Interview and photography by Lloyd Wolf
Tuesday, March 26, 2019
Dr. Denise Haskins is a native Arlingtonian. An IT professional, she is a resident of the historic African-American Johnson Hill Hill/Arlington View area, and active in both neighborhood and County-wide task forces.
A joke one of my friends says, is that I have lived in Arlington since before birth, since my mom carried me during her pregnancy. My family is from Arlington, Virginia where my parents wed and resided in the Nauck community. My mom, Mary P. Haskins, is one of 12 children. She had six brothers and five sisters. The majority lived in close proximity in the same neighborhood. Other
of both of my parents, Charles and Mary Haskins, were residents of Arlington View,
also known as Johnson Hill, just off the eastern end of Columbia Pike. I am now
living in the house of my dad’s sister, and brother in law. Mr. James Townes and
I redesigned and renovated the house in 2006 into my dream abode.
During my younger years, I visited the Johnson Hill area a lot. My church, Mount Olive Baptist Church, is literally positioned up the street. I enjoy walking to church on Sundays and many of my friends and family members are still members of the congregation. After church on Sundays, one of my beloved traditions would be to visit my parent’s home and watch the football game or attend the ‘Skins games at RFK. Gatherings in the backyard became familiar activities with neighborhood folks, because a lot of the African Americans were stalwarts within the community. The builders, the lawyers, the attorneys, and the doctors, we all lived on the same streets. During our upbringings, my neighbor next to my mother built my cousins’ homes and lots of the other neighbors’ kids’ homes, which allowed everyone to stay close to home. Even my mom's house was built by the builder from my church. People knew each other, and they were professionally accomplished. For a while my father built homes before he went to work for the Department of Transportation as a special courier.
My cousin still lives just blocks away. What was nice about this community and all of the black communities in Arlington, you always felt at home. My uncle would invite all the other cousins who lived in Nauck and across the street and we would entertain picnics at the alternate homes on Sundays or the weekends. We were kind of like our own playmates with our cousins. The neighborhood was a real mix growing up because the community that went to the church, they migrated here from different areas - Falls Church, Arlington, everywhere.
This neighborhood is the only remnant of Freedman's Village. It was closed around World War I. It is the same with the church. The church was on the site of the Pentagon, and it moved so the Pentagon could be built, in the 1930s. The church is over 120- years old. It has an entire heritage, based on parishioners from the community.
I have known many of the people here throughout my life. I know them from Jack and Jill. I was in Jack and Jill with their kids, and the parents still exist here. With some of them, I work with the daughters now. It's that kind of connection. I have cousins up the street, both sides, on my mother and my father's side, and they go to the church. If they don't go to my church, they go to my sister's church, or go to a cousin's church. Everybody kind of knows everybody.
Folks mostly still call the neighborhood Johnson Hill, and not so much Arlington View. Johnson Hill, Green Valley, and Hall's Hill are the African American nicknames for those neighborhoods. And, to this day, there are reunions for all the areas. So, even the kids and people who grew up here and are friends of my cousins, when you say Johnson Hill reunion, everybody comes back.
There's three or four predominantly African American churches in the community that have been here a long time. Macedonia Baptist Church in Nauck, Mount Zion... Oddly, my mom and my dad never went to the same church. My mom and I went to Mount Olive and my sister and my father are members of Mount Zion, and my cousins went to Macedonia. We were all in close proximity, and the churches communicated and shared in services, so everybody knew everybody like a family. You had playmates, you had role models, right in the community. My fourth grade teacher lived nearby, in Penrose. I was her baby sitter. My principal in elementary school was Irma Blackwell, and she and my mom were in Jack and Jill, too, which was considered the premiere middle class African-American social organization. Mr. Betty and Thomas Bellamy, who was my PE teacher also belonged to the organizations and our everything, so that's kind of how everybody stayed in touch.
We attended the same schools because we lived all in the same neighborhood. I was part of school system integration. My mom was a school nurse aid at Thomas Jefferson Intermediate school, so everybody knew my mom.
I went to high school at Yorktown, so I know Hall's Hill, too. I started at Drew Elementary, then went to Jamestown. Next I was bused to Williamsburg, and then Yorktown. I went to Virginia Tech for my undergraduate degree, American University for my masters, and George Washington University for my doctorate in Information Management.
When I was a kid, I felt I could go anywhere in the community, including outside of this neighborhood. I was very comfortable with it. It even got broader when I went to Yorktown and Jamestown, because my classmates were not from my community. Some of my friends would be daughters of congressmen, and one of my best friend’s father was a pilot for Eastern Airlines. We would do overnight sleepovers, and to this day, we still get together on our birthdays.
My mom sent me to private school initially, My Savior Lutheran, near the Pike. She really wanted to make sure I got a great start. Then I went to Drew Model School. My class was so advanced that our first grade teacher petitioned to keep the whole class because we were all reading on a fourth grade level in first grade.
I never felt limited, until high school, when some problems occurred. When I got ready to go to college at Virginia Tech, my counselor wouldn't sign my papers for me to go. So my mom took off from work, and she told him that he was confused in his role. His role was to sign the papers, and was not to choose where I went to school. He thought that I would never graduate from Virginia Tech, so he wouldn't sign my papers. Since that time, I've actually gone back to Virginia Tech. I'm on the Provost Committee, and I taught Computer Science there during my doctoral dissertation stage.
A similar situation happened to my sister. They wanted to put her in a special class, and my mom told the school officials, "No, she's quiet. There's nothing wrong with her. She's staying in regular classes. She's not special ed." My sister now has her Masters in Business Administration and she's retired from being chief of HR.
I didn't experience negative prejudiced attitudes a lot, but growing up, periodically I did, I remember we went on vacation to Disneyland, and we stopped at a gas station, and my dad came back out saying, "we can't go here." This is the premise behind the Green Book. That was in the 1960s, but I would say I generally did not experience these attitudes on a day-to-day basis. My parents always told us "You can be whatever you want to be." So, I never felt limited. They were achievement-oriented people. They both worked two jobs. My mom had a cosmetology license, and my dad was a janitor in the schools for the County in the evenings, plus he worked for Department of Transportation as a special driver and courier during the day. Their only goal, which we knew, was that we go to college. And, when we got there, we would not have to work, we were to focus on just our studies.
That was common in the circle I grew up in. My cousins, all of them had scholarships, were on the honor roll. I don't think I ever felt like I could not do achieve my dreams.
I was in with the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority before I went to school, so I won my scholarship from them, but I knew more members of Delta Sigma Theta, like Miss Ola Willoughby and Alice Fleet. They are naming a new school in Arlington after Ms. Fleet. I knew her from my dad's church. One of my friends, Eric Green, who taught music in the school system, now lives in Mrs. Fleet's house because things just evolved, you just kind of stay in the community, if you can. It was not an accident that I came to be in this house. I knew I always wanted to come back.
My parents were very engaged in PTA. I know that wasn't the majority of African American parents, but mine were and those parents that were present, this I did it well. The wider community was a fostering environment. Judge Newman lived one street over from here. He went to my dad's church.
I am the Chairperson of the Transportation Committee for the Arlington View Civic Association, a member of the Arlington County Information Technology Advisory Commission, and my passion is STEM and mentoring. I'm also a member of the Northern Virginia Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
For me, the first problem with transportation in Arlington is following and living up to the legacy of Mr. Eugene Hubbard, who used to be on this committee for the county. He was the deacon at my church. Like him, I feel like I need to be socially engaged. One of the key premises of my sorority is public service and social action. My pastor, Reverend James E. Victor, who came from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King served, always has pushed us to be socially involved. I feel that because I went to Virginia Tech, where the percentage of minority students was so small, in order to make a change, you always have to be a part of solution, not just sitting on the sidelines complaining.
One particular local issue we face on the transportation committee is that we cannot get South Quinn Street reopened. They closed it. You can go out of the neighborhood, but you cannot ingress. They blocked it. It's a VDOT (Virginia Department of Transportation) design error, but it' is just a bad design. We never had a problem before. Now everything is bottlenecked coming out of this neighborhood. You can try to come out Rolfe Street, but it's difficult due to heavy traffic and you cannot safely cross the street to Hoffman Boston School. The sad part is the county does not desire to correct their error and ignores the issue.
Now, why would you open it up on 12th and S Rolfe instead of from our neighborhood to Columbia Pike? These are the things that I feel like, "Is this like a racial thing? Why would you do this to our community when we're already having problems getting out of the community?" They've done the numbers, they've counted the traffic. They know when school is in session, that's how the buses used to get out. And, yet, they don't mind bottlenecking the street with all this traffic. They won't fix it. They took our bus stop away and cause is to walk miles, also. That was one of the main bus stops if you ride the bus to church, and it's one of the busiest bus corners in this area. I had my coworker give me a Google snapshot of Columbia Pike, and there is a bus stop on every side but ours. All the way down the Pike. And they won't return the bus stop. Then, they took the crosswalk away, so you can't safely walk across the street to the bus stop on the other side, or come back to your neighborhood unless you want to play dodge ball with your body. That's an extremely busy section. So these are the things that I've been trying to address. Metro won't return the stop. Just nothing.
While I was going back and forth, communicating on the issues, next thing you know I get a Twitter update that they're building a new bike route down Washington Boulevard, and "Oh, what great transportation options!" But you didn't even consult us! And you dropped them right at the same street that we're still having problems with, so now the bikes can't even get across. So, it's kind of Arlington County fixes what they want to fix and it's not to our advantage, maybe, because it's a predominantly black neighborhood. They don't care that it's dangerous. We met with the project manager and his assistant, she didn't even write up the report, I had to protest, "Where is the report?" After you studied a neighborhood? They don't care. It was all a front, just so they could say, "we walked the issue with them."
I am the Chair of Transportation for our Neighborhood Association. This issue is a major deal. The people who come to my church now don't have a bus stop. Why do we have to walk all the way to the Sheraton, or walk all the way to Saint John? Everybody else can just walk out of their building and get on the bus. Some of our folks are elderly, and they've got to come under that big bridge and try to cross with all that traffic to get to church. Why should there be no bus stop here? Took the benches away, took the trashcans away, it's just like they don't care. Every morning when you try to catch the bus to Ballston, you've got to run at record breaking speed to get to the other side of the road, and if you get off on the other side, coming from the Pentagon, you have to walk all the way back down and across heavy traffic. We asked for right turn on red on the one street they left open leaving the neighborhood during non-traffic times. No. Then, they come and put a sign "No right turn". After two years, they finally sent somebody to our neighborhood association meeting. We asked him "do you know what the issues are?" "No, I don't, they just told me to come." I'm a very detail oriented person, an IT professional. So, I go on the website for Columbia Pike, to view the multimodal plan for the renovation of Columbia Pike, and see that our neighborhood’s concerns are not even listed. And when we did the neighborhood walkthrough with a County staffer, he said, "Maybe we could open up Quinn Street, if we cut down the wall for this high rise house, there's some things we could do as a part of the multimodal." I asked for him to be our PM (project manager), and there went all the PMs. A County Board member, when we first started the conversation, said, "Don't accept anything until you're happy with it." Yet, because it became something that the transportation folks didn't want to fix, to design the transportation the way we wanted it, all of a sudden all of our requests had to be posted through an on-line service app. Our transportation manager disappeared. It is a way to avoid the issue.
The new folks that are moving into the neighborhood are getting involved, because the one that got killed in traffic was a military guy. It just so happens the night that I had that meeting and the County came, the head of their George Washington Carver Union, Rafael, came, and he's military, so he's been supporting the family, and now we have a widow with three kids, all because of the same problem we were fighting over! Fix the road!
People talk about this in the neighborhood. It’s a common discussion, they're aware. It's a continued resentment within the community. I pound on the door still because we have a good civic association president, and she seems to be trying to get all of Columbia Pike involved, who have some similar issues.
I also serve on the Arlington County IT Commission, which works with the county’s CIO (chief information officer) to set preferences and road maps and new ideas and direction for the county from the information technology side. Hopefully, as we move forward, we'll start to come up with a way to invite the Amazons and other companies that are moving into Arlington to help out, to be more forward thinking in the digital arena that Arlington is moving into, to help us craft policies, and to integrate the messaging of information technology into our community and beyond.
Because I am on the Virginia Tech Provost Committee I had an idea in talking with our CIO to involve the college so that more minority students would get to Virginia Tech. He immediately connected me with the head of curriculum for Arlington schools, and she and the provosts of Virginia Tech had a conference call, so I feel like I can make a change.
It needs to work from the inside out. It is the same with the transportation issue. Sadly, I feel some things are still racially motivated in Arlington. The change here to the road, closing off our streets, without taking into account that this was a predominantly African American community, seemed to me that they just didn't care that they closed off three roads and left only one open, No notice to our concerns was made until someone got killed in the community in an accident. He was crossing the street, and a car ran over him. When the road was redesigned, they made it more dangerous. For over two years, I had been meeting with the County and they kind of ignored it as not really an issue. We had just set up the first face-to-face meeting, asking to please take it seriously, and one person from our community said, "I would hate to have this meeting after somebody dies." And then two days later, a man got hit. Killed.
So, because of those behaviors I kind of see some negative things about Arlington. I still see the racial divide. I still see North Arlington has maybe more of a priority. One time, my house was broken into. To this day, I've never met the policeman who investigated my case. I called. I asked to meet them. They were like, "No." So, I ask, if that were in North Arlington, would it have been handled the same way?
Some other things are still bad. A little boy in the neighborhood up here started walking around with me. I could tell he was really really smart, because I'd take him to church and other people saw it, too But there were some issues at home, because he was sent out and being raised by his great grandmother. One day he shared that he was being abused by his grandmother. Well, I reported it to the school. By law, they have to do something if they are made aware of abuse. I had been speaking to the school social worker about the boy previously, because he always used follow me home, which I thought indicated a problem, and I didn't want anybody to think "I'm trying to take this kid" The social worker said "Yeah, he can come down there, they’ll help him with his math, etc." Eventually they removed him from the home. Well, when they did, and after I talked to the principal, I learned it was the second time that it had been reported. They knew there was a problem and did not give it proper attention until they were pushed. So the boy then went into foster care and just had more rigor to him going to bed and studying. As a result, he got Student of the Month and became a straight A student. To make a long story short, he ended up, through Arlington County, being put back with the aunt. I'm still following his situation a little. At this point all I can do is pray he's good. I didn't hear from him for a while after the aunt took over. But two weeks ago, he wrote me. He's in a cadet program now. He thanked me, because for five years now he's been an honor roll student. But the County didn't see it. I saw it, and I wasn't even there every day. They just took him maybe as another black male kid with some issues in the family home, and not about what he could excel to be, to see his potential.
Now the good part about Arlington is they actually remodeled this house for my 101-year-old aunt who lived here. Came in and helped her as a low-income resident, and totally remodeled this house for her to live in so she could stay in Arlington. The County put in a security system, redid her kitchen, made it appropriate for elderly. That came through County funding and the AHC, Arlington Housing Corporation, which is private. Her taxes were waived in Arlington, also.
Because my dad had Alzheimer's I know that the services provided through Arlington County were amazing. As he progressed through the various stages of Alzheimer's from the three dollar ride from Star Cab with a sensitivity driver to a center in Falls Church, to when we could no longer attend the center, they sent an aide to the house. That part of Arlington County services I know. I know that part of Arlington to be a good thing, including how they properly fiscally manage their resources for the community.
There is more to what the community offers here. When I was sixteen, I went to the Unemployment Office, trying to get a job. They helped me find a situation, and I worked at the Pentagon from age sixteen to twenty-three. Other resources that I got exposed to in my community were being a member of 4H, joining Brownies, going to the pool at the Y and learning to swim. All of that I love about Arlington.
There was that exposure to all the different sides of Arlington in the community growing up. Now I feel even there's more opportunity. I've done my Zumba classes and swim classes at the pools. I feel comfortable doing that. I see the resources that Arlington has, so that part I think is good. I see how they teamed with Macedonia Church and built affordable apartments, where they had the land, and Arlington had the resources to build, and then in a number of years, Macedonia will own the apartments, outright. This really helped most of their low income folks to stay in the neighborhood, and raise their families. My sorority and different people from the church, are now trying to do more mentoring programs in the schools, too, many different things to help out.
Now, like I said, some things are good, right? The services part is really good.
In the community here, people are concerned about the changes in the population. Because of the gentrification it's hard, due to the prices, for African Americans to live in Arlington now. Other people leave because they want bigger homes, and they think the taxes are too high, but I know Arlington has the lowest tax rates in the whole DMV. So this neighborhood has become very diverse. But, that diversity is a mixture. It is a lot of people in a small space.
A number of expensive new townhouses have gone in the other end of the neighborhood. The folks are from elsewhere. The older residents sell out to them. Even the George Carver Apartments are gone now. That was sad, because that was a co-op, and predominantly African American. The church wanted to help them, and they formed a non-profit to help them remodel and stay. And they said, "No." And then, the builder came in, and they were sold.
I've experienced everything here. I had to rescue a kid in the street; he was being cared for by some women along with like ten other kids in the evening, while the other people were cleaning homes. It's a lot of career-oriented younger people and older people, too, but some of it is really strange! Why would the one year old be walking in the middle of the street, and no one noticed that they were gone? That's too many kids in the house. I see some of the group homes, too, of two and three families, all moving in this area.
I remember when this neighborhood was very family oriented. I think more of the folks my age, they moved out thinking maybe they didn't want to pay for the older homes that their parents lived in, instead of thinking, "I can remodel this, I already own it, it's cheaper." They move away and buy something else.
I've been hurt for the last two weeks because my neighbor over here was foreclosed on his home. African American guy. Why didn't he say something? I have people who would have done anything to keep him in his home, even as a renter, even if he didn't own it, to find some way to solve the problem.
There is still a lot of warmth in the neighborhood. My neighbors are very friendly. We don't speak everyday, but you can see good things like, when it's snowing. I don't mind shoveling my snow, but I remember coming back one day and my neighbor had finished my sidewalk for me. And, my neighbors across the street, the couple, when that little boy was having issues, I knew they were foster parents of the year, so I went and I told them about the situation, and they were giving me all the numbers to call and how we could support the child, to try to come up with some helpful solution. And then, one time my mom was sick, I was worried, "I need to walk the dog, but I need to get to the hospital", and my neighbor came over and walked the dog for me. He doesn't even do pets, but it's that kind of just stretching past their comfort level to help each other. When I worked out of the country for a couple of months, people would call my mom and tell her "your daughter’s got a package on the step. I know she's not here. I'll get it.” I didn't have to feel like someone's going to break in the house. People are watching out for each other, definitely. My mom got sick a few weeks ago, and we ended up at the hospital. And, at the hospital was my cousin's mother, and everybody was exchanging numbers like, "Why don't I have your number to call you about your mother?" That kind of camaraderie and just passionate care for each other. And, literally, when I got there, one of the deacons from my church, who's mother lives around the corner, he was there, helping another gentleman from the church with his medicine. By the time I walked in, his mother called, and she said, "My son called and said your mom just came into the hospital.” It's that kind of connected environment of people. People are watching out for each other and caring - they do. That's what makes a community.