Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Hungry for a vivid portrait of Arlington’s seamier side?

You could do worse than the spooky website “Our Redneck Past.” Its blogposts by a non-bylined researcher unearth “lost fragments” of our less-than-pleasant history—from motorcycle gang bars to Ku Klux Klan parades, plus more cheerful memories of country music haunts.

One entry describes the scene in March 1922, when KKK 400 members marched from Chain Bridge to Falls Church passing through Clarendon, Ballston, Cherrydale and Rosslyn. The marchers carried signs saying, “We are for upholding the law,” the account says. “Northern Virginia had about 60,000 KKK members in the twenties, which may have been as much as two-thirds of state membership, with the largest regional being the Ballston Klan No. 6.” Our local chapter had its own marching band, sponsored a youth baseball team “and owned a field for cross burnings… at the current site of Ballston Mall.”

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Astonishing tidbits include a photo of robed Klansman holding a funeral in the Bon Air neighborhood, along with tales of bootlegging, gambling and friends in high places. “In Arlington alone, the Klan would claim…. that `practically every male voter in good standing is a member.’ This was boastful swagger, but the fact that the claim could be made with a straight face proves the unnerving reality that Arlington was a Klan town,’” the narrator says.

Major Arlington figures as Sherriff Howard Fields (served from 1924-1944) and Commonwealth’s Attorney (and later state Sen.) Frank Ball are dragged in, their roles sometimes contradictory (Fields supposedly joined the Klan; Ball, a foe of segregation, accused its members of making false charges about his prosecutions).

For the 1960s and ‘70s, “Our Redneck Past” details murders involving the notorious motorcycle gang the Pagans. It criticizes the media for a “moral panic” about the state of local youth.

We get a list of “joints,” or biker hangouts. Among the Arlington ones are Bull Run Grill at 6001 Lee Hwy., the Classic Country at 89 N. Glebe Rd.; the Covered Wagon at 1720 N. Moore St.; JJ’s at 501 N. Randolph; the Keyhole Inn at 1126 N. Hudson St. in Clarendon; and the Royal Lee across from Ft. Myer. A gang business card reads, “You have had the privilege to be stomped by the PIONEERS of Arlington, Va.”

More upbeat is the poster promoting a 1966 concert from bluegrass kings Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs at Washington-Lee High School. And there’s a nifty account of famed folk music popularizer Alan Lomax, who had a house in Rosslyn in the late 1930s with future film director Nicholas Ray. Pete Seeger hung out there.

So who’s behind this raw history? Keith Willis, 45, a union staffer who grew up in Fairfax, assembles the material from his home in Westover. “I’m trying to explain to people, few of who come from around here, how different it was with all these muscle-car kids” roaming Northern Virginia, he told me. “There’s a rich history to be done” on gangs, organized crime, area hippie culture and the politics of the Prohibition era.

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Having studied history in college, Willis devotes leisure hours reading old Evening Star clips on microfilm and online at the District of Columbia and Arlington Central Library. All for the satisfaction of 1,000-2,000 visitors per month on the “Our Redneck Past” website. I commend his historian’s eye.

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It’s Arlington County Fair time again, Aug. 5-9. This year’s theme is “Summer Nights & Lights.” The event at Thomas Jefferson Middle School includes what planners hope will become a new tradition, a parade on Wednesday, opening night.

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