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A Correction and a Plea for More Harry Burkes
From The Alexandria Times, June 1, 2023
Reader responses are part of the fun of writing this column.
Communications from readers can be delightfully diverse. A typical example of a comment from a reader would be, “Your last column confirms that you are clearly [a craven apologist for] [a chronically clueless critic of] the [wonderful] [terrible] people managing the [city government] [Alexandria City Public Schools]. I am writing to set you straight so you will not bungle this issue in the future.”
Last week, a story I wrote ran in the Times on what it was like to use, and enjoy, the now-gone Johnson Memorial Pool, the swimming pool opened in Alexandria in 1953 for use by African Americans. The story tried to make the point that the pool, though an artifact of segregation, was also a treasured place of enjoyment for many people.
The story asserted that ACPS’ Harry Burke Award for excellence in special education was named after Harry Burke, a community activist and the widely-esteemed aquatics director of the Johnson Memorial Pool, a fact I had confirmed in an interview with a knowledgeable source.
Late last week a reader thoughtfully wrote me as follows:
The Harry Burke award is named for former ACPS Director of [Special Education.] Harry Burke, not for the Harry Burke in this piece. The ACPS Harry served from the late 1970s until the early 1990s. I had the privilege of knowing both Harrys—working with one and getting to know the other through [a colleague at work.]
This reader, and ACPS documents, provide information that contradicts my source and appears accurate. Accordingly, a correction is in order and this is it.
Reporters and editors sometimes shy away from corrections, or issue them reluctantly or in terse language buried in the back pages. I have a different view which I tried to pass on to students in my journalism classes during my time teaching at what was then T.C. Williams High School.
Corrections are a part of journalism. A correction affirms that the journalist’s duty to seek to provide the best available version of the truth does not end with the publication of a story. Moreover, corrections provide a psychological or moral benefit: a correction acknowledges the inevitability and permanence of human imperfection.
Alexandria is fortunate to have had both Harry Burkes as long-time community contributors. Their work in the community lives on in the memories of many and in continuing recognitions and memorials such as ACPS’ Harry Burke award or Alexandria’s African American Hall of Fame.
There has been considerable controversy over the city’s process, or the pace of the process, for renaming streets named after prominent Confederate figures. That process will eventually work itself out. Even so, we should not overlook something that Alexandria does right: the naming of public facilities or assets after citizens who have made substantial contributions to the common good.
Alexandria has important public amenities named after citizens who did significant work on important public concerns very different from those addressed by the Harry Burkes. Two examples of this are the Richard B. Leibach Bridge and Ben Brenman Park, both in the West End. Richard Leibach and Ben Brenman were stalwart and sustained contributors to land use planning efforts aimed at making Alexandria a better place to live.
The city’s website says, “Colonel Brenman contributed his time and talent as an Alexandria community activist for over 30 years. His involvement in scores of projects, including acquisition of this parkland, has enriched the quality of life for citizens of Alexandria.” The same is true of the Harry Burkes—they enriched our quality of life and deserve to be remembered.
Of course, the naming of public assets after former elected officials also has its place. We end where we started, by soliciting reader reactions. How should Alexandria remember or memorialize the substantial contributions to the common good made by former Mayor Kerry J. Donley?
Your suggestions are appreciated.
The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006, and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and subscriptions to his newsletter are available free at https://aboutalexandria.substack.com.
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