Civil Rights Icon from Arlington

By Elaine Simmons

It took a visit to the Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, NC to learn about a hometown hero. Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, a civil rights activist and a Freedom Rider, attended Nottingham Elementary and spent much of her adult life in the Barcraft neighborhood. 

Joan Trumpauer’s mother was a segregationist from Georgia who sent Joan to Duke University, which, in 1960, was segregated and seeped in southern culture. But early on Joan rebelled against white supremacy. She joined the lunch counter sit-ins in 1961 (first started in 1960 in the Greensboro Woolworth by four Black men from North Carolina A&T University) and then dropped out of Duke after being pressured to stop her activism. She was the first white woman to enroll at Tougaloo College, a historically black college in Mississippi, graduating in 1964. 

Joan returned to this area and worked with activists like Stokely Carmichael on the Freedom Rides, in which Black and white activists traveled together to challenge the segregated buses and bus stations of the South. She also participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. 

To end segregation in Arlington, Joan joined Howard University students in trying to integrate the lunch counter of the Drug Fair drugstore in Cherrydale, at Peoples Drug at the corner of Lee Highway and Old Dominion Drive, and at a Woolworth’s in Shirlington. 

Joan and her fellow protestors faced violent white mobs and incarceration for their peaceful efforts to end systemic racism. An iconic photograph shows enraged whites reacting to Joan and other protesters (including one of Joan’s professors from Tougaloo) while the protestors sat calmly at a lunch counter. According to one account, the protesters were “doused in food, cut with broken glass, hit with brass knuckles, and burned with cigarettes. The police stood by while men were kicked and punched, and women were yanked from the counter by their hair.” 

In connection with the Freedom Riders, Joan and others were arrested and incarcerated for two months in cells previously occupied by Death Row inmates at the notorious Parchman Farm at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. In Arlington, she and fellow protestors were shot at by angry mobs and were counterpicketed by local Nazis wearing swastikas. She and her fellow protestors were hunted by the Ku Klux Klan and at one point, Joan was deemed mentally ill for trying to eliminate white supremacy. Joan eventually worked and raised five sons on Taylor Street in the Barcroft area. She has been the subject of many documentaries and articles, but perhaps this local hero deserves more recognition from the governments of Arlington County and the Commonwealth.