2024-07-23 6:58 PM

Our Man in Arlington

The well-envisioned Black Heritage Museum of Arlington is again seeking a home.


The nonprofit conceived in the 1990s to tell the story of the 19th -century African Americans who moved from slavery to Freedmans Village and upward in the 20th century has gone from drawing board, to virtual, to two sites of physical space, to limbo.


Rent prices ratcheting upward on Columbia Pike have imposed new challenges on the volunteer-run project (currently sharing space with the Columbia Pike Partnership) that has met its share of disappointing treatment from land-use authorities.


Credit the conception of this unique local resource to the late Arlington Public Schools teacher and official Evelyn Syphax, who died in 2000, and to employment counselor and Freedmans Village bridge champion Talmadge Williams, who died in 2014.


Syphax’s son Craig, who has served as president of the initially virtual museum, reminded me of the missteps in the quest for a building site. Responding to the widespread desire for a museum on the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, Congress in 2008, after a push from Sen. John Warner, R-Va., passed a bill that would authorize several Arlington-area projects on the site of the tagged for demolition Navy Annex.


A black history museum was among them, envisioned alongside what in 2006 opened as the Air Force Memorial and coming expanded grave space for Arlington National Cemetery. “We didn’t make any noise about it since we assumed that because we had legislation, it would handle itself,” Syphax said.


A citizens committee and Arlington County economic development director Terry Holzheimer began meeting at Fort Myer, recalled participant Tamara Moore, a descendant of former enslaved Arlington House worker James Parks and a retired information technology contracts manager at the Pentagon. The complex, with design help from Virginia Tech’s Alexandria staff, was to include meeting space, parking and transportation improvements.


But in the end, the need for grave space won out, which was disappointing to Arlington locals. “Talmadge Williams went to the Army,” and promotional billboards were installed, but the project was “swept under the rug,” Syphax said.


After the Navy Annex was torn down in 2013, a coalition that included the Black Heritage Museum, the Arlington Historical Society, the county’s Historic Affairs and Landmark Review Board and the Arlington Heritage Center Task Force pushed for a new tourist welcome complex near the entrance to I-395 and Washington Blvd. Arlington County was supposed to gain four-and-a-half acres and a roadway near the Annex site, but again, the Army planners overruled it in favor of future expansion of Arlington Cemetery. “The Defense Department stole a march on Arlington and got the Navy Annex land without any offsetting or compensating property,” recalled John Richardson, then president of the Arlington Historical Society.


That “second almost-was thing was frustrating,” President Scott Taylor said. But the current museum, which celebrated its post-lockdown reopening July 14, can stay in borrowed space until June 2022. Its backers have not given up hope. They received a $100,000 in grant from Amazon, and more from Dominion Energy and the Virginia Humanities Foundation.
The museum is on the national radar—including a recent TV interview. “People hear that segregation ended in this part of Virginia,” Taylor said. The exhibited photo of 1960s civil rights activist Joan Mulholland protesting segregation at an Arlington lunch counter, Taylor notes, “has gone around the world.”


As more of the decades-old “Lee Highway” signs give way to installation of new ones reading “Langston Blvd.,” the county is taking one more step in the renaming process that demotes one-time Confederate homeboy Robert E. Lee.
The stretch of Route 309 known since the 1950s as “Old Lee Highway” linking Waverly Hills to Cherrydale is slated to become “Cherry Hill Rd.,” as announced by the nonprofit Langston Boulevard Alliance.


Following a survey and nominations by local residents, the county board Oct. 19 approved submission of the compromise mash-up name for the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s anticipated final approval in December.

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