10 Black History Icons, Landmarks and Milestones
These pivotal figures, places and events shaped the Arlington we know today.
Once a land of plantations powered by the slave trade, Arlington would be transformed by trailblazers who left their mark during the Civil War, the Jim Crow era and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Get to know their stories.
Parks, The Gravedigger
James Parks was born into slavery in 1843 and became a field worker on the Custis-Lee plantation, a sprawling property anchored by Arlington House (the mansion depicted in Arlington County’s official logo and seal, which is now being redesigned). Parks was freed in 1862 and became the first gravedigger at Arlington National Cemetery, originally conceived as a final resting place for fallen Union soldiers. He was buried there in 1928, with full military honors. Read more about James Parks here.
The Syphax Family
The legacy of one of Arlington’s oldest families dates back centuries. Born a slave at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Charles Syphax later became a head of household at the Custis-Lee estate (aka Arlington House), where he met his bride, Maria. Their descendants included Evelyn Reid Syphax, who became chair of the Arlington School Board in the 1980s and founded the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington in 1994. Learn more about the Syphax family here.
During the Civil War, Freedman’s Village, a settlement for former enslaved people, was established on the grounds of the former estate home of Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee. The village stood from 1863 until 1900. It contained houses, apprenticeship programs, parks and a school. The abolitionist Sojourner Truth reportedly spent a year there. Read our story about Freedman’s Village.
Arlington’s Segregation Wall
In the 1930s, a literal segregation wall was built as a barrier separating the historically Black neighborhood of Hall’s Hill from the white neighborhood of Woodlawn (now Waycroft-Woodlawn). During the Jim Crow era, Hall’s Hill was a self-sufficient enclave with its own restaurants, barber shops, doctors, lawyers and fire station. Parts of the wall still remain standing today. (The cover of Arlington Magazine’s November/December 2020 Race & Rebuilding issue was shot in front of what remains of the wall.) Discover more about the wall and its history here.
Medical Pioneer Charles Drew
Charles Drew, an African-American doctor, pioneering medical researcher and “father of the blood bank,” grew up on First Street South in Arlington’s Butler-Holmes neighborhood (now Penrose). He became medical director of the American Red Cross in 1941. Read more about Drew’s legacy in Arlington.
A Sanctuary During the Jim Crow Era
For more than seven decades, McLean’s Pleasant Grove Church was a pillar of African-American life. It was established in 1895 by the descendants of former enslaved people in an area known as Odrick’s Corner. Learn more about the history of the church and its congregation here.
The Desegregation of Stratford Junior High
In February 1959, Ronald Deskins, Gloria Thompson, Lance Newman and Michael Jones became the first Black students to attend Stratford Junior High School in Arlington. The desegregation of Stratford (a building that would later house H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program) wasn’t a finish line for civil rights, but it was an important milestone. It was one of the first racially integrated schools in Virginia. Read our story, “Crossing the Divide,” here.
Educator Alice West Fleet
The namesake of Arlington’s Alice West Fleet Elementary School was one of the first Black women to receive a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. When Arlington schools desegregated in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, she became the first Black educator in the county to teach at a previously all-white school. Her motto: “Let nothing and no one stop you.” Learn more about Fleet here.
A Sit-In In Arlington
On June 9, 1960, six college students, Black and white, staged a peaceful protest at the Cherrydale Drug Fair lunch counter in Arlington. The protesters were refused service because of the racial mix of their group, and were threatened by onlookers, including American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell. Learn more about this important event in local history.
Taking Preschool to the Supreme Court
Long before NFL defensive end Michael McCrary made his first tackle, he was at the center of a civil rights case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The young boy had been denied admission to a private nursery school in Arlington based on his race. That’s when his parents joined a class action lawsuit. Learn more about the details of this landmark case.
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