Thursday, September 13, 2018

Joan Mulholland

Joan Mulholland, a native Arlingtonian, has lived in the Barcroft neighborhood of Columbia Pike for decades. She is best known as a hero of the Civil Rights movement, a Freedom Rider who bravely fought for equality for all. She was recognized for her civil rights activism by President Obama, the Anti-Defamation League, and was presented with the National Civil Rights Museum’s Freedom Award in 2015. Joan participated in over fifty sit-ins in the segregated South, including in Arlington as well as the infamous Jackson Mississippi Woolworth’s sit in, helped organize and plan the 1963 March on Washington, was marked by the Ku Klux Klan for execution, was arrested and jailed numerous times for her activism, was the first white woman to attend Tougaloo College, and is a member of Delta Sigma Theta.

The mother of five sons, she worked after she returned to Arlington for the Smithsonian and for the Department of Justice. From 1980 to her retirement in 1997, she was an ESL (English as Second Language) teacher at Patrick Henry Elementary School along Columbia Pike. She remains active as a community literacy volunteer, in progressive issues, and as an in-demand speaker. Her son Loki made “An Ordinary Hero,” an award-winning film of her life as a front-line civil rights worker, and there is an educational foundation in her name promoting the cause of civil rights to children.

She was interviewed in her home recently by CPDP director Lloyd Wolf. Excerpts from the interview follow.

“When my parents brought me home from the hospital it was to the Buckingham Apartments, eight-tenths of a mile up the road. See, I haven’t gone very far in life.

The Columbia Pike corridor, that’s home. I still remember in Baileys’ Crossroads, in Arlington or just over the line, women up in their old houses with their washboards doing their laundry on the front porch. I remember just the other side of Baileys’ Crossroads an old black guy out there plowin’ in the field with a mule. Things have changed, but it was still home.

I had realized when I was about ten, when visiting at Grandma’s down in Oconee, Georgia, and we’re not talking the resort, we’re talking the old logging town, which has since been torn down. Dirt roads, houses that were not the sturdiest, train ran down the middle of the dirt road twice a day, shaking everything. On a dare, my little playmate and I walked over to what we called “N*****town,” back off the road. And as poor as the white folks were, it was so much worse back there. It was when I saw the school for the black kids – one room shack, never seen any paint, pot-bellied stove, the door was ajar, no glass in the windows, just wooden shutters, nuthin’ in the yard, no grass, no playground equipment, hand pump for water, and one outhouse.
It just hit me, at ten years old, that this is not right, this is not fair, this is not treating others as you want to be treated. I sort of knew, that things would have to change, and I wanted to help.

My opportunity came when the sit-ins started in ’60. I was at Duke. Durham (NC) was the second city to have sit-ins, right after Greensboro. I went to the Presbyterian youth group on campus, and the chaplain told us “Keep it quiet, but next week some of the students who are doing the sit-ins over at North Carolina College will be here… They did explain it morally and legally about the sit-ins, and then, lo and behold, invited us to join them. We were on the picket line, and then on the sit-ins.  That led to two arrests. I was the person arrested both times, of course.

I was at the sit-ins here in Arlington, with NAG (Non-violent Action Group). They started on a Drug Fair on Lee Highway. I was with Dion Diamond from DC, and a Howard University group among others. Charlie Cobb and I were from Arlington. When we came out of that Drug Fair there was a mob outside. That sit-in was on June 9th, 1960. And down in Shirlington at Woolworths, I was down there. Folks sat in at Landsburghs, also in Shirlington.

I think those actions made a difference in Arlington. These local chains, independent stores, were basically owned by Jewish families. Liberal New York families who had come down for New Deal jobs, and they didn’t have any problem personally with serving people, but it was against the state law. If they did serve us, or you went to a church you were allowed in, anybody who enabled you to sit together anywhere, was subject to arrest, also. So I think the stores’ managers had no problem serving us personally, but they weren’t ready to go to jail today. That’s my interpretation. I’ve heard people who might question that. They aren’t from here.

I ended up going back down South for more activism. We had had a big sit-in at Woolworths in Jackson, Mississippi. The mob poured sugar on me, all the condiments and everything on the counter was picked up an dumped on us. Paint and stuff was brought out. I didn’t get spray-painted but some did. The guy next to me had water and black pepper mixed together and thrown in his eyes.

I was also held in Parchman Prison in Mississippi for a whole summer. That was with the Freedom Rides. We had gotten down to Montgomery, Alabama, and were trapped in the church with a mob outside. People could not leave, there was an absolute mob. After we got out of that situation and I had recruited some folks from DC, we got a little non-violent orientation, and we took a train to Jackson. When we got off, we walked together into the waiting room, and were promptly arrested. Out to the paddy wagon. It got so crowded in that county jail, in the white women’s cell, we were down to less than three square feet of floor space per person, unless you counted under the bunks. One girl even slept curled up in the shower. They had to do something with us. They took the prisoners on death row at Parchman, and moved them elsewhere in the prison, and put us on death row trying to intimidate us. The food was better. It was cleaner. It was roomier. What’s not to like? Free room and board for the summer. I stayed in jail. Then I went to Tougaloo, just north of Jackson, Mississippi. I had already been accepted.
I saw what happened then with Chuck [Charlayne] Hunter and Hamilton Holmes at the University of Georgia. There were riots, tear gas, mobs, police escorts off campus twice. Athens, Georgia was where this was. The next town down the road was where my family was from originally, my mother’s side. I thought, this is not integration, it’s just a couple of black kids at the time having to go through hell. If integration is real, it’s a two-way street. I thought maybe I should apply to one of those black schools. I talked at a SNCC meeting with some of the guys, and gals. I asked them “what do you think?” They said “good idea, good idea.” Somebody, probably Chuck McDew, said, “well, if you’re gonna do it, you may well go to Mississippi, because those students haven’t done anything there yet sit-in wise. You can help them.”

Everybody in the Movement came through Tougaloo because it was a safe haven. I was sometimes down at the joint SNCC-CORE office, and we might walk down to Medgar Evers’ office, a couple blocks down the street and help out there with something.

 After the Movement, I came back to Arlington. I had five boys, and had split with my husband.  

After working for Justice and the Smithsonian, I began teaching at Patrick Henry School. I was a little bit in special ed, but basically an ESOL/HILT assistant [ English for Speakers of Other Languages/ High Intensity Language Training ].
We still had a lot of Southeast Asians. Vietnamese, Lao, a few Cambodians. We were kind of ground zero for Vietnamese, for Southeast Asians in general, in the entire United States. Then we started getting a little bit of everything, the United Nations. Gradually we got more and more Ethiopians and Eritreans, and Hispanics.

It was fun to learn their understanding of things, the type of questions they would ask… There were two girls, one was from Ethiopia, one was from Thailand. They learned English very well, they had great sentences, but the could not get the idea of capital letters. Then it suddenly hit me. It’s because of my background in Tougaloo, you know, a multiple cultural background, I asked them “ in your writing system, back in your countries, do they have like we do, capital letters, small letters?” They went “No!” Well, duh, no wonder they didn’t get it. I tried to explain this to other teachers who have these two girls in their class. It was the darndest thing, to get these other teachers to understand this idea, that Thai and Amharic don’t have capitals, and that’s why these kids had problems.

I had some Hispanic kids why the boy from Afghanistan had this problem writing cursive. I said “they don’t write the same way in his country.” So I sent that boy up to the blackboard – we still had blackboards – and asked him to write his country’s ABC’s. And of course he started out on the right instead of the left. And I said to the Hispanic kids, “now you go up and copy it.” And then they saw why he had a hard time in our alphabet. They couldn’t begin to copy it, and began to understand.

I think my way of understanding and my way of dealing with kids was helped a lot by having been part of the black culture.

 I stayed politically active. I voted! With five small kids in the house, you’re not going to meetings. I stayed involved in the local elementary school. PTA, the music teacher was looking for an African-American song that would be good to sing at the International Dinner, and I suggested “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which he didn’t know from the man in the moon. He taught it to virtually ever kid in the school. It was probably the first white school in the County to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing ” en masse.
In Django’s kindergarten class I remember that they had the housekeeping corner and the workshop corner. All the doll babies in the housekeeping corner were white, so I made several rag dolls and clothes for them, with various skin tones and hair colorings and all that, so we got a mix. I got into gender equality, too.

I remember that whatever we had to eat was what was on sale at Food Star. My kids were what we call latchkey kids. There was a rule we had, that we didn’t let anybody in the house until I got home, unless it was one of the Southeast Asian kids who was being hassled, and we brought them in for their own safety. We saw the Asian kids being hassled, trying to walk home. There were a couple of kids that lived in drastically overcrowded houses, up to eighteen people in the house. I told my kids if your friend was being roughed up, you could bring ‘em in the house. It happened. It was white kids that were roughing the Asian kids up. Some of those boys who did the harassing were friends of my sons. In fact, Loki got roughed up a time or two, also, for walking the Asian kids home. I frequently had a bowl that was always full of fruit. Once in a while there’s still a knock on the door “Mom! You’re still here!” The Southeast Asian kids will come by “Can I come in? Oh it still looks the same!” Which means I haven’t done much to the house.

The neighborhood’s changed. We have more ethnic diversity. More black folks, we have Asians I think there are Arabs here now. But, back in the day, at the Barcroft Community Center, they had all sorts of restrictions about who could be members of the club. Arabs were among those who could not be members of the club. Everybody who wasn’t white Protestant was excluded, pretty much. Definitely blacks. In the ‘70’s. we reviewed the bylaws. And that’s when they found all these restrictions. There were no Catholics. But it was a Catholic Palestinian that now was president of the club! So clearly we had to revise the rules.

When I lived in Buckingham as a kid, just down the road, so many of my playmates were from liberal New York Jewish families. Their parents had come for government jobs in the New Deal, and now they were starting to have families, and moved to something bigger than a boarding house room. It was the only place that would rent to Jews.. I figured at one time at least eighty percent of my playmates were from liberal New York Jewish families. A few Catholics, too, because of St. Thomas Moore Church and the school. The Jewish families, I found out decades later, would hide our Christmas presents in the top of their closets, and their kids were sworn to secrecy. But they knew what we were getting for Christmas! And they were told that you can’t tell them (the non-Jewish kids) that there’s no Santa Claus and there’s no Easter bunny.

Across the street we’ve got three McMansions now, on what used to be the side lot for a house of a lady who grew up in Barcroft. She had planned to make the lower lot into a nature preserve thing, but she didn’t get it done in time. So they all went.

I used to shop at Food Star. Oh, I miss it. It’s gone. They are going to put a Harris Teeter store there. The biggest possible Harris Teeter, plus housing. It is already affecting the neighborhood. Well, now we don’t have Food Star, and the construction and the noise. The poor folks in the townhouses down near it, it’s going right up close to them. Apparently they have a lot of complaints about the noise.

On Buchanan Street, there’s those apartments, that are now subsidized housing, that was heavily Southeast Asian back in the day, and where the Safeway used to be (where the Arlington Mill Community Center is now), that was all Southeast Asian just about. The owners of Buchanan Gardens were waiting for it to all go condo. The owners were not making any repairs or keeping up the place, because they were going to sell it.
I do my best to keep my local identity. I volunteer with Even Start up at Barcroft School. Even Start is a county program where kids from lower-income non-English-speaking families can get free pre-school, so they’ll have an even start in kindergarten with their English-speaking classmates. I volunteer teaching English when I’m in town, and Tuesday mornings in the library. The kids are Hispanic, almost always. Guatemala is big. It shifts from time to time. Last year we had several Moroccan women. I’m able to use my skills in teaching with that. I do a lot of little things to keep a community connection. I’m on the substitute list for the community newsletter. I make bookmarks from stickers that come unsolicited in the mail. I use some cardstock and make bookmarks for the school library.

This neighborhood has changed. You could call it gentrification in some ways. It used to be that we had a plumber down the street, a heating and air conditioning repairman lived nearby, a school janitor, along with a congressman. There was a range of incomes. There is has gotten to be more ethnic diversity now over the years, particularly closer to the Pike, but that’s also changing. The free and open space, the trees, they’re getting hemmed in, taken out. Anything you needed for daily life used to be available on the Pike. A hardware store, a family-owned jewelry store, small grocery stores where they know you, a place to get your sewing machine repaired. Now they put in stuff nobody needs, or it’s expensive. A developer came to our Barcroft civic association. He said that in the new high rise mixed use apartments complex they want to build they’ll have mixed use retail on the first floor. There’s nowhere to park; I don’t want to have to go park underground around the back. He told us he hoped that they would have businesses like accounting firms in these places. Who needs that? And how many empty retail spaces do we need, anyway?

I went to Food Star for years, and the Oriental Market. The owners knew me, and folks could tell me how to cook or choose food I had no knowledge of before. There were foods for each country, Guatemala, Bolivia, Vietnam, Laos, and so forth. I don’t expect a big fancy chain will have that.

They were first calling the new development going up at the corner of George Mason and Columbia Pike “Pike Town Center” or “Town Plaza.” Now they’ve decided to name it “Centro.” Makes you wonder.”

Photography by Lloyd Wolf. Additional photography by Lara Ajami.

1 comment:

K. Webber said...

What an incredibly useful life. Thanks for sharing the story of this incredible woman.
I grew up in N. Arlington in the 1960’s and my daughter lives there now. The change in the county is difficult to comprehend. Had a totally free range childhood. Everything is different now.