Eliza Washington Hawkins was ahead of her time. She was a civil rights worker before most people had ever heard of a civil rights movement. She was a community activist in Northern Virginia before community activism became a suburban way of life. In fact, she was a community activist in Northern Virginia before Northern Virginia became a suburb.
Sixty-five years ago, when she settled in Vienna, the area was very much country. Suburbia was decades into the future. Nearby was the Vienna Colored Elementary School, where Hawkins would send her children, along with the children of African American parents in the surrounding communities of Oakton and what now is Reston.
It wasn't long before she began agitating for improvements, hectoring and badgering public officers to fix this or upgrade that. In effect, the Vienna Colored Elementary School was the community center for the black families in the region. It was a social gathering place and a neighborhood theater. "Everything that brought the community together went on in that school," recalled Deloris Evans, Hawkins's eldest daughter.
Hawkins thought the school auditorium should have curtains. She wrote letters to the people who could do something about it. The auditorium got curtains. She thought too many black children had to walk too far to school. She wrote letters about that. The children got bus rides. After a while, people began to recognize her name, and they paid attention when Hawkins wrote or telephoned.
On Jan. 17 at age 96, Hawkins died of heart disease and complications related to Parkinson's disease at Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington. She never held high public office, but she agitated for social reforms for seven decades, and in her later years she was honored by the Fairfax County government and the NAACP as a Northern Virginia civic "Trailblazer."
Hawkins, a native of Fort Washington, Pa., came to Northern Virginia in 1930 after her marriage to John Hawkins Sr., a chauffeur for Lucy Madeira Wing, the founder and longtime headmistress of the Madeira School. He died in 1967. Until 1938, when they moved to Vienna, they lived in the Spring Hill area of McLean.
They had five children, one of whom, Nathan, had Down syndrome. There was no place for Nathan in the Fairfax public school system. "Back then, if you had a handicapped child, you just took care of him yourself," Evans recalled.
With the other children, Hawkins was a demanding mother with high expectations. Courtesy was a must. Adults had to be addressed as "Mr.," "Miss" or "Mrs." Household chores had to be done right. Sloppiness was not tolerated. If there was a spot of dirt in the corner of a recently scrubbed floor, the whole floor had to be scrubbed again. Homework assignments for school had to be flawless: One mistake and the whole assignment had to be redone. Clothing had to be clean and neat. Hair combed properly. When adults were conversing, children did not interrupt. Prayers were mandatory, as was regular attendance at church.
Until Nathan Hawkins died in 1978, he was cared for by his mother and other family members. While his siblings were in school, he often accompanied his mother on her civic works around the county. In the 1940s, this included a campaign to rename the Vienna Colored Elementary School after its longtime principal, Louise Archer, who had died. Archer, a resident of Washington, had taken a special interest in the children at her school, and she often invited them to spend a weekend or a holiday at her home in the city. Hawkins collected signatures on petitions and persuaded school officials to name the school after its former principal.
At the Hawkins household on Orchard Street in Vienna in those years, there were Red Cross first aid training programs. At the time, many blacks felt unwelcome at Northern Virginia hospitals. Hawkins arranged with the Red Cross for instructional materials to teach first aid at her house. She helped organize and support one of the first black Girl Scout troops in Northern Virginia.
With her husband, she organized twice-monthly hayrides for children. They would gather at the Hawkins house to wait for the hay wagon, which John Hawkins drove. Usually, there were more children than there was room on the hay wagon, so there had to be two and sometimes three trips.
For special occasions, such as the Fourth of July, the rides included trips to Washington and picnics at Hains Point.
Hawkins raised money for the Freedom Fund of the Fairfax NAACP, and for years she organized and led voter registration drives, long before civil rights groups were conducting get-out-the-vote campaigns. She was proud of getting to the polls every Election Day. Not until November, less than three months before she died, did she fail to vote.