Eleanor Monroe died on March 11, and Arlington is much the poorer for it. She and her family were our friends, and we will miss her.
My wife Jean first met Eleanor in the late ‘60’s when they were involved in fair housing activities. We still have a picture of the two of them during that time at what appears to be an Hawaiian theme party, dressed in their colorful sarongs, “when we both looked really good in sarongs,” doing some version of the hula.
Eleanor was a member of one of Arlington’s oldest and most prominent families. A leader in the African-American community, she and her husband, Thomas, came to political prominence during the protracted struggle to integrate Virginia’s and Arlington’s public school system in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Eleanor was the first African American to be appointed to Arlington’s School Board in 1971. She was elected chair of the School Board in her second year. She and her husband were in the process of suing the county’s school system to desegregate the all African American Drew Elementary School in South Arlington’s Nauck neighborhood.
Jean was appointed to a county-wide study committee, with Evelyn Syphax and Maryanne Karydes, to recommend a plan to desegregate the school. They actually came up with three, all involved boundary changes with other near-by elementary schools, busing white children into Drew and black children out. Needless to say, those plans were doomed from the start and the concept of a model school was born.
Drew became the county’s first “model school” drawing students from all parts of Arlington, but the neighborhood school was lost and many of the local children were bused to schools throughout the county. Many years later, the Monroe children ended up at Yorktown High School where Jean would direct Patricia in a lively version of “Bye Bye Birdie.”
While she served only one term on the School Board, Eleanor remained active in a multitude of community organizations and services, frequently involving fair housing. One of the most recent was her stint last year as a judge in Arlington’s “Dancing with the Stars” extravaganza, where prominent Arlingtonians teamed up in a dancing contest to raise money for housing and social services for residents of the Nauck community. In a brilliant red outfit, she was still a stunningly beautiful lady.
Eleanor’s husband was a prominent Arlington lawyer and became Arlington’s and one of Virginia’s first African-American judges. He served as a Domestic Court Judge, then a General District Court Judge, and finally as a Circuit Court judge until his retirement in 1992 due to illness. Eleanor was his constant companion and caretaker until his death in 2005.
Eleanor was delighted when her son, Charles, was elected to the Arlington County Board in 1999. He became chair in January, 2003. He died tragically of a stroke only two weeks later while chairing a County Board meeting.
Our hearts go out to her children, Thomas and Patricia, and daughter-in-law Barbara, and her six grandchildren. They have lost a strong and beautiful mother and grandmother. Our community has lost a spirited and courageous woman. Her knowing laughter will be missed.