African American Life in Arlington, Virginia, during Segregation: A Geographer’s Point of View

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 begin our focus on NoVa as our Metro of the Month.  Submit your panels everyone! 

By Nancy Perry

Arlington County, Virginia, home of the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery, is a prosperous, racially and culturally diverse urban county located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. (the District). The county’s 26 square miles of land is bordered by the Potomac River on the eastern edge and by the state of Virginia. Census data show us that in 2010, 64 percent of the population was white, 10 percent was Asian, 16 percent was Hispanic, and nine percent was black.

Arlington County, Virginia’s black neighborhoods and enclaves. All the black enclaves were gone by 1950. Map by Nancy Perry, projection NAD 1983 UTM Zone 18N.

Arlington has been home to African Americans since the 1600s, when slaves labored on tobacco farms in the county [1]. Some black Arlingtonians are descendants of those slaves, living on land their ancestors purchased from their masters at the end of the Civil War [1; 2]. Others are descendants of contraband slaves who fled to the District during the war seeking safety. Still others descend from former slaves who migrated northward from Georgia and the Carolinas during Reconstruction, and some descend from sharecroppers who moved north during the Jim Crow period [3].

Arlington is on the margin between North and South. It is in a culturally ‘Southern’ state, yet it shares a border with Washington D.C., the capital of the Union during the Civil War. As a culturally Southern state, Virginia embraced Jim Crow. With the passage of the 1902 Virginia constitution, de facto segregation became de jure in all of Virginia. African Americans and whites could not attend the same schools. They could not sit together on steamboats, motorcars, or trains. They could not be quartered together in penitentiaries. They could not sit together in any public hall, theatre, motion picture, show, or place of public entertainment or assemblage. If African Americans and whites were to intermarry, they would be guilty of a felony and be confined in the penitentiary from one to five years. Perhaps most crucial, poll taxes and literacy tests prevented most black Virginians from voting [4].

In 1900 Arlington consisted mostly of farmland, with populated settlements scattered evenly throughout the county, including a few larger neighborhoods and many small enclaves. The settlements had no water or sewer systems. Wells were the source of water and outhouses or septic tanks took care of sanitation. Gas was used for illumination in the District, but kerosene lamps were still the rule in Arlington. Thirty-eight percent of the inhabitants were black. The African Americans lived in clusters, segregated from whites more by income than by race. As is suggested from their names, the three larger black neighborhoods (Halls Hill, Johnson’s Hill, and Green Valley) were built on hills with a view of the District [5].

Rural life would not last forever. By 1900 Arlington’s close proximity to the District made it attractive to government workers anxious to leave the congestion of the city for a home in the suburbs. In a few short years, bridges carrying roads and electric railroads connected the District with Arlington and outlying regions. On the heels of the new transportation infrastructure came developers putting up residential subdivisions. The county equipped those subdivisions with paved streets, water and sewer pipes, and electric and gas lines to serve the new residents. Residential segregation ensured that those new subdivisions were populated only by whites [6].

Amenities and improvements were much slower to appear in the black enclaves and neighborhoods. Until legislation during the Civil Rights Era required it, official Arlington County neglected the black neighborhoods, failing to pave streets or run water, gas, and sewer pipes in black neighborhoods. Unable to vote, black Arlingtonians had little influence over the disparity in their treatment. [7]

East Arlington street scene in 1910. The street is unpaved, with no gutters and no sidewalks. By 1941 when it was leveled to make way for the Pentagon, Arlington County still had not run paved streets, sidewalks, curbing, gutters, electric lines, water or sewer to the enclave of East Arlington. Reproduced with permission of the Virginia Room, Arlington Public Library.

The migration of whites to Arlington began with the slow buildup of the government during World War I. White federal workers began moving across the Potomac River, out of the District but still within an easy commute to work. That migration intensified during the New Deal and World War II, lightening the complexion of the once rural county [8].

Population, Arlington County, Virginia, 1900-1970. The population increased dramatically during the first seventy years of the twentieth century. By 1970 Arlington was a bustling suburb of almost 243,000 residents, 92 percent of them white. Data source: Minnesota Population Center. National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 2.0. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota 2011.

The black enclaves frequently got in the way as developers built new homes for the in-migrants. Money was used to entice black families out of their enclaves (but not out of the neighborhoods) rather than violence being used to force them out in order to make room for new construction. African Americans had lived in Arlington as long as the original whites and much longer than in-migrating whites. Coming from an agricultural background, black Arlingtonians appreciated the efficacy of owning the land they lived on. Even farm laborers, servants, and railroad porters owned their own homes. In 1900, 59 percent of Arlington’s black families were homeowners and by 1920, that number rose to 64 percent. A high level of home ownership put the black community at an advantage when developers scooped up their land to build developments for the whites [9].

By the mid-20th century all the black enclaves were swallowed up by new white developments, their former residents clustered in the three black neighborhoods. East Arlington, the largest of the enclaves with 900 residents, was one of the last to disappear, leveled in 1942 to make way for the new Pentagon building [10]. After integration most African Americans did not choose to move into the white neighborhoods, but remained where they were. Their neighborhoods have since gradually become integrated as both whites and people of other races have moved in.

During segregation, black Arlingtonians were unwelcome in white-owned businesses other than grocery stores. They could not get a bank account, buy shoes or clothing from a department store, hire a white contractor to build their home, get a haircut from a white barber or hair dresser, or frequent a white diner or lunch counter. Some residents started their own small businesses providing their neighbors with the goods and services they could not buy from the white community; they became survivalist entrepreneurs, “persons who become self-employed in response to a desperate need to find an independent means of livelihood” [11].

Mamie Brown, a Green Valley beautician, opened Friendly Beauty School. She graduated more than 300 students who went on to own and operate beauty shops of their own. Photo courtesy of Aaronita Brown.

Few business owners had the resources to open a retail business. Instead, they opened tiny restaurants, convenience stores, and shops providing services. Eighty percent of the businesses were in the owner’s home, with the restaurants located in the family’s dining room and enterprises like beauty shops, repair shops, and convenience stores located in the basement or a spare bedroom. Particularly successful were the building contractors found in all the neighborhoods. During segregation, white contractors refused to build for black families lest it appear they were working for African Americans, so the black contractors had no lack of work. Some owners ran several businesses at one time, including the Green Valley family that juggled a taxi service, a restaurant, a beauty shop, and heating oil, coal, and ice distributorships. The few businesses that were not home-based included two funeral homes, a pharmacy, a gas station, and a TV repair shop [12].


This commerce made the neighborhoods cohesive and self-reliant. Because public transportation did not connect the neighborhoods until the early 1940s, a business’s customer base comprised only those families living nearby. No white customers ever came into the black neighborhoods to shop. All three of the neighborhoods, however, were connected to the District by public transportation. In 1950 the District had a much larger black population than Arlington. Of the 802,178 residents of the District, 280,803 (35%) were black. The black-owned businesses in the District welcomed Arlington’s 6500 African Americans. Because there were so many attractive shopping and entertainment options in the District, and because traveling from the neighborhoods to the District was easier than traveling between the neighborhoods, there was little incentive for African Americans to build an extensive business infrastructure of their own. Only those things that were not worth a bus trip to the District were obtained in one of the small businesses in the neighborhoods. Everything else was purchased in the District [13].

Mr. Walker’s shop, run out of the basement of his home. If you were African American and your shoes needed to be repaired you took them to Mr. Walker. His store was the only shoe repair shop in Arlington that served African Americans. © Lloyd Wolf/Arlington Photographic Documentary Project. Reproduced with permission.

Once Arlington integrated and African Americans were allowed to trade white-owned businesses, the small neighborhood businesses gradually disappeared. By 1970 only a few larger businesses such as the taxi services, the TV repair shop, and the funeral parlors clung to existence. The home-based economy disappeared [14].

The number of African Americans in Arlington who supported themselves by opening a business was dwarfed by the number working for a salary. The occupations they chose were a function of segregation and proximity to the federal government in the District. Using the original manuscript census data, it is possible to identify the occupations of individual black workers. In 1900 a total of 40 job types were listed. Most black men labored on a farm, in the several brickyards along the Potomac River, or as general laborers. Most black women performed domestic work for white families. By 1940, the last year for which manuscript census data is available, 127 job types were listed. The variety of jobs increased, the compensation and status did not. The 1940 census mentions the car washer but not the car dealer, the shoe shiner but not the shoe store owner, nurse’s aides but not nurses. Women continued to cook, clean, and rear children of white families [15].

Chinn Funeral Home. Black-owned mortuaries were guaranteed to have customers because African Americans were unwelcome in white-owned mortuaries. The Chinn Funeral Home opened in 1946. It is still in operation. © Lloyd Wolf/Arlington Photographic Documentary Project. Reproduced with permission.

The loss of labor jobs can be explained by the huge in-migration of white government workers to Arlington during 1900-1970. Farms were subdivided to make way for new housing developments, removing the demand for farm laborers. Land that supplied clay for Arlington’s many brickyards, and land occupied by those brickyards, was lost during construction of the Pentagon, built in 1941-1942. The last brickyard to go was West Bros Brickyard. When West Bros was torn down, 100 black men lost employment [16].

Correlation between the size of Arlington’s population and number of black occupational choices per census for the 1900-1940 censuses. Data source: Minnesota Population Center. National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 2.0. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota 2011.

Career training was limited for young African Americans. Arlington’s segregated schools were inferior. The county spent very little on black schools, giving the students castoffs from the white schools. If a white school got new books, the old books were sent down to the black school. The only career training the black high school offered was typing classes, and the only students taking those classes were girls whose families could afford to buy them a typewriter. Many girls took advantage of those classes, carrying their heavy typewriters to school daily [17].

West Bros Brickyard. Reproduced with permission of the Virginia Room, Arlington Public Library.

Another schooling option for some of Arlington’s black children was District schools. While the District’s schools were segregated, the black schools were excellent. Funded by Congress, they were required to pay black teachers the same as white teachers, making them attractive to black teachers from all over the country. District schools were open to the children of all federal employees, including black employees from Arlington [18].

Arlington Civil Service employee. Photo courtesy of Florence Ross.

Whether they were educated in Arlington or the District, the students’ labors paid off when the Pentagon opened in 1942. Many residents of the black community took Civil Service jobs at the Pentagon. Clerical positions existed for anyone who could type and file. Former farm and brickyard laborers found work as custodians and messengers. Compared to labor and domestic work done for private individuals, Civil Service jobs paid a modest but reliable salary and offered the security of a pension. A large percent of black Arlingtonians worked for the Civil Service for at least a portion of their careers, ninety percent of them in custodial jobs and the rest performing clerical work [19].

Black employment in Arlington, 1900 – 1940. Data source: Minnesota Population Center. National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 2.0. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota 2011.


The history of Arlington County is a function of the county’s unique geography. This geography was crucial to the story line of the black community during segregation. The ancestors of this community had lived in Arlington since the early 1600s, working as slaves on farms and plantations in Arlington. On obtaining their freedom, many of them bought land in the county, and farmed it for their own families. By 1900, more than half the black households owned their own land and homes.

The county is sandwiched between the District and the state of Virginia. Virginia’s southern roots, manifest in a plethora of Jim Crow laws, weighed heavily on Arlington’s black community. The places in Arlington where African Americans were unwelcome far outnumbered the places where they were welcome. Any other black community in Virginia had to either cobble together a collection of shops and services, travel long distances to get what they needed, or go without. Shopping was much more convenient for Arlington’s African Americans. Only the Potomac River stood between them and the shopping and entertainment options provided by the District’s large, successful black community.

The District is also home of the federal government. Proximity to the District and the government was a mixed blessing. For the black children of federal employees, the city offered schools that were far superior to the black schools in Arlington. Proximity to the capital gave easy access to Civil Service employment with the federal government, providing many black Arlingtonians a steady income and a pension. But the District was also the source of thousands of white federal workers who wanted to work there and live in nearby Arlington. Developers bought up farms and enclaves belonging to African Americans and replaced them with white-only developments. The black families who had lived there were pushed into three black neighborhoods. Fortunately, the neighborhoods had room to absorb them and black builders to build them new homes.

For the residents of the enclave of East Arlington, geographic proximity to the federal government meant loss and gain. They lost their entire community during World War II when the federal government needed land on which to build the new Pentagon building. The 900 residents of East Arlington lost their homes and some lost their employment. However, the Pentagon generated an abundance of Civil Service jobs that had not been available before.

Since the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, Arlington has become a much more integrated city. The three formerly all black neighborhoods are home to all races, although they are still at least fifty percent black. While most of the African Americans who lived through segregation have since passed on, those who have survived still live in their homes in the three neighborhoods, near family, friends, and their church. Because of its proximity to the District and the federal government, Arlington is an expensive place to live. The county assessment and real estate taxes have risen exponentially since the years of segregation. Eventually the three neighborhoods could become so expensive that the very families who were forced to live there during segregation will no longer be able to afford it. Thus ends this chapter in the history of the community.

NancyPerry.jpgNancy Perry currently teaches geography at Helena College, a branch of the University of Montana. She received her PhD in Earth Systems and Geoinformation Sciences at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Her dissertation focused on the geographical aspects of segregation for the African American community in Arlington, VA.




  1. Rose, Cornelia B. Jr. Arlington County Virginia, A History. Baltimore, MD: Port City Press, Inc., 2009.
  2. Netherton, Nan and Ross Netherton. Arlington County in Virginia: A Pictorial History. Norfolk, VA: The Donning Company, 1987.
  3. Perry, Nancy, Spencer Crew, and Nigel M. Waters. “’We didn’t have any other place to live’: Residential Patterns in Segregated Arlington County, Virginia.” Southeastern Geographer 53, no. 4 (2013): 403-427.
  4. Guild, June P. Black Laws of Virginia: A Summary of the Legislative Acts of Virginia Concerning Negroes from the Earliest Times to the Present. New York, NY: Negro Universities Press, 1969.
  5. Perry, Nancy. “Eminent domain destroys a community: Leveling East Arlington to make way for the Pentagon.” Urban Geography 37, no. 1 (2015): 141-161.
  6. Perry et al.  “’We didn’t have any other place to live’, 403-427.
  7. Rose, Arlington County Virginia, A History; Perry, “Eminent domain destroys a community”; Morris, James M. “A Chink in the Armor: The Black-Led Struggle for School Desegregation in Arlington, Virginia and the End of Massive Resistance.” Journal of Policy History 13, (2013): 329-36.
  8. Perry et al.  “’We didn’t have any other place to live’, 403-427.
  9., accessed 1/29/2019,; Perry et al. “We didn’t have ny other place to live'”, 403-427.
  10. Perry, Nancy. “Eminent domain destroys a community: Leveling East Arlington to make way for the Pentagon.” Urban Geography 37, no. 1 (2015): 141-161.
  11. Perry, Nancy and Nigel M. Waters. “Southern suburb/northern city: Black entrepreneurship in segregated Arlington County, Virginia.” Urban Geography 33, no. 5 (2012): 655-674; Boyd, Robert L. “Race, Labor Market Disadvantage, and Survivalist Entrepreneurship: Black Women in the Urban North during the Great Depression.” Sociological Forum, 15, (2000): 647-670.
  12. Perry, Nancy and Nigel M. Waters. “Southern suburb/northern city: Black entrepreneurship in segregated Arlington County, Virginia.” Urban Geography 33, no. 5 (2012): 655-674.
  13. Birmingham, Stephen. Certain People: America’s Black Elite. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1977.; Ruble, Blair A. Washington U Street: A Biography. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.; Perry and Waters, “Southern suburb/northern city”, 655-674.
  14. Perry and Waters, “Southern suburb/northern city”, 655-674
  15., accessed 1/29/2019,
  16. Perry, Nancy, Lucy E. Reybold, and Nigel M. Waters. “’Everybody Was Looking for a Good Government Job’ Occupational Choice during Segregation in Arlington, Virginia.” Journal of Urban History 40, no. 4 (2014): 719-741; Perry, Nancy. “Eminent domain destroys a community”.
  17. Perry et al. “Everybody was Looking for a Good Government Job”: 719-741.
  18. Green, Constance M. 1967, The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967; Birmingham, Stephen. Certain People: America’s Black Elite. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1977.
  19. Birmingham, Stephen. Certain People.





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