Charles Drew Lived Here

The "father of the blood bank" grew up in Arlington. And his legacy is lasting.

Charles Drew (top left) with his parents, Richard and Nora Drew; his brother Joe; and his sisters, Eva and Nora (partially obscured). Courtesy of the Drew Family

Located just a block off Arlington Boulevard, the clapboard house on First Street South is modest and unassuming, but the street name is fitting. Once the childhood home of pioneering blood researcher Charles Drew, the house has borne witness to many firsts.

Charles Richard Drew was born in the District of Columbia in 1904, where he went on to attend Dunbar High School. In 1920, tragedy struck his middle-class African-American family when Drew’s sister Elsie died during a city-wide influenza epidemic. Believing it was the city’s toxic air that had killed her, Drew’s parents, Richard and Nora, moved their family to the country. In 1920, that was Arlington.

Though the county’s population was then a mere 16,000 (compared with more than 220,000 today), the neighborhood the Drews chose—the Butler-Holmes subdivision—already had a storied history. It had been founded around 1879 when community leaders William H. Butler and Henry Louis Holmes purchased 13 acres of land near Freedman’s Village, a settlement for emancipated slaves on what is now a portion of Arlington National Cemetery. After subdividing the parcel, with each taking a lot for his own family, Butler and Holmes sold their remaining lots to other black families who were looking to put down roots in Arlington.

The Drew house in 1920. Courtesy of the Drew Family

By the time the Drews purchased their two-story house with a cash deposit of $500 and a promise to pay off the remaining $1,600, mostly in $25 monthly installments, the Butler-Holmes subdivision was a well-established African-American enclave in a segregated state. (Today it’s part of Arlington’s diverse Penrose neighborhood.) This is where Charles Drew lived while finishing high school in the District, and the place he  came home to visit in the years that followed as he earned degrees from Amherst College (which he attended on an athletic scholarship), McGill University and Columbia University. He went on to serve as a faculty member at Howard University School of Medicine, and as a surgeon at the affiliated Freedmen’s Hospital in D.C.

Drew family members with a friend in the vegetable garden on their property in the 1920s. Courtesy of the Drew Family

“[He] was very close to his mother, as his letters from college indicated,” says Drew’s daughter, Charlene Drew Jarvis, a neuroscientist, educator and former D.C. Councilmember. “When his father died around 1936, he became…the head of the family and supported his mother and siblings in many ways.”

Drew’s accomplishments were legion. He was the first African American to serve as an examiner for the American Board of Surgery and the first to earn a medical doctorate from Columbia. The research and dissertation that earned him that degree (titled “Banked Blood”) led to a revolution in how blood is collected, stored and transported for medical use.

Categories: Local History