Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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 Arlington’s black history activists know from patience. For a good two decades, they’ve been waiting out snail’s pace progress on two major projects to put their cause on the map. The two are related.

This week a VDOT contractor began the demolition of the bridge at Columbia Pike and S. Washington Blvd. It’s a scary cement blob built in 1940s by the War Department that carries 83,000 cars a day.

A spiffier, wider and safer replacement, scheduled for completion in 2015 at a cost of $51.5 million, will be called the Freedmans Village Bridge. That’s in honor of the community of former slaves that the federal government established on the grounds of the nearby Custis-Lee plantation in 1863.

You can learn all about the village on the website of Black Heritage Museum of Arlington (www.arlingtonblackheritage.org), the operative word being website: This local gem is a “museum-without-walls.” Online offerings include photos, history narratives, film clips, documents and bibliographies that “celebrate the African American journey to freedom in Arlington County.”

But it exists only in cyberspace while the organizers raise money. The plan is to build a physical museum for permanent and temporary exhibits near the site of the now-closed Navy Annex, near the Air Force Memorial and the Sheraton Hotel. The name would be changed to the Freedmans Village Museum.

“When we heard they were replacing the bridge, we went after the county board to get the name,” says Talmadge Williams, a retired college dean who works on the museum out of a Columbia Pike office also devoted to organizations prompting successful parenting and bringing more computers into schools. “The county board approved it, and the signs are already designed and made.”

It took only 14 years. Such a bridge replacement was first proposed in 1998, but postponed in 2003 while the Arlington County Board honed plans for wider Columbia Pike revitalization. Until VDOT signed the contract last July, it was “dragging its feet,” Williams says, a key reason being the need for special sound engineering.

The discussions went on so long some county officials lost track of it. Michael Leventhal, Arlington historical preservation coordinator, told me he was concerned that the Freedmans Village signs and graphics medallions be well-lit enough to be visible to passing autos, bicyclists and pedestrians. The VDOT artists’ rendering in the planning documents hints that’s not a problem.

Meanwhile, the Black Heritage Museum perseveres. Craig Syphax, a descendent of one of the area’s most prominent African American families, keeps up the website. A property manager by profession, Syphax volunteers as a cameraman for Arlington independent media, through which he connected with Marymount University faculty and students to assemble National Archives photos and text for the virtual museum.

You can see him and others at the Arlington County Fair, promoting such projects as the museum’s lecture series, an oral history program and a brochure providing a walking tour of the village site.

The bridge and the envisioned museum are a fine example of public-private cooperation, of how citizen commitment eventually can win official recognition.

The long wait for the new bridge may prove worth the aggravation. As Williams jokes, he didn’t want VDOT to rush and put the Freedmans Village name on the old bridge. “If it fell down,” he says, “then I’d be responsible!” 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]