The strains of “We Shall Overcome” rang out over Lee Highway last Saturday.
With a crowd of some 90 assembled across from the old Cherrydale firehouse, the good citizens of Cherrydale witnessed the fruits of their decision to combine their 125th anniversary celebration with an addition to Arlington’s civil rights heritage.
Unveiled on the façade of the District Angling fishing supplies shop is now a bronze plaque marking the June 9, 1960, lunch counter sit-in at the old Drug Fair then at 3815 Lee Highway. (I frequented that drugstore as a kid, too young to appreciate the neighborhood drama that drew national press coverage.)
Inspired by similar protests of segregation nationwide launched the previous February in Greensboro, N.C., six students from Howard and Duke Universities showed up in Cherrydale at 2:30 p.m to break the local law by taking seats and vainly ordering food. As they waited peacefully, they were “encouraged by some onlookers but endured verbal abuse and physical from others,” the plaque notes.
The six had to listen to taunts from members of the American Nazi Party led by Arlington resident George Lincoln Rockwell. (Most of the white men shown crowding around the seated protesters in the news photos were later identified by police as Nazis, I was told by Cherrydale historian Kathryn Holt Springston, one of the impresarios of the 125th anniversary celebration.)
Before departing at closing time 10 p.m. the racially mixed protesters were joined by a Georgetown University student and a Drug Fair employee. Similar protests hit the People’s Drugstore and Howard Johnson’s further up on Lee Highway and at F.W. Woolworth’s in Shirlington. Just two weeks later, the Arlington establishments abandoned their whites-only policies. As event organizer Greg Embree noted, the cumulative effect of such sit-ins in 55 cities later prodded President Kennedy, in consultation with Martin Luther King Jr., to propose what became the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Introduced to the crowd in 2018 were three participants: Ethelene Crockett Jones, Dion Diamond and Joan Trumpauer Mulholland. Jones, who went on to become an ob-gyn, told me she traveled all the way from West Palm Beach, Florida, to witness the dedication. Diamond, a retired financial planner in D.C. who grew up in segregated Petersburg, Va., told me he communicates with Mulholland regularly, she, as an Arlington white woman, having become famous as the subject of a documentary on her broader civil rights work.
Mulholland spoke later at Cherrydale Library, along with Springston, on other highlights of Cherrydale history. It was all part of a festival that also included food, old-time music, a 1911 Stanley Steamer car and face-painting for the children of residents sporting Cherrydale booster T-shirts. Attending a later cookout was Chuck Donaldson, the great grandson of the orchard owner who named Cherrydale.
As state Sen. Barbara Favola and Delegates Patrick Hope Alfonzo Lopez looked on, host Embree praised the shopping strip landlord and the merchants who responded with an “immediate and emphatic yes” to the planners’ requests. That included space to mount the $1,800 plaque (financed via crowdsourcing) and cordoning off the parking lot for an hour on a busy Saturday.
Mulholland, who brought her scrapbooks filled with clippings from that hot summer of 1960, told the gathered, “This was as big a crowd as we had when we left the sit-in, but much friendlier.”
Arlington lost a good actor this Easter. Scott Sowers, a New York stage and TV professional who founded New York’s Signature Theater Company, died of a heart attack at 54, according to Broadway fans I consulted. (Hat tip to reader Eddie Love).
See Sowers in a Youtube video performing in the Washington-Lee High School talent show in 1982 with classmate Sandra Bullock. Sowers also teamed up with WalkArlington in 2008 in a video tour of his boyhood neighborhood of Lyon Park. That’s where old friends held a memorial gathering for him in May.