February 25, 2015

Visiting Tinner Hill: Local History, National Significance

  • By: Stephanie K. Meeks

As president of the National Trust, I visit historic sites all over the country quite often -- that is my job! But recently, I had the chance to attend a special event right next to my home: the official opening of the Tinner Hill Historic Site in Falls Church, Virginia. There, a century ago, Falls Church residents stood up for civil rights and social justice. It was so welcome and inspiring to see my own community working to save the local places that matter, and that tell the full story of our area.

It may not seem like it now, with highways and the Metro running to Washington DC, but in 1915, Falls Church was a rural, agricultural community. That year, the all-white town council passed a law forcing all black residents to live in one quadrant of the town, even if their homes and property were elsewhere in the city.

So black Falls Church residents, led by Joseph Tinner and Dr. E.B. Henderson, decided to organize and protest against the segregation of their community. They formed the Colored Citizens Protection League to fight the new law. They started a letter campaign and supported a suit to prevent the town from forcing families to move.

And they won! Two years later, in a landmark case, the Supreme Court found laws like the Falls Church ordinance unconstitutional. And so it was never enforced, even though it amazingly was on the books until the 1990s.

The residents who met at Joseph Tinner’s house a century ago were in many ways on their own. They took enormous risks to stand up for their rights, and for basic justice, in Falls Church. And, because they did, they laid the foundation for what became the NAACP’s first rural chapter.

This is an inspiring story that should be told. It reminds us that the struggle for justice, civil rights, and the fundamental values in our Bill of Rights -- a struggle that continues to this day -- took place not just in cities like Selma and Montgomery and Atlanta, but in communities across America, including my community of Falls Church.

It helps us to recognize that the progress we have made on these critical issues only happened because Americans of a different time took huge risks to secure social justice and equality. Their struggle made all the difference. And it shows us that, to achieve the progress we still must make on civil rights, we all have to do our part as well.

This important story is just one of many in the rich history of the Tinner Hill neighborhood. During the Civil War, this same site was home to enslaved people who worked on the Dulany Plantation. Some of the same families represented at Joseph Tinner’s house in 1915 lived in Falls Church for hundreds of years prior, even before the Revolutionary War. And many of them still do!

I am so glad that our Falls Church community has come together to help commemorate this rich history, and built this place for us to reflect, now and into the future. Because places like the Tinner Hill site connect us to the generations who came before us. They remind us we are part of a long continuum of American experience, and they help illuminate the stories and struggles of our present.

In Black History Month or any month, we believe preservation has to be about more than just interpreting the homes of our Founding Fathers, or maintaining the mansions of wealthy white Americans of an earlier time. To understand our nation and understand ourselves -- where we came from and where we are going -- we have to tell the full story of all our communities, and of the men and women who helped to mold our present.

Constructed in 1999, the Tinner Hill Monument commemorates the struggles of African Americans in Falls Church, Virginia to attain their rights and freedoms.

On the site’s grounds rests a beautiful stone sculpture by artist Martha Jackson Jarvis, depicting a West African Adinkra symbol called Nkyinkyim. It's a symbol of toughness, initiative, dynamism, devotion to service, and resolve -- all traits the families of Tinner Hill exhibited in full measure when they stood up against segregation a century ago. This symbol also has its roots in an African expression, which translates as: “The course of life is full of twisting, ups and downs, and zigzags.”

Those ups and downs, those zigzags, also represent our national story. It has not always been pretty. We have had to work hard, over centuries, to achieve and live up to our democratic ideals. Our historic places help illuminate that important, often zigzagging journey we are taking in America toward justice, and remind us of those in our community who, in their own time, carried that beacon forward.

What historic sites tell the story of your community? And what stories are not being fully represented? Let me know in the comments. I also encourage you to submit nominations for our annual list of America's 11 Most Endangered Places (due March 2). We want to highlight the diverse places that capture our journey as a nation, and the full American experience, even when it is complex and sometimes difficult.

Stephanie K. Meeks was the president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 2010-2018. She is the author of "The Past and Future City."

Now accepting nominations for the 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places! Letters of Intent are due September 29, 2023.

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