From Segregation to Immigration

Darryl C. Smith, left, and his aunt, Jean Brooks, with Smith's cousin Dwight Brooks, remember the day-laborer site when it was a school for black children.
Darryl C. Smith, left, and his aunt, Jean Brooks, with Smith's cousin Dwight Brooks, remember the day-laborer site when it was a school for black children. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 15, 2006

When Jean Brooks first heard that the town of Herndon was considering using the parking lot behind the town's old police station for a publicly funded day-laborer center, it got her thinking about the history of the site, something she knows a great deal about.

Brooks, 78, grew up in the neighborhood, once a black community called Oak Grove, and still lives within sight of the building, which was constructed in the early 1950s as a segregated elementary school for black students. She was a substitute teacher there.

In the years since the school opened, Herndon has changed dramatically from a rural, nearly all-white community, to a town where 42 percent of the population is nonwhite. According to the 2000 Census, 36.5 percent of the town's population was born outside the United States.

Brooks said she finds it poignant that the parking lot where black students once took recess at their segregated school is now being used as a way to solve a diversity issue that has divided the community and stirred a national debate about day laborers and immigration.

"I think I am closer to that day-laborer site than anyone else. I can see the school from my window," she said. And it bothers her not one bit.

"My opinion of it is, I think the people are trying to make a living. I mean, it would be much worse if they were lined up at the welfare office every morning," she said. "At least they are trying to work."

The impact of the day-laborer center, which opened a month ago as a substitute for an often-unruly ad hoc gathering place at a nearby 7-Eleven, is still difficult to measure.

For organizers of the center, it represents a successful solution to a problem that had plagued the town for more than a decade. For some opponents, it has been a catalyst for community activism. For at least one man, Bob Rudine, who lives on Alabama Street not far from the 7-Eleven that served as the informal site for many years, the center has been the impetus for a possible run for public office. Rudine, an opponent of services for day laborers, is considering running for an at-large seat on the Herndon Town Council.

The approaching town election, to be held in May, will be the first official indicator of how residents feel about the issue. Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly, a proponent of the publicly funded day-laborer center, said recently that he hasn't yet decided whether to run for a second term but that he will make up his mind in a few weeks.

"If the mayor is defeated by someone who runs a campaign based on this issue, that certainly would tell us something," said Joel Mills, a member of the executive council of Project Hope and Harmony, which operates the center. "Of course, only about 2,000 people vote in our town elections, and we have about 23,000 residents, so, even then, it is not representative. . . . But it could give us an indication that people are not happy."

Brooks's nephew, Vice Mayor Darryl C. Smith, 55, who attended the segregated Oak Grove Elementary School and was Herndon's first black police officer, said he will decide in a couple of weeks whether to run again. Smith, who backed the publicly funded center, is finishing his first term and was the top vote-getter in the last council election. He retired as a captain from the police department last year after 31 years of service.

He said he is inclined to run again, even though he believes the issues of immigration and day laborers could be used to bring a negative attitude to the election.

"I think some people are going to try to make it negative," he said. "That won't get us anywhere. Once you start going against any person because of their background or religion, then you are not positive."

Having grown up in segregated Herndon, Smith takes a long view of his home town's problems. He remembers his segregated school and how he and other black children had to sit in the balcony of the movie theater because only white customers were allowed downstairs. As a police officer, he has witnessed up close the community's transformation into what it is today.

"We have neighbors who are going to be here," he said, "And as long as they are going to be here, and we are going to be here, we have to learn to live together. I think most people in Herndon want to have a great quality of life for everyone."

These days the parking lot at the Alabama Street 7-Eleven is quiet and full of cars, not men waiting for work. The line painted on the pavement from the corner of the store to a dumpster, which marked where the day laborers could stand, is still there, but the area is used for customer parking. An assistant manager on duty last week said he was not allowed to comment on the day laborers, and a call to the 7-Eleven corporate office in Dallas was not returned.

Rudine lives down the street from the 7-Eleven. He is 62, retired from the information technology field and has begun gathering the 125 signatures from registered voters that he would need to run for town council.

He said that the day laborers may have been moved from his neighborhood to the old school, but the issues raised by the presence of illegal immigrants in Herndon remain.

"All the factors that were in play before the move are still there," he said. "The only thing I can see is that they have moved it off the corner of Elden and Alabama and down to Rock Hill Road, and we have spent a bunch of tax dollars doing it. Basically it hasn't changed anything as far as the community is concerned."

The Town Council approved the center in August, and Fairfax County appropriated $175,000 to Reston Interfaith Inc. to open it. Project Hope and Harmony, which is affiliated with Reston Interfaith, runs the job site.

Rudine is a member of Help Save Herndon, which opposes the center, and a supporter of the Herndon chapter of the Minuteman Project, which has been photographing employers who come to the center to hire workers.

He said people he has met while gathering signatures have told him that they are going to move or have begun to think about moving out of town because of what they see as Herndon's image.

"It is acquiring a reputation as a sanctuary," he said, "a place that is actually sheltering illegal aliens."

He said when he asks voters what the biggest issue facing the community is, day laborers and illegal immigration are No. 1. He said he will continue to gather signatures and decide in the next few weeks whether to run for office.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company