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.


 

Maria Carter Custis Syphax 243x300

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.


Categories: Local History