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?
Elizabeth Final

Social justice advocate Elizabeth Jones Valderrama amid the ships of “Passage.” The art installation is a partnership between Arlington Arts Center and the Community Foundation of Northern Virginia and was funded by the foundation’s Ross-Roberts Fund for the Arts. Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

The Arlington Arts Center lawn is currently occupied by 26 sculptural likenesses of the slave ships that carried the first Black people in bondage to Virginia’s shores in 1619. The installation, “Passage,” by artist Lynda Andrews-Barry, is perhaps a fitting reminder that Arlington, for all of its progressive ideals, is still grappling with some hard truths about its racial past—one that for centuries has afforded advantages to some and not others.

One hundred years after the county adopted as its moniker the name of a former slave plantation, its geographic and socioeconomic landscapes remain somewhat segregated. Arlington’s Black residents, on the whole, have less generational wealth than their White neighbors. Public schools are still struggling to close the opportunity gap in a system that identifies 46% of White students as gifted by the time they reach middle school, compared with only 21% of Black students.

Arlington County’s official logo and seal are stylized renditions of Arlington House, the plantation home built by George Washington Parke Custis in the early 1800s, where more than 60 enslaved people kept house and harvested corn and wheat for the wealthy step-grandson of our nation’s first president. Later, the estate would become the home of Mary Anna Custis Lee and her husband, Robert E. Lee, who went on to lead the Confederate army.

As the Civil War neared its end, the federal government claimed the grounds of the Custis-Lee estate as a burial site for Union dead (now Arlington National Cemetery) and established Freedman’s Village, a settlement for formerly enslaved people that quickly fell victim to overcrowding. The abolitionist Sojourner Truth reportedly spent a year there.

By 1900, Freedman’s Village had closed, and many of its former inhabitants spilled into the surrounding areas to form Arlington’s historically Black neighborhoods. They pieced together parcels around Green Valley, a farmstead established by free Blacks prior to the Civil War, and gave rise to new neighborhoods such as Penrose and Arlington View.

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