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ArlingtonProposed W-L marker back before historical-affairs panel

Proposed W-L marker back before historical-affairs panel

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Four years after the installation of a marker celebrating the history of Washington-Lee High School was scotched by leaders of the county school system, a proposed revised marker – honoring the school now known as Washington-Liberty – is wending its way through the development process.

Whether that effort turns out to be smooth or rocky, and whether it will serve to unify or divide the public, remains to be seen.

Members of the county government’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) are set to meet Aug. 18 to review proposed revisions to the original marker, which had been funded by the school’s alumni association and was approved for installation in 2017.

But as part of the contentious community battle over renaming the high school to denude reference to Robert E. Lee, coupled with national political division in the wake of unrest in Charlottesville that summer, school-system leaders refused to allow the previous marker to be placed on school grounds.


The effort to update and somewhat revise the text while retaining much of the original verbiage and art has been undertaken by current HALRB member Carmela Hamm and former member John Peck, who detailed their efforts to the body in late July.

With the exception of updating the language to account for the 2017 name change of the school and expand information on the school’s 1959 desegregation, “the marker is essentially unchanged,” Peck said.

And that, he suggested, may be the best way to move forward.

“I really hope the discussion won’t go back into that,” Peck said of the overall design of the marker. “I don’t think that’s necessary. We don’t want to go down a rabbit’s hole. It’s a very sensitive subject for many people.”

That said, “Carmela and I . . . would be open to any comments,” Peck said.

One HALRB member who was not on the body in 2017 did opine that the photos in the design didn’t seem as representative of the school’s history as they might have been. Peck said he understood the point, but remained “just a bit hesitant” to reopen the matter – bringing to mind the old saw that a camel is a horse that was designed by a committee.

(Verbiage on the marker that discusses the history of the school seems designed to straddle a middle ground on the name change, a topic on which many in the community still hold strong opinions and emotional scars. That column of text references “Washington-Lee” twice, “Washington-Liberty” once and the neutral “W-L” eight times.)

The original marker – whereabouts unknown to Peck or Hamm – was conceived and funded by the school’s alumni association, a group that has been dormant of late. The HALRB had approved the verbiage of the original marker before the school system refused permission to install it.

Arlington voters in 1922 approved a bond referendum to pay for Arlington’s first modern new high school, whose original building – a three-story Beaux-Arts structure long since demolished – opened in 1925 and graduated its first student in 1926, remaining segregated until court-ordered integration came to Virginia in 1959.

That 1922 date of bond approval for the school would seem to make 2022 an appropriate date for placement of the marker, and “should give us ample time for everyone to review things,” Hamm said.

Hamm and Peck have been in contact with the school’s principal and plan to work through the school system’s community-relations staff so everyone is on the same page. Funding also needs to be secured, Hamm said.

HALRB member Joan Lawrence, who was on the body when the first marker was approved, said the revisions “appear to be well-written and appear to fit in with the overall text of the marker.”

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