a soon-to-be government attorney and settling first in Colonial Village and later on Quintana and Huntington streets. She and her husband joined the influx of federal workers who hit Northern Virginia and grew appalled at schools that had “no libraries, no cafeterias, no gyms,” she writes.

They wanted kindergarten, higher funding and localized school board elections rather than accepting appointments dominated by Virginia’s famous but distant Byrd Machine.

They formed Citizens Committee for School Improvement, compiled voting rolls and went door to door to get 5,000 names on a petition for a ballot bond. Their efforts made a “March of Time” newsreel, but powers that be said no. So the Arlington activists went to Richmond to lobby.

“I learned in recent years that we caused a great deal of disturbance in the political realm of the county,” Miller writes. “The machine was not happy with the progress and publicity of the CCSI. Real estate investors were not pleased with the idea of paying more property taxes to cover the cost of improving the school system.”

They won, only to see school board elections abolished in 1959 during “massive resistance” to court-ordered desegregation. (They were restored in 1992.)

During that late ‘50s racial battle, Miller was a math and home economics teacher at Stratford. She describes the tension when four African American students made their first entry amid tight security in which police escorted teachers to the parking lot.

She recalls the principal asking if teachers were willing to teach blacks. When whites organized a separate prom, one ticket was accidentally sold to a black student. The assistant principal “called the boy into her office to explain the matter to him, to retrieve the ticket. And to refund his money,” she writes. “Both were crying.”

In 2011, Miller’s 100th birthday was toasted by county board member Chris Zimmerman, one modern progressive to whom her torch has been passed.

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About that spate of books: I recently met local author Michael Lee Pope, whose latest is “Shotgun Justice: One Prosecutor’s Crusade Against Crime and Corruption in Alexandria & Arlington.” It recaptures drama around early-20th-century lawman Crandal Mackey’s campaign to rid Rosslyn and other familiar neighborhoods of violence-prone saloons, brothels and gambling.

Equally noteworthy is McLean writer Carole Herrick’s new “Ambitious Failure: Chain Bridge, the First Bridge Across the Potomac River.” She details eight different bridges on the crossing spitting distance from my boyhood home, including detail about Arlington’s water supply and the Georgetown merchants who created the first bridge to ease delivery of produce from Virginia farms.

Happy holidays!

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