Article and photos by Renee S. Gordon
The first documented sighting of the area that is now
Arlington is attributed to Captain John Smith who in July of
1608 sailed into the region and took note of a Native
American village along the river. In 1610 Captain Argall was
refused supplies by the tribe and in response burned and
pillaged the village. Though the Indians had lived on this
land for at least 13,500-years the Iroquois granted all land
south of the Potomac and east of the Blue Ridge Mountains to
colonial Virginia in 1722.
In 1699 John Alexander purchased 600-acres and populated the
area with tenant farmers. Gerard Alexander constructed
Abingdon Plantation in Arlington in 1740. It was home to
George Washington’s stepson and the ruins of the mansion are
now part of the Reagan International Airport complex. In
1742 another of the earliest colonists, John Ball, acquired
166-acres and erected a log house.
The one-room cabin, the Ball-Sellers House, is home to the
Arlington Historical Society. It is the oldest residence in
the county and retains its original logs and pegged
floorboards and is listed on the National Register of
Historic Places (NRHP). In 1749 a portion of Alexander land
was used to establish Alexandria. The
26-sq. miles that make up Arlington County were part of
Alexandria until 1920 when the areas split and it took the
name of the Robert E. Lee plantation.
George Washington in 1791 instituted a survey to establish a
10-mile square Federal District and upon its completion all
of Arlington County was included. In 1847 it was determined
that all the land was not needed and Alexandria County was
retroceded to Virginia. Benjamin Banneker, a freedman, was
part of the survey team and performed the astronomical
calculations. The 1-ft. sq. sandstone SW 9 Intermediate
Boundary Stone at 18th and North Van Buren
Streets has been officially designated the Banneker Boundary
Stone and is listed on the NRHP.
The Potomac River served as a dividing line between North
and South during the Civil War and Arlington County,
immediately south of the river, was immediately caught up in
the hostilities. The Union marched across the Potomac and
occupied Arlington Heights shortly after the South fired on
Fort Sumter and Robert E. Lee resigned his commission and
agreed to lead Virginia’s Provisional Army. By war’s end
more than twenty forts had been constructed in the area to
protect Washington. John Custis inherited 1,100-acres of
Abingdon Plantation and on his new estate he had a mansion,
Mount Washington, built in 1802 using the labor of his more
than 200 slaves. The plantation was renamed Arlington and
the mansion’s interior was a homage to George Washington,
filled with memorabilia and relics. Mary Randolph Custis
married Robert E. Lee in 1831 and they spent a significant
amount of time there. Mary inherited the entire estate in
1857. In 1861 the Lees left the mansion for the South never
to return. Prior to her departure Mrs. Lee gave the
responsibility for the care of the home, furnishings and
George Washington mementos to Selina Gray, her enslaved
housekeeper, personal maid and seamstress. It is through her
efforts that many of the heirlooms were saved during the
federal occupation of the house. Her daughters were later
instrumental in restoring the site by providing valuable
The estate was confiscated for failure to pay the taxes. The
homeowner, in this case Mrs. Lee, did not appear to pay the
$92.07 in person as required by law. The US Government then
purchased the estate for $
Tours of the mansion include the first and second floor and
basement, gardens, museum and house workers slave quarters.
The North and South Slave Quarters contain exhibits on
Arlington’s enslaved workers’, the Freedman’s Village and
Selina Gray. Each building contains three rooms.
Ironically Custis left instructions in his 1857 will that
his slaves were to be given $50,00 and freed five years
after his death. R. E. Lee, the executor of the estate,
freed Arlington’s slaves in 1862 even though the Union was
then in control of Arlington and the estate was bankrupt.
During the Civil War many slaves fled the South and made
their way to the District of Columbia and the federal
government sought to solve the housing problem by
establishing the Freedman’s Village Settlement on December
4, 1863. Freedmen
paid $10 a month for rent in the village complex that
contained houses, chapels, a hospital and a school and
thrived from 1863-88. On Dec. 7, 1887 the villagers were
given 90 days to leave. They were also given $75,000 to
split among them for improvements to the property.
Quartermaster General of the Army Montgomery Meigs was given
the task of locating land for the internment of the growing
number of war casualties. He chose Lee’s property because he
considered him a traitor and he received permission to
establish a cemetery on 200-acres of the Arlington estate.
Early graves are near the house to render it uninhabitable
should the family wish to return.
|John and Jack Kennedy
James Parks, once an Arlington slave, was the first
gravedigger. Upon his death in 1929 he was interred in
Section 15 and remains the sole individual buried in
Arlington Cemetery who was born on the estate and the first
African American with a named grave.
Section 27 contains Grave #19, the first burial on May 13,
1864, a Pennsylvania Army Private William Christman. Section
27 also holds the gravesites of 1,500 US Colored Troops and
as many as 3,800 former slaves from Freedman’s Village.
Their gravestones are denoted by the words “Citizen” or
|JFK Eternal Flame
Tours of Arlington include the 1873 Old Amphitheater, the
Changing of the Guard Ceremony, the Kennedy burial sites and
those of other notables such as Joe Louis, Thurgood
Marshall, Brig. General Benjamin O. Davis, General Daniel
“Chappie” James and Medgar Evers. I highly recommend a
guided shuttle tour. The shuttles make three stops and the
service begins at 8:30 AM. Tickets can be purchased online.
Arlington National Cemetery will commemorate its 150th
anniversary May – June 2014 with a series of special events
and activities. Unique guided tours have ben planned and can
be booked in advance.
After the Freedman’s Village disbanded several African
American neighborhoods and institutions were formed in
Arlington. The most notable of these was Arlington View,
Hall’s Hill and Nauck. Eighty-five members of the former Old
Bell Church founded Mount Olive Baptist Church in 1873.
Nauck was originally settled in 1844 by Levi Jones a free
black man and the neighborhood grew rapidly after 1878.
Selina Gray’s son Harry purchased 10-acres of land and
constructed the first red brick townhouse in the county in
1881. Harry went from life as a slave to being a 40-year
employee of the U.S. Patent Office. The house is at 1005
South Quinn Street. Nauck was also the location of the
residence of Dr. Charles R. Drew who proved that blood
plasma could be separated from whole blood and “banked.” He
protested the armed services decision to separate blood by
race in banks and after his resignation he became Professor
of Surgery at Howard University and the Freedman Hospital’s
Chief of Surgery. His home was at 2505 First Street South.
The Women in Military Service for America Memorial is
located at the entrance to the cemetery and honors all of
the more than 2.5-million women who have served our country.
A few of the women commemorated there are Army Sgt. Danyell
Wilson, the first African American woman to Guard the Tomb
of the Unknowns and Cathay Williams, a former slave who
joined the Buffalo Soldiers as William Cathay in 1866. She
has the distinction of being the only African American
female to serve in the Army before women were legally
permitted to enlist. The memorial was dedicated in 1997.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Museum and
Visitors Center is open for tours. It focuses on the impact
of the illegal drug trade and the US efforts to combat their
In October 2006 the Air Force Memorial was dedicated to all
the past, present and future airmen. The memorial complex
showcases a trio of soaring stainless steel spires, 201, 231
and 270-ft. tall, that embody the spirit of flight. Four
8-ft bonze figures represent the Honor Guard, there are two
inscription walls and a contemplation wall with an inscribed
depiction of the Missing Man Formation, the aerial salute to
honor a fallen airman. The site is free and provides
spectacular views of the monuments in Washington, DC.
|Pentagon Memorial Sign
Tours of the Pentagon, the Headquarters of the Department of
Defense, are offered with a two-week reservation. Uniformed
guides lead you through approximately 1-mile of the
17.5-miles of corridors while narrating and walking
backwards. The 6,636,360-sq. ft. building was to have been a
temporary wartime measure to consolidate the armed forces to
enhance coordination of efforts and communications.
Construction began on September 11, 1941 and was completed
on January 15, 1943. There are 131 stairways, 19 sets of
escalators, 284 restrooms and 7,754 windows each weighing
The 583-acre compound is the largest office building in the
world. It has three levels above ground and two below. Each
corridor is dedicated to relating an aspect of US military
history including POW/MIA, General MacArthur, the Coast
Guard, Humanitarian Missions, NATO and Soldiers and Signers
of the Constitution. The interior 9-11 Memorial is located
within the area of the attack.
At 9:37 AM on Sept. 11, 2001 American Flight 77 crashed into
the Pentagon affecting 20% of the structure and killing 125
people inside the Pentagon and 59 aboard the airplane. The
Pentagon Memorial was designed and paid for by the victim’s
families and was dedicated on September 11, 2008. Benches
are inscribed with the names of the victims in order of
their ages from three to 77-years old. Benches oriented
toward the building are inscribed with the names of victims
who were inside the Pentagon while benches oriented toward
the sky were on Flight 77. The site, adjacent to the
Pentagon, is free and is handicapped accessible. This is the
only memorial in the area that is situated on the actual
site where the event occurred.
Arlington County is an ideal base from which to explore The
District or a great idea for a stand-alone destination. The
county comprises seven urban villages each with its own
trendy art scene, eclectic restaurants, shopping
opportunities and wide range of accommodations. There are 11
metro stops to ensure that mobility is not a problem and
most of the sites are within walking distance.
Plan a vacation that includes all the possibilities
Arlington County has to offer. I promise you will run out of
time before you run out of things to do.
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