Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

A sizable Arlington-based employer (hint: the Pentagon) flexed its muscles this fall, putting a crimp in plans by local history lovers to build an Arlington Heritage Center.

For more than 10 years, a coalition of activists working with the Arlington Historical Society and the online Arlington Black Heritage Museum have chased a dream: a spacious modern facility strategically located with a view of Arlington Cemetery to house exhibits reflecting county history under themes that speak both to blacks and to whites.

What they lacked in funding (it’s to be raised privately), they gained in federal recognition. The 2005 defense authorization act , thanks to the good bipartisan offices of then-Sen. John Warner and Rep. Jim Moran, included language permitting a land swap between the feds and Arlington to open up a parcel on the site of the soon-to-be demolished Navy Annex off of Columbia Pike.

A memorandum of understanding was signed in 2008 for the county to exchange a strip of land it owns by Southgate Road for a deal to develop 4.2 acres near the former site of Freedman’s Village, the 19th-century home to former slaves freed during the Civil War. Dozens of competing entities made plays for the site (including what eventually became the nearby Air Force Memorial).

But this October, county manager Barbara Donnellan announced that the Defense Department was exercising its option to back out of the plan. The reason, her notice said, is “the desire of Arlington National Cemetery to retain all land north of Columbia Pike for future expansion” of burial space.

“We… recognize the potential benefits to all parties of a larger, more comprehensive future land exchange, and we are committed to working with Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Army to this end,” the manager said. She reiterated the county’s support for creating the Heritage Center, along with related local traffic-easing improvements the Pentagon plans. The new proposal has the heritage center on land just south of the Pike, currently a parking lot.

My fellow historical society members are disappointed but hopeful. Former AHS president Gerry Laporte, who’s been involved since the original coalition of activists and business people formed in 2002, says the first site at Freedman’s Village is crucial. “It’s the location that gives this project enough drive to be seen as something special” that could function like the state’s roadside visitors centers. Museum experts and contractors, he adds, advise that the existing museum at the aging Hume School lacks proper capacity.

John Richardson, one of our most active retired federal employees, is working with the society’s board to encourage the county to support the museum project and the society’s long-term potential to showcase Arlington’s assets.

Talmadge Williams, the force behind the black heritage museum, thinks the county can negotiate with the cemetery. “I have confidence we will come up with the money, from private sources, government grants and other societies,” he said. “Rest assured it will be built.”

This is complicated. The host of interested parties include the Army, the Defense secretary, the Pentagon’s Washington Headquarters Services and the National Capital Planning Commission, which oversees the cemetery’s master plan.

Boosters can at least point to progress toward their dream—reconstruction proceeds on the renamed Freedmans Village Bridge nearby at the Pike and Washington Boulevard.

The county expects to issue an updated announcement this month.