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.

James Parks. Photo courtesy of National Park Service

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.


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Maria Carter Custis Syphax

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.


Freedman’s Village. Photo courtesy of Oshkosh Public Museum

Freedman’s Village

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.


Halls Hill Fire

Halls Hill Volunteer Fire Department “Smoke Eaters,” likely in the 1930s, on the grounds of John M. Langston Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Arlington Public Library, Center for Local History

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.


Charles Drew (top left) with his family. Photo courtesy of the Drew family.

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.


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McLean’s historic Pleasant Grove Church. Photo by Michael Ventura.

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.

Stratford Building

Stratford Junior High School in 1965. Photo courtesy of the Arlington Public Library, Center for Local History

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.


Alice West Fleet. Photo courtesy of Ken Brotherton

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.


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The sit-in at the Cherrydale Drug Fair, 1960. Photo courtesy of CC Public Library, Star Collection, ©Washington Post

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.



Illustration by Alice Kresse

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.

Related Stories:

Race and Rebuilding: Arlington is proudly progressive, yet its schools, neighborhoods and police records tell a different story about race. Where do we go from here?

Racism Is More Than the Horrors That Make News

The Reason I March

Categories: Local History