Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpApril 4 delivered me to a double-barreled national history celebration, one that is possible only in Arlington.
At Arlington House, the National Park Service put on a rich evening commemoration of the unfolding of the end of the Civil War 150 years ago. April 4 being the day President Lincoln entered the shattered Confederate capital Richmond—five days before the surrender at Appomattox Court House.

Last Saturday’s bill of fare consisted of 19th-century dancing under the columns of Robert E. Lee’s mansion, tours of the rooms and prominent graves, fireworks, a candlelight vigil for the dead, plus great talks by Park Service staff and volunteers.

“You may be wondering why there’s a good mood here tonight,” said park ranger Matt Penrod. “The joy that all the death and destruction was coming to an end” was not shared elsewhere in the South. “But Northern Virginia was different, and in Arlington the mood was jubilant.”

Mrs. Robert E. Lee, in particular, having grown up at Arlington House and given birth to six children there, was still bitterly vowing the war would go on, Penrod noted. Union quartermaster Gen. Montgomery Meigs’ anger that his former colleague Gen. Lee had defected from the Union led him to place the earliest officer graves around the rim of Mrs. Lee’s garden.

Arlington House—with its commanding view of Washington–was known early in the war as a must-hold fort. “Imagine what a couple of Confederate gun batteries could do from here,” Penrod said. When Lee signed his commitment to fight for the South there, it cost his family greatly. He would never see the mansion again (though his postwar efforts at reconciliation gave Congress cause in the 1950s to re-designate the site as a Lee memorial).
Though somber, Saturday’s lessons were expertly recounted over the strains of a quartet of fiddlers and guitarists. They serenaded hoopskirted ladies and men in snappy vests or union military uniforms dancing the “Virginia Reel” in an authentic re-recreation of the actual celebrations.

No primer on Arlington House can omit reference to Freedman’s Village, the nearby property for blacks released from slavery in the 1860s. Among those liberated was James Parks (1843-1929), who was born at Arlington House, worked as a graves superintendent and helped guide the site’s restoration in the 1920s.

Earlier in the evening, I met two of Parks’ descendants scarcely a mile away at the Arlington Historical Museum, where the Historical Society and Black Heritage Museum unveiled a new exhibit on African-American history. Their single display case –which curators hope to expand – brings the Civil War legacy into the 20th century with artifacts on the lives of blood storage medical pioneer and Arlington resident Charles Drew and Arlington-educated pop singer Roberta Flack.

With county and school board members looking on, Drew’s daughter, former District of Columbia Council Member Charlene Drew Jarvis, expressed joy at seeing her father’s college football photo, eyeglasses and saxophone. “Now that people are more willing to know our history, it’s important to share it,” she said before clarifying a “myth” that her father’s death in a car crash in 1950 resulted from being turned away from a whites-only North Carolina hospital. “He fell asleep at the wheel,” she said, “but he wouldn’t have if he hadn’t had to drive so far to find a place to lay his head.”

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One of Arlington’s oldest businesses, the Public Shoe Store on Wilson Boulevard (established in Clarendon in 1938), will close later this spring. Owner Sholom Friedman, age 82, who began working in the store for his father when he was five, told me his health is forcing this end of an era.

“You get to be my age and people are dropping dead—you just never know,” he said. The Public Shoe Store, to which my mother took me as a child at its earlier site across the street, has done remarkably well staying afloat against competition from the Internet. But Friedman expects to sell the building to some other type of retailer. “No one does what I do.”