African Americans have played a foundational role in the creation, growth, and development of Arlington, Virginia. Although an underrepresented story of the African American experience, this rich history begins with the seminal role of black enslaved people in the construction of national landmarks such as Arlington House and the Arlington National Cemetery, leading to the establishment of Arlington’s free black community with Freedmans Village.

This history continues into the 20th century with African Americans organizing neighborhoods and making gains in the community of Arlington while taking an active role in the pursuit of social justice during the Civil Rights Movement. From the era of slavery to the present day, this exhibit explores the ways that African Americans have influenced, shaped, and enriched the culture and community of Arlington, Virginia

This virtual exhibit highlights some of the artifacts the Arlington Historical Museum currently has on display. The COVID-19 pandemic has kept the museum doors closed to the public but we wanted to show them to you anyway, as part of our commemoration of Black History month.

These artifacts are by no means the full story of the history of African-Americans in Arlington but the Arlington Historical Society is honored to have received many of these artifacts as permanent or temporary donations and each represents some highlights of the African-American experience in our community.

“From the slaves who built Arlington House one brick at a time to the government, civic, and business leaders who are building the framework for our future, the history of African-Americans in Arlington – and their important contributions to our community and society – is a 200-year old work in progress.”

Dr. Talmadge T. Williams (1934-2014)
Past Chairman of the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington
Past President of Arlington Branch of the NAACP

Regimental Colors, 2nd Regiment of the United States Colored Troops

During the Civil War, Virginia contributed over 5,000 men to the United Stated Colored Troops (USCT). Among those mustered into service were many African American troops who hailed from parts of Virginia as well as Maryland, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. Most Virginia based USCT units consisted of free blacks, “contraband” or those freed by Union troops, and escaped African Americans from the Union-controlled Tidewater area and Northern Virginia. Two units of the USCT were organized here in Arlington: the 2nd and the 23rd Regiments of the USCT.

The 2nd Regiment, United States Colored Infantry was organized at Arlington from June 20 to November 11, 1863. It was ordered to the Department of the Gulf in December 1863.

  • February 1864: Attached to District of Key West, Florida
  • May 1864: Attacked Confederate position at Tampa
  • July 1864: Destroyed Confederate positions along Florida coast
  • January 1865: Occupied and defended Fort Myers
  • February-March 1865: Served aboard steamships conducting operations along the Florida coast
  • Mustered out after the Civil War on January 5, 1866.

23rd Regiment of the United Stated Colored Troops, c. 1863

Courtesy, Library of Congress

The 23rd Regiment of the USCT was organized at Camp Casey from November 23, 1863 to June 30, 1864. According to Franco Brown of the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington, Camp Casey in Arlington was likely between Glebe Road, Walter Reed Drive, Columbia Pike, and Arlington Boulevard. The camp was the training ground for black troops which would have trained separately from white troops. The 23rd took part in the following battles:

  • April 1864: Manassas Junction
  • May 1864: Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna River, and Cold Harbor, James River, Chancellorsville,
  • June1864: Petersburg,
  • July 1864: Battle of the Crater
  • October 1864: Battle of Burgess’ Mill
  • April 1865: Occupies Richmond
  • Mustered out after the war on November 30, 1865.

Freedmans Village

During the Civil War, freed, escaped, and former enslaved people fled north to Union Camps in search of freedom, protection, and refuge. As these camps often became overcrowded, the federal government dedicated funds, resources, and access to a site in Arlington Heights that would serve as a planned community for the influx of African American refugees. This planned community was envisioned to provide freed and formerly enslaved people with not only suitable housing, but also with access to education, labor training, and other foundational opportunities found in any free community.

Known as Freedmans Village, the community was formally dedicated on December 4, 1863 and was located on a portion of the Union occupied Custis-Lee Plantation which later became Arlington National Cemetery. The Freedmans Village quickly became the model for other planned free-to-slave communities. It prospered and functioned with relative autonomy by the dedication and diligence of its residents. In the Freedmans Village, male residents worked for pay in support of the defense of the city, while the women sewed uniforms and worked the village gardens and fields. Eventually, the village consisted of more than 50 two story duplex houses, a school, two churches, a meeting hall, and a hospital and accompanying home for the aged and infirmed.

Though the village was intended to be temporary, its population exceeded 1,000 and the residents lived in the community until the late 1890s. Formally designated as a military reservation in 1883, residents faced government pressure to leave and by 1898, the last of the Freedmans Village residents vacated their homes. Many of the village resident continued to live in the Arlington region, developed their own communities in areas such as Arlington View, Queen City (East Arlington), and Green Valley (formerly known as Nauck), among others.

Harper’s Weekly Image of Freedmans Village, published May 7, 1864

This panoramic view of Freedmans Village is the printed engraving published in the May 7, 1864 edition of Harper’s Weekly. This engraving is regarded as an authoritative image of Freedman’s Village after it was established in May of the previous year. It was a haven for formerly enslaved people who had escaped the confederate states during the Civil War. This was one of the first views much of the country had of a community of freed slaves living unenslaved and productive lives.

Harper’s Weekly was the most widely read journal in the United States during the Civil War. Some of the most important articles and illustrations of the Civil War were in Harper’s reporting on the war.

This image now serves as part of the logo for the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington. The site of Freedman’s Village is now part of Arlington National Cemetery. It is commemorated by historical markers nearby in a small park at Southgate Road and South Oak Street.

Regulations, Freedmans Village, Greene Heights, Arlington, VA, 1863

This broadside, issued soon after Freedmans Village was established, had the regulations for the government of the Freedmans Village at Greene Heights, on the grounds of the Arlington estate. In 1863, Lieutenant Colonel Elias M. Greene, Chief Quartermaster of the military department of Washington, D.C., set up the community for some of the many freed people who escaped slavery during the Civil War. A broadside was a sizeable piece of paper printed that was posted for all to see, similar to today’s poster.

Click here to read a transcript of the regulations for Freedmans Village.

Anyone arriving at the village was given “comfortable clothing, rations, and the best quarters which can be assigned them.” Men and women were assigned to “duty” in the workshops and “able-bodied field hands” were sent to nearby government farms. Children attended school in the Village. The sick were cared for in an on-site hospital and those who were too old to work were given housing and care.

Here is an overlay showing where Freedmans Village was located on today’s roads in the Arlington National Cemetery.

Courtesy, Arlington County

James Parks (1843-1929)

Courtesy, National Park Service

James Parks was born enslaved in 1843 at the Arlington estate. Once freed, he continued to work on the grounds, digging the first graves for fallen soldiers during the Civil War.

Parks provided critical information to our understanding of how the estate functioned and how the enslaved lived. He gave specific locations for the wells, springs, slave quarters, the slave cemetery, dance pavilion, old roads, icehouse, blacksmith shop, and kitchens. He left behind one of the few published accounts from an enslaved person and it became the basis on which Arlington House was restored. His testimony provides a more complete record of the people who inhabited the plantation: the enslaved people and the Custis-Lee family.

When Jim Parks died in August of 1929, he received special permission from the US Secretary of War to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. He is the only person buried in Arlington Cemetery who was born on the old plantation.

High View Park (Hall’s Hill) Segregation Wall, c. 1930

This is a section of the Segregation Wall in the High View Park neighborhood (formerly known as Hall’s Hill). In the 1930s Arlington County built this wall to separate the white Woodlawn Village subdivision from Hall’s Hill which was populated by African-Americans. In this section, the wall facing the African-American community was a dull cement block. The part of the wall facing the white community was red brick. The wall was often at least six inches thick. It was of various heights, all of which were at least six feet and had an uneven and, in some places, a jagged top to prevent climbing over it. The only through street in Hall’s Hill was North Edison Street making it time consuming for residents to make their way out of the neighborhood from their homes near the wall. Not until 1966 did the county remove some of the wall to allow full access to and from Hall’s Hill.

A heavy rainstorm in 2019 washed away parts of the remaining wall in Laura Rogers back yard and she donated parts of the wall to the Arlington Historical Society, the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington, and to the John M. Langston Citizens’ Association of High View Park.

Memory Bricks

Local artist and native of High View Park, Winnie Owens-Hart, commemorated her neighborhood with brickwork of a different kind. This artwork reflects the history and the values of this predominantly African-American community. The artwork grew out of a summer employment program for creative youth who created decorative bricks and organized community events where residents could customize their own bricks. These brocks line the oval walkway in the park located at North Dinwiddie Street and North Cameron Street. They were installed in 2004.

A view of the High View Park walkway and Memory Bricks, image courtesy Winnie Owens-Hart and Arlington County.

Eyeglasses and Case Belonging to Dr. Charles R. Drew

Dr. Charles R. Drew was an American physician, surgeon, and medical researcher in the field of blood transfusions. He developed new techniques for blood storage and applied his expertise to develop large-scale blood banks early in World War II. His work enabled medics to save thousands of lives on the battlefront. As the most prominent African-American in the field, Dr. Drew protested against the practice of racial segregation in the donation of blood because the racist practice of separating storing blood by race had no scientific basis.

Dr. Drew was born in Washington, D.C. in 1904 and graduated from Dunbar High School. He became a surgeon and scientist, and conducted research in blood and transfusions, blood chemistry, and the storage of blood. His ground-breaking findings, procedures, and standards for collecting, processing, and storing blood led to his appointment in 1940 as the head of the Blood for Britain Project to transport desperately needed blood and plasma from the US to Great Britain in World War II.

Dr. Drew was appointed Director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank in February 1941. Among his innovations was the “bloodmobile” with mobile blood donation trucks with refrigerators. The work forged his reputation as a pioneer and earned him the title “Father of the Blood Bank.” At the time, African American blood was separated in supply networks however, Dr. Drew resigned from his post in protest after the armed forces ruled that African American blood would be stored separately from that of whites. Dr. Drew continued his research and taught at the Freedman’s Hospital at Howard University as a surgeon and professor of medicine. He received multiple awards and acknowledgements for his contributions to medicine.

Dr. Charles Drew married Minnie Robbins and they and their three daughters and one son lived at 2505 1st Street, South, in Arlington. He died in 1950 in a car accident on the way back from a medical conference in Alabama. His house in Arlington is a National Historic Landmark and many parks and public buildings have been named for him in the US and abroad, including in Arlington, the Charles R. Drew Elementary School, the Charles R. Drew Community Center, and Drew Park.

These glasses were donated to AHS by Evelyn Syphax Reid in 1979.

Dr. Charles R. Drew

Virginia State Pupil Placement Form, 1958

Dorothy Hamm completed this Pupil Placement Form in 1958 for her elder son, Edward Leslie Hamm, Jr. She completed it under protest.

Completing this form was required to enroll any student in school in the state and it was used to screen out African-American students from white schools. This form was deemed illegal by the Federal Court of Appeals. Despite the court ruling, the state continued to use the Pupil Placement Form as an obstacle to desegregation. This form was completed by Dorothy Hamm, under protest, in an effort to enroll her elder son, Edward Leslie Hamm, Jr in Stratford Junior High School for the 1958-1959 school year. 

The US Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that separate schools for white and for African-American children was inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional and illegal. This form represents years of court cases, degrading processes, and institutional racism the African-American community had to endure to get their kids into better schools

In August 1958, the Virginia Pupil Placement Board mailed a notice to all the African-American families trying to enroll their children in white schools that they would have to meet with the Pupil Placement Board. The board would examine their child for placement in a white school. Families were forbidden from having a lawyer present. As a result, no family kept their appointment in protest. 

The Pupil Placement Board eventually reached agreement with the families that they could have legal advisors present at the appointments and the appointments began. Birchell S. Hilton, Executive Secretary of the Pupil Placement Board for the county, asked each family questions such as: “Is this application being made solely to enforce the so-called constitutional right?” In addition, the children’s mental health, IQ, demeanor, and grades were assessed to determine if the child could enroll in a white school. 

The Pupil Placement Board rejected all 28 Arlington African American students seeking to transfer to white schools. In September, the families returned to court and it was revealed that their children were disqualified for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Attendance area: students did not live closer to a white school than any other, 11 were disqualified for this reason
  2. Overcrowding at Washington-Lee High School: 5 students were disqualified
  3. Inadequate academic achievement: 22 students were disqualified, however, the IQs and grades for several African-Americans were above the white norm and some, such as E. Leslie Hamm, Jr., were honor students.
  4. Undefined psychological problems: 7 students were disqualified
  5. Undefined adaptability: 5 students were disqualified
Washington Post photo taken as the Hamm family left the Pupil Placement examination in 1958. (left to right: E. Leslie Hamm, Jr., Dorothy Hamm, E. Leslie Hamm, Sr.) This Washington Post-Times photo was published on August 19, 1958. The article is on loan to AHS from Carmela Hamm

The federal judge ruled that the pupil placement process was not discriminatory and he agreed that the students should not be transferred to white schools. However, the judge also ruled that the criteria for the four students Ronald Deskins, Michael Jones, Lance Newman, and Gloria Thompson was invalid, and he ordered the four to transfer to Stratford Junior High School starting in 1959.

The Hamm pupil placement form is on loan to AHS from Carmela Hamm, the daughter of Dorothy and E. Leslie Hamm, Sr.

The four approved students who were allowed to enroll at Stratford Junior High School starting on February 2, 1959 were the first children of color to enroll in white schools in Virginia. It was a peaceful event–unlike others around the country–but riot-ready police presence was heavy nevertheless.

This photograph was published in The Washington Post on February 3, 1959 and is on loan from Carmela Hamm.

The first four African-American children who were the first enroll in a white school in Virginia. This photo was taken in a lighter moment after the first day of school. (Left to right: Ronald Deskins, Gloria Thompson, Lance Newman, and Michael Jones)

Fireman Helmet and Boots Belonging to William “Bill” Warrington

William “Bill” Warrington, Photo courtesy, Carmela Hamm

These helmet and boots belonged to African-American Fireman, William “Bill” Warrington. Hired in 1952, he was one of the original paid firefighters of Hall’s Hill’s Fire Department.

In 1918, a group of African-Americans from the Hall’s Hill neighborhood got together to volunteer as firefighters. They became the Hall’s Hill Volunteer Fire Department (HHVFD). A second African-American volunteer unit was formed in 1925 in the East Arlington (Queen City) neighborhood but it was disbanded when residents were removed in preparation for the construction of the Pentagon.

Arlington County hired its first paid white firefighters in 1940 and it began paying its first African-American firefighters 12 years later and Bill Warrington was one of them. Black firefighters faced racism even as they arrived to help white families whose homes were engulfed. According to the an oral history featured on the Arlington Fire Journal and Metro DC Fire History blog, they faced slurs from the people they were trying to aid, including a man whose home was on fire.

When Station No. 8 was racially integrated in the early 1960s, Alfred Clark, the county’s first African American fire captain, faced a mutiny by some of the white firefighters who refused to serve under a black station captain. Racist slurs were written in the station house. A battalion chief came and ordered the words removed told the white firefighters that they would serve and would respect Captain Clark.

AHS is grateful to Shari Warrington Riddick, daughter of Fireman Bill Warrington, for the artifacts and photographs that she has generously shared with us.

Sit-In Protests

Lunch counter sit-in protests occurred in Arlington to protest segregation. Several occurred on June 9, 1960.

Black and white protesters protested segregation of services at the People’s Drug Store in North Arlington. The lunch counter closed while the protesters were present, but later relented.

Shown here closest to the photographer was Gwendolyn Greene (later Britt) sitting patiently at the People’s Drug counter on the 4700 block of Lee Highway in Arlington, Virginia during a sit-in protest on June 9. The workers behind the counter served white customers then walked out when demonstrators sat down, only returning when the management closed the counter (note sign).

A some protests, American Nazi Party leader, George Rockwell, wo lived in Arlington, came to taunt the protesters. His followers and other white residents would dump salt, pepper, or condiments on the protesters. Protesters often went through training designed to help them keep calm and respectful, despite the efforts to disgrace and harass them.

They were taunted by members of the Nazi party (note swastikas on their shirts) and by some young white toughs.

The protestors were part of the Non-Violent Action Group (NAG), an integrated group mainly composed of students that was led by Howard University divinity student Laurence Henry. The sit-in demonstrations at People’s Drug Store, Drug Fair, Landsburgh’s Woolworths and the Howard Johnson’s in Arlington were successful within a matter of weeks and most restaurants and lunch counters in the city desegregated in 1960.

The group moved on to Maryland the same year where they staged ultimately successful demonstrations to desegregate Glen Echo Amusement Park, the Hi-Boy restaurant in Rockville and the Hiser Theater in Bethesda.

Greene was part of a group with four others arrested on the carousel at Glen Echo in a case that ultimately went to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled in the protestors’ favor and overturned the arrests because the park had used deputy sheriffs to enforce its Jim Crow segregation policies. Greene went on to become a state senator in Maryland, Gwendolyn (Greene) Britt.

These may have been among the most peaceful of the sit-ins that occurred throughout the South to highlight the injustice of not being able to eat together. No dogs were set on them in Arlington and they were not beaten and dragged away as in other places. But they didn’t know that wouldn’t happen when they say down. Their courage and determination were powerful. (Photos by Paul Schmick. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.)