Alexandria, VA

Local seniors who once marched for Civil Rights rallied over the last week to show their support for a new generation they see as carrying on the torch in an ongoing fight against racism and injustice.

Seniors at both Goodwin House communities — in Alexandria (4800 Fillmore Avenue) and Bailey’s Crossroads (3440 S Jefferson Street) — that couldn’t attend local vigils and rallies decided to host some of their own in their facilities.

Staff said at in Alexandria nearly 80 residents and staff gathered in our courtyard area for a silent vigil held to honor George Floyd, whose death in Minneapolis sparked international protests. At the Bailey’s Crossroads, residents couldn’t leave the facility but made signs that decorated the nearby street to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

At the Alexandria location, a chaplain offered a prayer and song, followed by 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence. Staff said the ceremony was broadcast on the internal TV channel for those residents are who are unable or uncomfortable leaving their apartments.

The vigils and surrounding activities started with a group of advocates in the Bailey’s Crossroads facility called the Silver Panther Huddles.

“We started after the Women’s March on Washington, to do advocacy works,” said Carol Lewis, one of the organizers and a resident of the Bailey’s Crossroads facility. “One of the women in that group had the idea of doing something to honor George Floyd, but she was in quarantine. She had to stay in her apartment and couldn’t take it over, but word got passed along to the rest of the women in the huddle.”

Protesting injustice is something many of the residents of Goodwin House were familiar with long before they moved into the senior-care facility.

“We had people in our 80s, or in our 90s, and some were some of the people here were working on Civil Rights things in the ’40s and ’50s,” said Margaret Sullivan, one of the lead organizers of the vigil. “We had people who had been at the March on Washington when MLK spoke, but we also had with us some of our younger staff members who have come to the United States as children and were both participating in their own right and watching people who had done it before. We were in a sense keeping on with the work and passing it on.”

Lewis said many of those in Goodwin House spent their formative years protesting. Lewis recalled her own involvement with the Poor People’s March on Washington and traveling, against the wishes of her parents, to anti-war protests in the ’60s.

“Many of the women on the huddle and live here were part of the earlier protests and the Civil Rights movements,” Lewis said. “One of the first things Margaret [Sullivan] did when she opened the vigil was to ask about people who did this work in the ’40s and there were a couple of hands, more from the ’60s.”

Sullivan said that when the director of Goodwin House found out that the residents at the Bailey’s Crossroads facility were planning a vigil, they stepped in to help coordinate the activity with the Alexandria location. Sullivan noted that it was also a chance for employees at the facility who have been unable to attend the marches in D.C. to show their support.

“A member of the staff said afterward how pleased she was to see this at her work,” Sullivan said. “Another member of the staff was very clear before we started said that she, as a young black woman, wanted to go down to the (National) Mall and the White House and march. She and many of the other staff members who had been involved in Goodwin House and Civil Rights things for years had not gone because they didn’t want to bring the virus back, but they were as determined to be a part of this and to keep silence and honor George Floyd and speak out for justice as we were.”

Lewis said that many old residents said similarities to the fights they experienced in their lifetime, from Civil Rights to demonstrations in support of the gay, lesbian and transgender communities.

“What I sensed this time around, with these vigils and protests, there seems to be a real chance for change,” Lewis said. “Of course I thought that in the ’60s too.”

Sullivan joked that many seniors wanted to break out of the facility and march nearby in support, but that concerns about the still lingering COVID-19 — which has been particularly fatal in Alexandria’s senior care facilities — kept them from doing so.

“We’re all old and creaky, a good number of us are in walkers and wheelchairs, but for me and for a lot of the people here, it was a chance to do something — to be involved again,” Lewis said, “and to let people know that this didn’t happen yesterday. Racism isn’t new and it wasn’t new in the ’60s either. It goes way back. It was a very somber experience, but quite touching.”

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