Washington Informer founder and Publisher Calvin W. Rolark and his wife, prominent attorney and District politician Wilhelmina J. Rolark, bought their first home as a married couple on Foxhall Place SE. There, the Rolarks lived in the semi-detached two-bedroom house for more than 30 years, building their legacy as community crusaders in Southeast.
Now, the D.C. Council seeks to rename the street in their honor.
A bill introduced by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson proposes to officially change the street name of their former residence on the 500 block of Foxhall Place SE to Rolark Place SE, and ceremonially to Calvin and Wilhelmina Rolark Way SE.
“[The Rolarks] were one of the most recognizable power couples in the city, and they used that power to challenge the establishment in pursuit of better jobs and services for Black and poor residents,” said Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8), who co-sponsored the bill. “Working as a team, they tackled the problems of poverty, crime and a lack of privilege in Southeast quadrant of the city.”
Calvin, a civic activist and civil rights solider, stood as a fixture in the Ward 8 community as publisher of The Washington Informer newspaper, which sought to print positive news stories about the city’s African-American community, and founder of the United Black Fund, a charitable organization that serves the Black and Latino communities in the District.
He pressured the police department and local government to hire more residents of color and established the annual Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Southeast.
Wilhelmina, a civil rights activist, helped the District gain the right to self-govern from Congress and served on the D.C. Council for 16 years as the Ward 8 representative, where she is credited with introducing more job training, improved bus routes and recreation in public housing.
She also founded the National Association of Black Women Attorneys to address gender bias in the law profession and worked to rename two main streets in Ward 8 after civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Calvin and Wilhelmina Rolark died in 1994 and 2006, respectively.
Despite their contributions, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and Foxhall Place resident Karlene K. Armstead said many of the block’s senior residents are opposed to the name change, wary of the possible inconveniences of changing the street name such as having to update driver’s and business licenses.
“I understand the legacy,” Armstead said. “I did a survey within the community and they are in opposition [to] this bill. They do not want the name change.”
She said a petition had circulated against the name change and suggested a ceremonial appreciation of the Rolark legacy rather than an official one.
Current Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes said the family name has as much meaning to the city “as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or any other names we can come up with that honor citizens who actually contributed to this community, gave their lives to this community.”
“Everything the Rolarks did, they included their Foxhall neighbors,” she said of her father and stepmother. “Though many of the current residents may not have gotten a chance to know them, the street designation will help to keep their name and legacy alive.”