As a fifth generation Arlingtonian and longtime Halls Hill resident, Nadia A. Conyers was thrilled when Lee Highway was renamed Langston Blvd last summer.
Sharing that joy with her daughter Arrington, the 6-year-old was understandably curious. Together, they went looking on Amazon for a kid-friendly book that could help explain why this was a big deal and the accomplishments of the road’s namesake, John M. Langston.
But there was no such book.
“There was a void,” Nadia tells ARLnow. “So, we decided to fill it.”
Arrington’s voice pipes in, explaining what needs to be done when something you need isn’t available.
“You just gotta make it,” she cheerily says.
That’s the genesis of “From Lee Highway to Langston Boulevard,” the new book authored by the mother-daughter team.
The 26-page picture book aimed at young elementary school kids tells the story of John M. Langston, why the road is now named after him, and why that matters.
“It’s a very local book. For kids who live in Arlington, [the dialogue] will resonate with them because they’ll understand the places that are talked about in the book,” Nadia says. “It gives them a good context of how they are part of Black history and how Black history is right here in your neighborhood.”
Halls Hill, where Nadia (and, now, Arrington) grew up, is a historically Black neighborhood in the northern section of the county. For a long time, it was one of the only places in Arlington where African Americans could buy homes, along with Green Valley in South Arlington. In the 1930s, a “segregation wall” was built to separate the Black neighborhood from the surrounding white neighborhoods. A portion of that wall still stands today.
And, for years, a road named after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee cut through it.
“As you were walking or driving down Lee Highway, you would start thinking about who Robert E. Lee was and became perplexed about why the road here is named after him,” Nadia says, pausing for a moment. “Angry, even. There are a lot of emotions.”
With the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that were held across the country in the summer of 2020, it became clear to many that it was time for the road’s name to change.
The renaming effort was led by many Halls Hill residents, including by Nadia’s mother and Arrington’s grandmother Saundra Green. In December 2020, a working group proposed “Loving Avenue” as the new name with the state Senate passing a bill two months later to allow for the change. But the Lovings’ descendants nixed the idea and the group went with one of its alternatives: Langston Blvd.
John M. Langston was an attorney, abolitionist, and one of the most prominent African Americans during the Civil War period. Described once as “Obama before Obama,” Langston was the first Black man to represent Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“He was an activist. He was a teacher. He was a good person. He was Black,” Arrington says about Langston.
Nadia explains that this is the reason why names and representation matter, and why she wrote a book about it. Because kids like her 6-year-old daughter, and like her 13-year-old son, can see that a person who looks like them achieved so much, including having an entire road named after him.
“My daughter should be able to see herself in everything,” Nadia says.
On a personal level, it was also extremely rewarding for the two to write the book together and it taught them both about each other.
“We are so much alike yet so different,” Nadia says about Arrington. “She may be 6, but she has a lot of wisdom. She’s very charismatic, vocal, and opinionated.”
Arrington provided the kid perspective, giving thoughts on illustrations and often suggesting word changes to her mom. That helped the book become accessible for her age group.
From Lee Highway to Langston Boulevard is available now on Amazon and the mother-daughter combo are planning several book signings in the coming months. They were at the Fohta Gallery on S. Monroe Street in Green Valley on Feb. 19 and plan to be at the weekend-long Langston Blvd street festival coming up on April 24 and 25.
There are also plans in the works to partner with Arlington Public Library on an event, Nadia says.
Writing the book was such a positive experience that the family is thinking about doing a series, focused on the importance of representation.
Nadia sees how writing this book has already made a difference in how Arrington views the world and her neighborhood. She hopes that when other Arlington kids read the book, they’ll have a similar realization.
“It gave her a sense of motivation and determination,” says Nadia. “When you put your mind to something, you can do anything.”
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