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Arts Focus: Explore a civil rights milestone through the lens of art during Black History Month

This column is sponsored by Arlington Arts/Arlington Cultural Affairs, a division of Arlington Economic Development.

History is all around us every day, but Black History Month offers the perfect time to highlight important milestones in the County’s history.

For the last four years, Arlington Arts has been working with an artist to highlight various aspects of this history through art, culminating in The Desegregation of Arlington Lunch Counters: 60th Anniversary Tribute by Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr.

Being received at a restaurant with a welcoming smile and a warm meal would seem the basic expectation for any customer. Sadly, well into the 1960s widespread segregation denied such everyday courtesies to African-Americans and other people of color. While the sit-ins at Maryland’s popular Glen Echo Amusement Park are better remembered today, they were in-fact precipitated by the sit-ins at Arlington earlier that same summer, between June 9 and 22, in 1960.

In one of the photos above, sit-in participant Joan Mulholland (resting elbow on counter) watches as fellow activist Dion Diamond is confronted by angry youths. The protests were a resounding success, and on June 22, most Arlington lunch counters announced that they were desegregating.

The original project was curated by the Arlington Art Truck and Arlington Public Art which are programs of Arlington Arts. It is in collaboration with the County’s Historic Preservation Program, Arlington Public Library, Center for Local History and Arlington Transit’s Art on the ART bus program. The community partner for the project is the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington.

Amos Paul Kennedy Jr., creates prints, posters and postcards from handset wood and metal type, oil-based inks, and eco-friendly chipboard. Much of his work is inspired by proverbs, sayings and quotes that are significant to the place he is working. Kennedy interviewed local residents, historians and participants in the sit-ins, and the placards contain poignant quotes from several of these individuals.

Initially planned for the Anniversary year (Summer, 2020) and delayed by the pandemic, the project launched in the Summer of 2021, with installations at or near the site of the original lunch counters. Upon the conclusion of those activations, the additional facets were developed to allow for continued engagement with the history.

Riders of public transportation can see the series of posters the Artist designed along the same themes via the decade-old Art on the ART Bus program — a partnership between Arlington Arts and Arlington Transit.

Instead of the ads for soap, salsa and soda that riders expect to see in the overhead frames, thousands of Arlington commuters regularly experience original artwork as they head to their jobs. Sometimes there are up to three specially outfitted Art on the ART Bus vehicles in circulation, each scheduled randomly each day, bringing art to a different route through Arlington.

Our collaboration with the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington resulted in an exhibit which features images of the landmark sit-in’s, which will be on display through December, 2022. During your visit, you can pick up a free set of Amos Kennedy’s postcards (while supplies last). You can take a sneak peek at the exhibit via this feature that aired on WRCTV NBC4.

For more information about The Desegregation of Arlington Lunch Counters: 60th Anniversary Tribute by Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr. and how to engage during Black History Month and beyond, visit our website.

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