Slavery in Arlington, Virginia: a timeline

1619: The first African Americans arrive in bondage at Point Comfort in Virginia.1

1662: The Virginia General Assembly enacts legislation stating the child of an enslaved mother inherits her status.2

October 21, 1669: Howson Patent – The first land patent or grant Governor Berkley of Virginia awards encompassing what is now Arlington County, then Stafford County. As part of this patent, Howson brought 120 individuals to Stafford in exchange for 6000 acres of land on the Northern Neck of the Potomac. Among them were “10 negroids,” the first enslaved men and women with a connection to Arlington. It is unlikely that any of the 120 individuals lived in Arlington as the land remained unsettled by Europeans; however, Stafford County lost almost all its early records to fire, so it is impossible to verify.3

November 1669: John Alexander purchases the Howson Patent. The Alexander family will own land in Arlington until 1903, over 200 years. 4

1691: The Virginia General Assembly passes a law requiring manumitted enslaved to leave the state within 6 months of gaining freedom.5

1693: Robert Alexander, the grandson of John, inherits the northern section of the Howson Patent, which contained part of what is now Arlington. Under his ownership, the first tenants and enslaved settled in the region.6

1693-1742: Few landowners live on their property during this period. They lease to farmers, tavern operators, ferrymen, and more.7

1705: The General Assembly passes the Virginia Slave Codes that regulate the lives of enslaved people in the colony. The codes define all enslaved people as real estate, acquit masters who kill slaves during punishment, forbid slaves and free colored peoples from physically assaulting white persons.8  

1723: Manumitting an enslaved person becomes more difficult. The Virginia General Assembly requires a special act of the governor and council to free anyone enslaved.9

1731: Arlington is incorporated into Prince William County.

1735-1740: The importation of enslaved from Africa and the West Indies to Virginia reaches its height. Most of these men and women are sold to large landholders.10 

1735-1761: Gerard Alexander inherits the northern section of the Howson Patent, settles on his land north of Four Mile Run, and builds Abingdon Plantation, the first mansion house in Arlington. Abingdon’s remains can still be seen at National Airport. Gerard Alexander uses the labor of over 20 enslaved people to run his operation.11 

1740: The Falls tobacco warehouse is built at the mouth of Pimmit Run (Chain Bridge today). Tobacco is the major crop in Arlington.12

1742: Arlington is incorporated into Fairfax County. 

1742: John Ball receives a patent for 166 acres of land in what is now Arlington. He does not own enslaved people, though he may have hired them.  His home, the Ball-Seller’s House, is still standing.13

1749: Slavery spreads in Northern Virginia. There are 1674 enslaved in Truro Parish, which encompasses Arlington. Out of a total of 527 parish households, 173 or 33% hold enslaved people and 354 or 67% do not.14

1765 and after: The legal and illegal importation of enslaved people from Africa to the Potomac region declines as the local enslaved population grows through “natural reproduction.”15

1770: Daniel Jennings sells 400 acres of Arlington land to the Vestry of the Fairfax Parish for a “Glebe” to house and support the minister of the parish. Townshend Dade, the first rector, builds a brick home, probably with enslaved labor. Dade and subsequent clergymen living at the “Glebe House” use enslaved people to maintain the house and cultivate its farmland. A descendant of the Glebe House still stands in Arlington at 4527 N 17th Street.16

1775-1883: American Revolutionary War. British Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore issues an “emancipation proclamation” promising freedom to enslaved people who rise up against their colonial enslavers.17

1775-1783: Tobacco cultivation decreases in favor of wheat, corn, and other food crops. Support for the Revolutionary War effort escalates this trend. With the decline of tobacco, the need for large numbers of enslaved to work the land is reduced. One result is the rise of hiring out excess enslaved people to white families and businesses.18

July 4, 1776: The Second Continental Congress signs the Declaration of Independence declaring,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These words become the basis of African Americans’ fight for their own emancipation. 

1778: John Parke Custis, the son of Daniel P. Custis and Martha Washington, purchases the Abingdon estate from Robert Alexander, where he holds around 70 enslaved people. Due to Custis’s untimely death in 1781, he never fully pays for the estate and most of it reverts to the Alexander family. George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of George Washington, inherits a northern piece of the Alexander land which eventually becomes Arlington Plantation.19

1782: The Virginia General Assembly legalizes manumission through deed or will in the commonwealth. From 1782-1806, manumission of the enslaved occurs more freely than at any other time in Virginia’s history.20

1787: The US Constitution is adopted and includes the “three-fifths” clause by which each slave is considered three-fifths of a person for the purposes of congressional representation and tax apportionment.21

1800: There are 297 enslaved living and toiling in the “country part” of Alexandria County, much of what is now Arlington, roughly 30% of the population.23

1801: Arlington is ceded from Virginia to the District of Columbia to become part of the new capital city. It is called Alexandria County, District of Columbia. The Virginia laws governing enslavement in the Arlington portion of the city remain intact, but no newly passed Virginia laws will apply.24

1802: George Washington Parke Custis moves to his Arlington estate and brings enslaved people with him. Most likely, enslaved people constructed the main house, which is now known as the Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial (at Arlington National Cemetery). Throughout the nineteenth century, Custis was the largest enslaver In Arlington and owned over 150 people on the Tidewater Custis plantations.25

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Portrait of Custis, 1808, Corcoran Collection

1808: The Glebe House, the rectory of the Church of England’s Fairfax Parish, burns down. The parish sells the site to a private citizen, Walter F. Jones, the US attorney for the District of Columbia. Jones enslaves over 20 people in the 1820 census. Jones builds a new home on the site.26

1808: Reuben Johnston purchases the Abingdon estate. He leases much of the property to Alexandria City native, George Wise, who enslaves 18 individuals.27

1816-1817: The American Colonization Society (ACS) is established and promotes the relocation of free American blacks to West Africa. Several prominent Alexandria County residents join the Society, including Mary Custis and Bazil Williams. Mary’s husband, GWP Custis, becomes, in 1824, “a late convert to the cause.”28

1828: Franklin & Armfield, domestic slave traders, begin purchasing the enslaved people of Northern Virginia and selling them in the Deep South. Enslaved in the region are terrified of being separated from their loved ones and forced to hard labor on the sugar and cotton plantations of Louisiana and Mississippi.29


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A Coffle, or line of enslaved people chained together, being transported from Virginia to Tennessee by slave traders, The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum

1833: After a series of financial setbacks, John Mason is forced to sell Analostan Island and his once luxurious estate.30

1835: Alexander Hunter purchases Abingdon, the second largest plantation in Arlington, and continues operations with roughly 25 enslaved people.31

1840: There are 290 enslaved in the “country portion” of Alexandria County, District of Columbia, roughly 20% of the population.32

October 7, 1844: Levi Jones, a free black man, purchases 14 acres from Elizabeth Baggot in what is now Green Valley to be near his enslaved wife Sarah Ann Gardener.  Plantation owner, Alexander Frazier, enslaves Sarah and their growing family. After the Civil War, the family helps develop Nauck/Green Valley as an African American community.33

1844: Julia Roberts, an enslaved woman, sues for her freedom.  In an 1801 deed, Simon Sommers of Fairfax County and later Alexandria County promises manumission to Julia’s mother and future offspring at the age of 25. When subsequent enslavers refuse to free Julia, she turns to the courts to seek redress. Her case goes all the way to the Supreme Court, which rules in her favor.34

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Front page of Julia Robert’s Supreme Court Freedom Suit, 1844

1846: The District of Columbia retrocedes Alexandria County to Virginia. Arlington is now known as Alexandria County, Virginia and Virginia slave laws, including those requiring manumitted people to leave the state and banning enslaved people from attending religious or educational gatherings, are reinstated.35

1850: Roughly 283 enslaved reside in the country portion of Alexandria County. The number of enslaved is slowly declining in the county.36

1854: Free blacks establish “The Bottom,” an enclave in North Arlington, a mile from Chain Bridge along Pimmit Run. This is one of the earliest documented small black communities in Arlington.37

1857: George Washington Parke Custis dies and his son-in-law, Robert E. Lee, inherits the debt-ridden Arlington Estate. Custis’s will sets off unrest among his enslaved people who believe they have been freed. The will stipulates their release within five years of Custis’s death. Lee hires out his enslaved people to pay off Custis’s arrears, separating most enslaved families on the plantation.38

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House servants of Robert E. Lee, including Selina Gray on the right, the personal maid of Mary Custis Lee, National Park Service

1860: Roughly 265 are enslaved in the country portion of Alexandria County. The decline of slavery in the county continues.39

May 13, 1861: The Civil War begins.

May 24, 1861: Union forces cross the Aqueduct (Key) and Long (Fourteenth Street) Bridges and encamp throughout Alexandria City and County. 

July 16, 1861: At the First Battle of Manassas, Union troops are defeated by the Confederacy and fall back into Alexandria County. Arlington is overrun by soldiers who encamp on local farms. Many residents flee to the District of Columbia for safety.40

April 16, 1862: Congress passes and President Lincoln signs the District of Columbia Compensated Manumission Act. The enslaved people of the District are manumitted and their enslavers reimbursed for their losses. This includes many enslaved from Alexandria County who are temporarily residing in the District of Columbia.41

December 29, 1862: Robert E. Lee signs deed of manumission for people enslaved at Arlington House. The deed is certified in court on January 2, 1863, but the bondspeople at AH believe they have been freed already the previous day by the Emancipation Proclamation.

January 1, 1863: The Emancipation Proclamation goes into effect, freeing enslaved people held in rebel territory (with exemptions for places under Northern control).42

1863: Freedman’s Village, a camp for former “contraband” or self-emancipating blacks, opens on the grounds of Arlington Plantation. Overcrowding and poor conditions in Washington contraband camps drove military authorities to create this new camp outside of the city.43

Freedman's Village
Map of Freedman’s Village, July 10, 1865, National Archives and Records Administration

April 7, 1864: A constitutional convention for the Restored Government of Virginia, then meeting in Alexandria, abolishes slavery in the parts of the state that remained loyal to the United States, and thus had not been exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation. While the proclamation did not exempt Arlington, it appears, that some enslavers did not free their bondspeople until this date (see document below).45

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Letter to Provost Marshall concerning Bazil Hall’s abuse of four of his enslaved boys. The letter also states that the boys were not told they were free as of April 7, 1864.46

April 9, 1865: Robert E. Lee surrenders to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, essentially ending the Civil War.

December 6, 1865: Congress ratifies the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States.


1. African American Registry, “African Slaves Arrive at Point Comfort, Hampton, VA,”  Accessed March 19, 2023,

2. “Slave Law in Colonial Virgina: A Timeline,” Accessed March 19, 2023,

3. Arlington Historical Magazine, “The Howson Patent,” Vol. 1, 3, 1859.

4. Donald Wise, “Some Eighteenth Century Profiles,” Arlington Historical Magazine, Vol. 6, 1, 1977.

5. American Social History Project, “Colonial Virginia Laws on Slavery and Servitude,” Accessed March 19, 2023,

6. Charles W. Stetson, Four Mile Run Land Grants, Heritage Books, 2019.

7. Ibid.

8. Encyclopedia Virginia, An Act Concerning Servants and Slaves, Accessed March 19, 2023,

9. The American Revolution, The Business of Freeing a Slave in Virginia, Accessed March 19, 2023,

10. Donald Sweig, Northern Virginia Slavery: A Statistical and Demographic Investigation, 1982

11. George Dodge, “The Abingdon of Alexander Hunter, Et Al., Arlington Historical Magazine, Vol. 11, 3, 1999.

12. Paul Cissna, The Historical and Archeological Study of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, Arlington, Virginia, Washington, DC: National Park Service, Accessed March 19, 2023,

13. Anne Cipriani Webb, “The Ball-Sellers House in Glencarlyn,” Arlington Historical Magazine, Vol. 5, 3, 1775,

14. Donald Sweig, Northern Virginia Slavery.

15. Donald Sweig, “The Importation of African Slaves to the Potomac River Region, 1732-1772.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., 42 (October 1985): 507–524.

16. CB Rose, Jr. Arlington County, Virginia: A History, p. 39.

17. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, “Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, 1775,” Accessed March 19, 2023,

18. Encyclopedia Virginia, “Tobacco in Colonial Virginia,” Accessed March 19, 2023,

19. John Parke Custis, Fairfax County, Inventory, Will Book D-1, p. 274.

20. The American Revolution, The Business of Freeing a Slave in Virginia, Accessed March 19, 2023,

21. Encyclopedia Britannica, “The Three-Fifths Compromise,”

22. Willard J. Webb, “John Mason of Analostan Island,” Arlington Historical Magazine, Vol. 5, 4, 1976,

23. CB Rose, p. 245.

24. Letitia Woods Brown, Free Negroes in the District of Columbia, 1790-1846.

25. National Park Service, Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial, “Slavery at Arlington,” Accessed March 19, 2023,

26. Ludwell Lee Montegue, “The Glebe at Fairfax Parish,” Arlington Historical Magazine, Vol. 4, 3, 1971,

27. George Dodge, “The Abingdon of Alexander Hunter, Et Al., Arlington Historical Magazine, Vol. 11, 3, 1999

28. Cassandra Good, First Family: George Washington’s Heirs and the Making of America, Hanover Square, 2023, 252-253.

29. Encyclopedia Virginia, “Franklin and Armfield,” Accessed March 19, 2023,

30. Willard J. Webb, “John Mason of Analostan Island,” Arlington Historical Magazine, Vol. 5, 4, 1976,

31. George Dodge,

32. CB Rose, p. 240.

33. John Liebertz, A Guide to African American Heritage in Arlington County, 2016,

34. O Say Can You See, Early Washington, DC Law and Family, “Julia Roberts v. Austin L. Adams and Ann C. Harding, Accessed March 19, 2023,

35. Crothers, A. Glenn. “The 1846 Retrocession of Alexandria: Protecting Slavery and the Slave Trade in the District of Columbia.” In In the Shadow of Freedom: The Politics of Slavery in the National Capital, edited by Paul Finkelman and Donald R. Kennon, 1st ed., 141–68. Ohio University Press, 2011.

36. US Census, 1850.

37. Jessica Kaplan, “The Bottom: An African American Enclave Rediscovered, Arlington Historical Magazine, Vol. 16, 2, 2018,

38. National Park Service, Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial, “Telling the Story of the Enslaved People at Arlington House,” Accessed March 19, 2023,

39. US Census, 1860

40. Ruth Ward, “Life in Alexandria County During the Civil War,” Arlington Historical Magazine, Vol. 7, 4, 1984,

41. DC.Gov, “Ending Slavery in the District of Columbia,” Accessed March 19, 2023,

42. National Park Service, Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial, “Telling the Story of the Enslaved People at Arlington House,” Accessed March 19, 2023,

43. CB Rose, p. 122.

44. National Park Service, “Theodore Roosevelt Island, African Americans in Service to Their Country,” Accessed March 19, 2023,

45. Library of Virginia, Virginia Memory, Remaking Virginia: Transformation Through Emancipation, “The End of Slavery,” Accessed March 19, 2023,

46. Union Provost Marshall’s Files of Individual Civilians, 1861-1866,, p. 1.