Uncle Sam and Black Arlington: Bringing Jobs but Taking Housing, 1861- 1945

Editor’s note: Remember that SACRPH 2019, the organization’s 18th conference, is in Northern Virginia (NOVA or NoVa)  this October/November from October 31 – November 3. The deadline for the CFP, which you can view here, is March 15. With this in mind, we continue our focus on NoVa as our Metro of the Month.  Submit your panels everyone! 

By Lindsey Bestebreurtje

Arlington, Virginia, is a small county in northern Virginia just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Diverse neighborhoods checker the landscape, each bearing the styles of middle class suburbia as it evolved throughout the twentieth century, from Victorian to Craftsman and Bungalow on to Rambler and multi-family homes. The county has always had a unique relationship with the nation’s capital as work for the federal government has long shaped the life of Arlington’s residents.

Today, the federal government is one of the top employers of Arlingtonians. This pattern of employment began in the late-nineteenth century. Expansions of federal programs that emerged during the Civil War and Reconstruction continued into the twentieth century, as WWI, the New Deal, WWII, and the Cold War each increased the number, size, and scope of federal agencies. By 1940, more than half of the county’s employed adult residents worked for the federal government. This expansion provided work for Arlington natives and attracted individuals from around the country to the area, making it “the fastest growing county in America.”

The opportunity for federal employment extended to Arlington’s African American population. Since its founding, Arlington has had a small but stable black population. Through reform measures like the Pendleton Civil Service Act (1883) and the Ramspeck Act (1940), which made federal hiring based on merit and dismissal without cause illegal, African Americans in Arlington could rely on good federal jobs. Though not devoid of prejudice nor immune to legislative backsliding, the federal government provided stable, merit-based, well-paying blue- and white-collar employment to black Arlingtonians generations before that could be said throughout the nation. Arlington’s African American residents held diverse employment types ranging from custodial staff and chauffeurs to stenographers, librarians, and section chiefs.

Figure
The figure above shows the extreme disparity in African American (shown in black) and white (shown in grey) population growth. Arlington’s black community of approximately 7,000 residents, most of whom came from families with deep roots in the county, went from 38% of the total population is 1900 to only 5% by 1950. Today, Arlington is home to about 18,000 African Americans, up to 8.9% of the county’s population.

But employment was not the only way that the federal government impacted Arlington. A huge portion of the county is owned by federal institutions, which occupy 18% of the land in the county. The same government expansion that provided more work pushed federal installations such as Arlington National Cemetery, the Department of Agriculture’s Experimental Farm, the Navy Annex, Fort Myer, and the Pentagon into the county beginning in the nineteenth century.

Pentagon.jpg
Aerial view of the Pentagon, Arlington, Va. circa 1947, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The majority of these institutions were constructed in southern Arlington. Southern Arlington was home to almost all of Arlington’s African American communities, including Green Valley, Queen City, and Johnson’s Hill. Local black resident Vivian Bullock of Hall’s Hill called south side Arlington “the black side.” As a result, the physical encroachment of federal institutions in southern Arlington disproportionately affected Arlington’s black communities.

The story of Queen City highlights how federal expansion into Arlington had an especially negative impact on the county’s black neighborhoods. More than 200 working class families in Queen City lived in modest but well-kept frame houses. Generations of families grew in Queen City after its founding in 1892. Third generation Queen City resident William Vollin described his neighborhood as a “real happy, solid community.”

While Vollin saw a strong working class community, federal authorities surveying the area for a location for the War Department’s new Pentagon building saw something else entirely. Where residents saw a thriving community, outsiders saw the black neighborhood as a ghetto. The neighborhood was described as an “industrial slum” by developers. Federal authorities also looked down on the neighborhood. Construction supervisor Lieutenant Bob Furman said in a 1941 letter to the Civil Aeronautics Administration that the area consisted of “really, really rough shacks.” Queen City resident Gertrude Jeffress pushed back against this categorization. In a 2004 interview with author Steve Vogel, she insisted, “whoever said it was nothing but shacks, well that ain’t true. This was a nice little neighborhood.” But the powers that be believed the homes, churches, community institutions, and businesses within the neighborhood would mar the views from the Pentagon and should be demolished.

Queen CIty
The image above shows Queen City with the Pentagon in the background in early spring of 1942. Though modest, they are a far cry from the “shacks” many federal builders alleged made up Queen City. Within days the community was demolished. U.S. Army, Pentagon, April 1942.

And that is exactly what happened. In January of 1942 construction began on the Pentagon’s road networks, which ran through the community. Plans moved forward for construction without anyone informing the people of Queen City. In February of 1942, residents received word that they had to be out of their homes by March 1. Property was seized through a combination of eminent domain laws and modest payments to home owners.

Roads
This aerial photograph shows Shirley Highway I-395 snaking through Arlington County. This area was once home to the African American neighborhoods of East Arlington and Queen City.

Almost all of those who lost their homes were black. Where Queen City and neighboring East Arlington were demolished to make way for the Pentagon, Navy Annex, and related road construction, the nearby white neighborhood of Columbia Heights, which also bordered the projects, was left largely untouched.

8c34638v.jpg
Arlington, Virginia. FSA (Farm Security Administration) trailer camp project for Negroes. General view, Marjory Collins, April 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

After losing their homes residents were not sure where to go. Lt. Furman admitted that he and his men didn’t “think… much about their welfare” when removing residents from their homes. Relocation was especially onerous because there were so few homes. Arlington was experiencing a severe housing shortage thanks to the flood of wartime workers entering the area. This housing crisis was especially acute in the black community as residents were barred from many of Arlington’s neighborhoods due to residential segregation and restrictive covenants.

After losing their homes with almost no notice, few funds, and a shrinking housing stock, one of the primary options for these individuals was the federal government’s emergency housing. To help displaced residents avoid homelessness, the federal government created a trailer camp on mud flats at the outskirts of Green Valley. These trailer camps were constructed to serve only as temporary housing. Entire families, no matter their size, squeezed into trailers equipped with stoves for heat and cooking, convertible couch-beds meant to sleep four people, and no running water. The tight quarters, lack of proper sanitation, and mud created an unhealthy environment vulnerable to illness. The camp was also prone to flooding and attracted rats. Resident John Henderson remembered rats so large they could shake the floor boards as they passed.

8c34644r-1
Arlington, Virginia. FSA (Farm Security Administration) trailer camp project for Negroes. Interior of a single type trailer showing cooking facilities and couch which can be converted into a bed, Marjory Collins, April 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Despite the loss of Queen City, these individuals and families were able to tap into the strong social, religious, and fraternal networks that linked African American Arlingtonians across neighborhoods and, with such a stable African American population, across generations. Henderson recalled that “it was quite a trying time,” but “I think the love and association of people is what kept people together.” After the end of the war the trailers were removed. Many individuals and families moved in with local family, moved into other federal housing, or found homes in one of Arlington’s remaining black communities – Green Valley, Johnson’s Hill, or Hall’s Hill.

Due in large part to the county’s Neighborhood Conservation Program these three anchor black communities still remain today. Renamed Nauck, Arlington View, and High-View Park respectively, only time will tell if they will be able to stem the tide of continued gentrification and the new threat of Amazon’s HQ2.

Featured image (at top): Map of Alexandria County, formerly part of the District of Columbia, Gregor Noetzel and G.G. Boteler, 1907, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

Dr. Lindsey Bestebreurtje is a Curatorial Assistant at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. She specializes in suburbanization, segregation, and the built environment. 

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