Commentary, Guest Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Local history commemorators have embarked on a fresh but potentially delicate project.

The Arlington Historical Society has won two grants for its volunteers to trace, document and map out the locations in Arlington where enslaved persons labored in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The result may include an array of plaques—the placement of which might engender controversy.

The idea came from Tim Aiken, a one time federal humanities grants officer who got interested while writing a history of his Glencarlyn neighborhood that provided details on African Americans once enslaved there. His newsletter article “generated an ongoing discussion about how we might acknowledge the presence of enslaved people in Glencarlyn in some public and lasting way,” he said.

Aiken also drew inspiration from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s observation that sometimes preserving a story “means working through a difficult past to create a more inclusive future.” And he credits Washington Post writer Michele Norris’s June 2021 essay about a sculptor in Germany who spawned a movement to install 70,000 street-level stones in Europe commemorating victims of the Holocaust.

Aiken’s proposal impressed the Arlington Historical Society (I’m on the board), as well as the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington. After a grueling application process, the society won a $5,000 planning grant from Virginia Humanities. JBG Smith Cares, the philanthropic arm of the development firm, gave another $5,000 that will help pay Arlington Public Schools teachers to create lesson plans about local slavery and produce maps.

The Black Heritage Museum “is in the process of finding names of enslaved people who resided in Arlington and then immortalizing them with markers close to where they were enslaved,” says its president, Scott Taylor, who is seeking volunteers who know genealogy research. “It is important to myself and BHMA to be a voice for these people whom many have forgotten. Arlington is one of those counties where many don’t know slavery existed here.”

Jessica Kaplan, the society’s chief researcher on the project, shared with me some progress so far. There’s a digital map based on work by Bill Grether Jr. of the county government’s GIS Mapping Center that locates some 40 sites based on the homes of the enslavers on an overlay of modern Arlington streets.

Her fact sheets report on households of Arlington establishment families with names such as Harden, Birch, Minor, Hunter and Roach, who listed—with necessarily varied consistency—the first names of the enslaved workers, their genders and occupations: farmhand, house servant, chambermaid, cook, washer, driver, teamster, canal worker, field work foreman, assistant gardener, “utility” or handy man, and “boys given to Alexander Hunter Jr. as playmates.”

What kind of plaques would be produced and where they might be placed is still being determined. In Germany, some locals—even victims of the Holocaust—complained about the stones being placed on streets where pedestrians trod on them. An Arlington fight for another day.

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Trevor, the panhandler bearing the sign “Combat veteran, always faithful” stationed for more than a decade at the exit from I-66 onto Langston Blvd., has landed a job.

After more than a decade as a regular on the sidewalk near the Falls Church border (I occasionally donated), he told me last month he qualified to be trained as a truck driver by the Alexandria-based 1st CDL Training Center of NOVA.​

May the road rise up to meet him!

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A noted Arlington nonprofit has joined the beneficiaries of philanthropist MacKenzie Scott—ex-wife of another donor to local causes, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, whose national headquarters is on Wilson Blvd. in Ballston, announced Sept. 29 that it received an unrestricted gift of $30 million.

“Mental health is health, and this gift will contribute to our ongoing work to change the way mental health care is treated and delivered in this country,” said NAMI CEO Daniel H. Gillison Jr., citing its state and national efforts to combat stigma. “More and more people are now asking for help.”