Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpAre you familiar with East Arlington?

Neither were most of the nearly 100 who turned out at Central Library April 3 to hear a local historian describe this bygone African-American neighborhood torn asunder in 1942 during construction of the Pentagon.

East Arlington (or, as its original 1892 subdivision was called, Queen City) was 903 souls living in 218 households near where Columbia Pike today gives way to the Air Force Memorial.

We know details thanks to the labors of Nancy Perry, a successful doctoral candidate at George Mason University whose research into Arlington’s black heritage has twice brought her to the podium of the Arlington Historical Society. She unearthed the 1940 census report for that slice of our county; pored over land records; scoured oral histories, rare photos and news articles; and interviewed 10 living former East Arlingtonians. (Several came to her talk.)

Perry revives the heartbreaking drama of how, in the fervor of preparing for World War II, the War Department used eminent domain to clear a 27-acre neighborhood of largely powerless minorities forced to scramble for new housing and livelihoods. With photos of the wood-frame houses (on unpaved streets) and family names and occupations, Perry humanizes this lost community.

East Arlington was needed not for the Pentagon itself, but for access roads and parking demanded by the workforce commuting to Arlington from D.C. The constitutional tool of eminent domain can encompass many versions of just compensation – reimbursement not just for land and homes but for moving costs and foregone business, Perry notes. The government took the cheapest route, which meant paying market value, set by the government.

Residents – owners and boarders, many of them children – were given three weeks’ notice, Perry recounts. Many black citizens had nowhere to turn and no place to transfer their possessions. Some lost their earning power when the government also shut down nearby brick and coal plants where many East Arlingtonians worked or serviced with daily lunches.

Two black churches – both of which had only recently been renovated – were demolished. “But not even the War Department,” Perry said, could stop the congregation and other evictees from reforming in black enclaves Nauck and Johnson City. Newspaper coverage, Perry noted, was impersonal, all from “management’s perspective.” Except one account of a protest letter to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who pressured the House Military Affairs Committee to provide the newly homeless temporary alternative housing.

The 16-month rush to build the Pentagon was a 24/7 barrage of pile-driver noise. The residents of East Arlington could only watch from their condemned front stoops.

I asked Perry, who teaches geography at Northern Virginia Community College, how she got immersed in Arlington’s black history. “I did a mapping project for a class at George Mason,” she said. “The assignment was to display census data, and I decided to display the black population on a map of Arlington. I discovered that in 1950, almost all Arlington’s blacks lived in only three census tracts. I grew up in Montana, totally white, so I’m embarrassed to admit I had no idea why all the blacks lived in just three tracts.”

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The long-on-the-drawing-board Arlington Neighborhood Villages opened for business on April 7, offering paying members age 55 and up volunteer home services to help them “age in place.” It took a community to raise the villages.