(Updated at 2:55 p.m.) A month and a half ago, the Arlington branch of the NAACP publicly called for the county’s logo to be changed. Over the weekend, members of the County Board voiced support for that change.
Arlington’s logo, along with its flag, depicts Arlington House, the county’s namesake that sits atop a hill in Arlington National Cemetery. The house was built by enslaved persons in the early 1800s on the orders of George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington’s adopted son.
The house was later home to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who married into the slave-owning Custis family, before the property was seized by the federal government during the Civil War and ultimately turned into the nation’s most hallowed military cemetery.
Julius Spain, Sr., head of the Arlington NAACP, spoke at Saturday’s County Board meeting and reiterated the branch’s call for the logo to be nixed — saying it should be done as soon as possible, rather than after a prolonged process.
“Let me be perfectly clear: atrocities were committed in the area of Arlington House,” he said. “That is a fact, and for that reason alone that should be enough.”
Spain’s remarks were supported by a half dozen other locals during the virtual meeting, including former Arlington School Board member Emma Violand-Sanchez.
Recently-elected County Board member Takis Karantonis was the first to respond to Spain’s comments and the most forceful in agreeing that the logo has to go now.
“It is nothing more and nothing less than a plantation house, and we cannot look away from this,” Karantonis said. “This simply cannot represent our government. For sure it doesn’t represent me and I don’t think it represents any of you, my colleagues, the County Manager, our civil servants.”
Karantonis then held his County Board business card up to the camera.
“I cannot say that Black lives matter today, in this summer of 2020, and at the same time pull out a business card with a plantation house printed on it,” he said. “So I believe this is urgent and compelling, and we can… retire this logo. It is time to move on from this.”
Other County Board members who spoke agreed with the need to change the logo, but did not commit to doing so as quickly as hoped for by Spain.
“It’s critical that we begin this community conversation,” said Katie Cristol.
“Arlington’s seal and logo must be replaced as soon as is reasonably possible,” said Matt de Ferranti. “Both are visible representations of a building that’s principal legacy is as a slave plantation, and thus must be replaced to be consistent with the inclusive, diverse community we aspire to be.”
De Ferranti said the Board needs to consider the process and standard for replacing the logo, while also remaining focused on other racial justice matters.
Christian Dorsey, the only Black member of the Board, said the county must deal with systematic racism, including the logo, in a comprehensive manner.
“I’d take perhaps a broader view that there are other symbols and names in our community that predate the confederacy, that postdate the confederacy, that are nonetheless symbols of systemic racism and oppression,” Dorsey said. “To address one without addressing the other to me is beneath the capability of our community to actually move forward with a symbolic and a substantive approach to dealing with systemic racism. I hope people will be patient.”
County Board Chair Libby Garvey said the county’s logo will be the topic of further discussion during the Board’s meeting on Tuesday. Arlington is also planning community roundtable discussions on systemic racism, and has kicked off an effort to rename Lee Highway.
Spain, meanwhile, said that the county flag and street names are not nearly as meaningful as the county’s chosen logo, and the latter should take priority. In a letter, he said the Board should be able to remove the logo within 2-3 months.
“As leaders some of you have become too hyper focused on process and distracted by the ideas of committees, working groups and discussions. That is misplaced,” he wrote. “The outcome with the immediate retirement of the logo is to stop now the county’s continued embrace of a racist symbol and thereby create an environment conducive to true transformation on issues of race and social equity. Let us clean our own house first.”
During the Board’s discussion, Garvey noted that the county supports Rep. Don Beyer’s bill to remove “The Robert E. Lee Memorial” from the official name of Arlington House. That effort is also being supported by descendants of enslaved people who worked on the estate.
After Spain spoke, the historian for one of the county’s most prominent Black families gave a brief history of Arlington House and its enslaved workers, including the family’s ancestors. Sixty enslaved people built and worked on the estate, said Steve Hammond, a member of and scholar on the Syphax family.
“Our ancestors harbored no ill will against the Custises or Robert E. Lee,” Hammond said, but “our goal [is to] rename the mansion to simply Arlington House, to be more inclusive.”
“It’s important for communities to look forward to the future,” Hammond concluded.