On May 29, 1970, a young black man was murdered in a convenience store in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria. The young man, Robin Gibson, was just 19. The white store manager who shot Gibson later admitted to planting a knife near his body to make it appear as though Gibson had attacked him. The manager pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served less than 1 year in prison for his crime.
I was six years old when this travesty of justice occurred. I grew up and went to school in Del Ray in the 1970s. I graduated from T.C. Williams High School in 1982. The legacy of racial inequality and tensions within Del Ray and the city at large slowly improved over the years thanks to the concerted efforts of individuals who worked to bring people together. After calling Alexandria my home for almost 30 years, I crossed the river to marry my wife of 25 years, but I retain deep ties to the city (my mother lives in the West End).
I have witnessed the city experience significant change and growth over the years. Open racism is no longer tolerated as it once was, as was evidenced in 2017 by the reaction of residents to the unfortunate display of racist posters in Del Ray neighborhoods. In response, residents posted signs that read: “We are Del Ray. We are all colors. We are not afraid.”
However, one can see the legacy of racism inherent in the current lack of affordable housing in the city. Simply put, skyrocketing rents and home prices have driven many minorities out of their traditional neighborhoods, forcing individuals and families to move out of the city. Not to rely on clichés, but it does seem now that unaffordable housing is the new racism.
I am concerned about this trend. I know many city residents share my concern. I remember a time when despite many challenges, Alexandria was bound together by people, black and white, working hard to overcome the past, trying to build a future of cooperation and unity. The city still has this spirit. But there remains much work to be done in meeting the challenge of providing affordable housing for low income residents in neighborhoods like Del Ray, Arlandria-Chirilagua, and others throughout the city.
For the past year or so I have struggled to write about the tragedy that occurred on that night in 1970. I have experienced many sleepless nights as a poem began to form in my mind. I recently completed the poem “Del Ray,” marking 50 years since the incident occurred. I offer it to your readers in the hope that the life of a young man will be remembered within a hopeful context that offers the possibility for a brighter future for this city.
Alexandria will always be my home. Del Ray will always be my neighborhood. We are all colors. We can build a more equitable future.
One Night in Del Ray
Angry faces, threatening skies
a young man is dead, but no one knows why
May 29, 1970 began as just another day
But as night closes in, things will never be the same
This town is afire with rumors and lies
people are outraged as feelings rise
somebody’s brother, somebody’s son
shot to death for no reason by a white man’s gun
Because he was black he couldn’t leave the store
the folks in this town won’t take this no more
But In the end the city fathers knew best
through police action they put the matter to rest
‘Quiet the negroes’ was the priority of the day
no matter if the guilty simply walked away
Fifty years have passed and some things have changed
the old neighborhoods have been carefully rearranged
Gentrification has achieved its goal in Del Ray
to drive out families who don’t have the money to pay
for signature sandwiches, scones, and mocha lattes
And to us all a terrible legacy has been bequeathed -
the smoldering hatred that lies underneath
Remaking this town won't hide its past
Inequality in housing and income won’t last
Corporations and money erased the railyard tracks
and a national problem is now landing on our backs
Everyone says they want the jobs and the money ...
… until you can’t afford to live here no more, honey
And with big money, there’s no need to be
openly racist anymore
just buy up the old neighborhoods and
show blacks and Latinos the door
Racism hasn’t died - it just takes on different forms
you need to be vigilant to weather these storms
So remember the Titans,
but never forget Robin Gibson
Cries for justice echo
down the corridors of time
To chart a better future
We must listen.