Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: The Lesson of Falls Church’s Tinner Hill

Last Saturday in 17-degree weather, more than 100 citizens, staff, and elected officials from the City of Falls Church, Fairfax County, and the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority joined the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation – and especially Ed and Nikki Henderson – to dedicate a park and learning center. This new site commemorates courageous and democratic opposition to a local apartheid ordinance in the early 20th century and shows us the better way.

The ordinance would have forced several African American families to sell their homes and move to one or more districts in the town of Falls Church that were designated “Colored Only.” The nine men who met at the home of Joseph B. and Mary Tinner on January 8, 1915 wrote letters to the town councilmen and local churches and businesses, objecting to the creation of segregated districts within Falls Church. They also sought the aid of W. E. B. DuBois and the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to fight this injustice. Their resistance led them to establish the Colored Citizens Protective League (CCPL), which later evolved to become the first rural chapter of the NAACP.

The celebration of the 100th anniversary of these events on January 10, 2015 culminated more than a decade of work to purchase and develop the site, including repeated actions and public hearings by governing and planning bodies. During this time to my knowledge, not a single person opposed this action, making clear that the completed site reflects our community’s widely shared values.

First and foremost, the Tinner Hill Historic Site celebrates personal courage. But the site also stands for more, namely the importance of the democratic institutions of freedom of the press, the rule of law, and the right to petition the government that, although imperfect, worked then and work today.

Robert Kennedy is quoted as stating: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.” The Tinner Hill site commemorates such “diverse acts of courage” that have helped establish and protect human rights, while using effectively – and thereby strengthening – democratic institutions.

The timing of the Tinner Hill Historic Site’s dedication and the principles for which it stands are particularly relevant and appropriate in view of recent events in the United States and around the world where human rights and these very democratic institutions are under attack.

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Freedom of the press was fundamental to the ultimate success of those who countered the ordinance that sought to segregate the races 100 years ago. In fact, the members of CCPL turned to the press repeatedly and effectively. The recent events in France and elsewhere, where terrorists targeted journalists along with members of minority groups, illustrate the critical importance of the freedom of the press as well as its vulnerability to attack.

Locally, we are fortunate to have a publication such as the Falls Church News-Press. Like almost everyone, I haven’t agreed with everything in the newspaper, but its coverage of local issues has been critical to helping ensure an informed community. Further, its advocacy on behalf of those who are less fortunate or discriminated against has made a difference in Falls Church and the region.

The rule of law and the justice system have never been perfect. But the Virginia Supreme Court ultimately threw out the ordinance that was first opposed at Tinner Hill, showing that the law can and does work. Indeed, as we have recently witnessed here and abroad, the alternative to the rule of law is mob rule. And in today’s highly armed environment, mob rule is a prescription for civil war where everyone loses. Further, it should not be lost on our community that the Falls Church police, representing the fundamental public service of all first responders, were also out in frigid temperatures last Saturday, stopping traffic to make it possible for us to attend the Tinner Hill ceremony.

Citizens’ fundamental right to petition government is also something for which Tinner Hill stands. Setting aside the land and developing the park serve as an example of effective grassroots advocacy before multiple governing and planning bodies. The principles that we try to ascribe to in government – equality, inclusiveness, citizen participation, and quality of performance – are fundamental to our system here in Falls Church and help provide the stability and support that are essential for a well functioning community.

The lesson that Tinner Hill offers to us and future generations is that the way to bring about desirable change is not engaging in violence, demonizing those with whom we disagree, or discrediting democratic institutions. Instead, Tinner Hill teaches us that successful positive change really occurs through courage, firmness, constancy, civility, and the protection and exercise of the democratic institutions of the free press, the rule of law, and the right to petition government.

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David Snyder is the vice mayor of the City of Falls Church.

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