Raw Deal for Black Freedom Trail

Exclusive: Columbia Pike has long been the most neglected corridor in Arlington, Virginia, despite or perhaps because of its historic role as the freedom trail for thousands of African-Americans fleeing the Confederacy and slavery. That neglect now has a new chapter as a planned Streetcar is killed, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, thousands of African-Americans began trudging north escaping the slaveholding Confederacy, finally reaching Union defenses in Arlington, Virginia. Many came via Columbia Pike, then the principal roadway to Washington DC and what became their freedom trail.

Some of these former slaves joined the U.S. Colored Troops training at nearby Camp Casey and went on to fight to eradicate slavery once and for all. Considered “contraband” or runaway slaves by the Confederates, the Colored Troops were sometimes subjected to summary executions if captured in battle. By the end of the war, they represented ten percent of the Union Army. Some 2,751 perished as combat casualties during the last two years of the war.

Freedman's Village as it appeared in Harper's Weekly in May 1864.

Freedman’s Village as it appeared in Harper’s Weekly in May 1864.

Meanwhile, many African-American families were settled along Columbia Pike in what had been Gen. Robert E. Lee’s plantation before he deserted the U.S. Army and became commander of Confederate forces. In 1863, as the flow of former slaves became a flood, U.S. Congress created Freedman’s Village as a semi-permanent refugee camp on land that now includes the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery and the Air Force Memorial.

Freedman’s Village survived until the end of the Nineteenth Century when it was disbanded with many of its residents moving into the historic black neighborhoods of South Arlington. However, by then, the white power structure had reasserted itself across the Old South. Segregation was the law of Virginia, enforced by lynching and other abuses while the federal government did little to intervene.

By the early Twentieth Century, there was also a fetish about honoring Confederate leaders. To drive home the point of who was in charge, the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1920 had the state government name a portion of Route One, which skirted South Arlington’s black neighborhoods, in honor of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist who had favored keeping African-Americans in chains forever.

This history is relevant again because it is the fact that South Arlington has remained the most racially diverse part of the county now with many Latinos and Asians as well as blacks and whites that has contributed to its perennial neglect. That was how things were during segregation and it is how they still are. Indeed, since the end of segregation in the 1960s, the divergence between predominantly white North Arlington and racially mixed South Arlington has widened, not narrowed.

Billions upon billions of taxpayers’ dollars have been invested in North Arlington, especially with the state-of-the-art Metro, both the Orange Line, which gives easy access to Washington, and the new Silver Line, which will reach Dulles Airport. This modern transportation system has spurred private development and has produced a financial windfall for residents lucky enough to have owned property in North Arlington.

There has also been pressure on the County Board to provide amenities suitable for the higher-income white professionals who live near the Orange Line, such as a $2 million “dog park renovation” near the Clarendon stop. By contrast, one of the biggest public works projects for South Arlington was an expanded sewage treatment plant to handle the increased sewage flow from North Arlington.

Bypassing the Pike

It’s not that there weren’t plans for some improvements along depressed and shabby Columbia Pike, where you’ll find check-cashing services and down-in-the-mouth strip malls. Initially, there was supposed to be a Metro line, but that was scrapped for financial reasons.

Then, early last decade, a series of neighborhood meetings were held to discuss how to improve the Columbia Pike corridor. It was at one of those meetings that an elderly black man rose to voice a longstanding complaint, that the historic black cemetery on Columbia Pike had been dug up to make room for a hotel.

A consensus emerged that it was important to retain the area’s ethnic diversity and its affordable housing while simultaneously making it less of a congested commuter pass-through. At the center of the plan was what amounted to a consolation prize for losing out on the Metro, a much cheaper light-rail Streetcar.

Though the County Board embraced the community’s plan, actual spending on South Arlington remained at the bottom of the to-do list. When it came to rebuilding the County’s three high schools, the two North Arlington schools came first and South Arlington’s came last. The two North Arlington schools now rank as the second and third best in Virginia. South Arlington’s school is in the forties.

Finally, the County Board got around to the Columbia Pike Streetcar, though over the intervening decade the projected price tag had risen substantially. Some opportunistic politicians and the local newspaper, the Sun-Gazette, which doesn’t even bother to distribute in much of South Arlington with its less desirable demographics, saw a useful wedge issue: why should money be “wasted” on South Arlington.

It turns out that one of the easiest political sells in the Old Confederacy is still to get white people to resent spending money on the black and brown parts of town even though possibly as much as half of the Streetcar budget (or around $150 million) was coming from the state (with much of the rest coming from a business transportation tax and nothing from homeowners).

So, when Republican John Vihstadt, who was running as an Independent on what amounted to a Tea Party anti-government platform, made killing the Columbia Pike Streetcar the centerpiece of his County Board campaign, the outcome had the feel of inevitability. Money poured in to Vihstadt’s campaign, so much so that he was able to put on television commercials in prime time.

Though unable to compete financially, Vihstadt’s Democratic opponent, Alan Howze, managed to hold his own in South Arlington. But Vihstadt ran up huge margins in North Arlington and won in a landslide.

The shaken Democrats were soon ready to run up the white flag, though they still held a three-to-two majority on the County Board. Abruptly, two North Arlington Democrats, Jay Fisette and Mary Hynes, switched sides on the Columbia Pike Streetcar, leaving only Walter Tejada, the County’s top Hispanic leader, favoring going forward.

But almost no one in Arlington wants to talk about the issue of race or the historical reasons why Columbia Pike and South Arlington are the way they are. The white people of North Arlington seethe over any suggestion that the continuing neglect of South Arlington has any racial aspect to it at all. They see themselves as living in a post-racial world with enlightened attitudes about non-white people.

However, everyone knows that it remains common practice in Arlington for realtors to steer young white professionals away from South Arlington because of “the schools,” which amounts to a code word for the area’s racial diversity. My disgust with this sly appeal to racism was why I bought a house in South Arlington in 1978 and sent all four of my children to “the schools.”

What I didn’t anticipate was that Arlington County would blithely continue to favor white North Arlington and do so little for racially diverse South Arlington, essentially maintaining the discriminatory pattern of public investments that were the rule during segregation.

So, when it comes to investing public money in Columbia Pike, the road that became the pathway to freedom for thousands of African-Americans escaping slavery, it has been decided that those people along the Pike don’t deserve anything approaching a modern, fast-moving and neighborhood-friendly system — even if that decision means turning back $150 million to the state for spending in other parts of Virginia.

While many of the upwardly mobile people of North Arlington now can operate almost car-free by using the Metro augmented by Zip cars and Uber taxis the people of South Arlington are told to make do with buses and the assurance that race has nothing to do with the disparity.

And, in case you’re wondering, the stretch of Route One through South Arlington is still called Jefferson Davis Highway. When I tried to make this outrage a county issue, I was told by a senior Arlington Democrat that any effort to rename it would simply be too divisive.

[For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Shameful History of Jeff Davis Highway” and “Is Arlington County, VA, Racist?”]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

9 comments for “Raw Deal for Black Freedom Trail

  1. Bruce Harmon
    December 5, 2014 at 16:43

    You’re recycling yourself. I read much of this a few weeks ago, shortly after the county board realized that the Vihstadt vote was a referendum on the streetcar and that forcing the issue would be political suicide for the Democratic party in Arlington.
    As a fellow resident of south Arlington, and a lifelong resident of Arlington, I’ll point out to your readers a few facts or interpretations that you left out. Spending by the county on south Arlington in recent years has included the sparkling new Long Bridge park, the brand new community center on Columbia Pike near Four Mile Run, the bike trail improvements, the Barcroft Park improvements including that excellent gym on Four Mile Run Drive, and of course, the famous “million-dollar bus stop” on Columbia Pike.
    You mentioned the sewage treatment plant, built years and years ago. Why is it there, instead of in north Arlington? Because water flows downhill, and that site close to where Four Mile Run flows into the river is probably the lowest point in the county. Why is Wakefield the third of the three high schools to be rebuilt? A good question, but I don’t think your south-Arlington-gets-the-fuzzy-end-of-the-lollipop reasoning is very strong. W-L was a horrible, horrible building in nearly urgent need of replacement. Yorktown, over in the richest part of town, was a cobbled-together mess built onto an earlier grade school that was built in the late 1940s or early ’50s.
    Wakefield, far down in south Arlington, was the new, state-of-the-art high school, and while possibly in need of replacement was in nowhere the same shabby state as the other two buildings. I was surprised, in fact, that they decided to replace it, but it will certainly be a state-of-the-art facility, probably even more modern than W-L or Yorktown when it’s finished. And, by the way, have you noticed that W-L, despite being brand-new, now has kids going to class in trailers, over there on Quincy Street?
    As far as the benefits of the Metro Orange Line/Interstate 66 construction are concerned, you neglected to mention the more-than-200 houses that were condemned and torn down to make room for the project. And you really should point out to your readers who don’t live here that the Silver Line to Dulles airport is a spur off the Orange Line; you write as if there were a choice in where to build it, but Metro is where it is, and the airport is where it is — how would a more racially diverse approach change that? You also failed to tell your readers that the Metro Blue Line does, in fact, pass through south Arlington — in fact, much of it is within a couple blocks of Rt 1, the infamous Jefferson Davis Highway that was not so-named by anyone in Arlington, another fact you failed to tell your readers.
    In my 60-some years as an Arlington resident, I have lived in central Arlington, north Arlington and in south Arlington. Now living in south Arlington, just a few blocks from where you live, I enjoy the slightly greater level of racial, ethnic and economic diversity, but in no way to I feel that we’re getting less than “they” get, and I can tell you that I certainly don’t miss the thunder of the jets taking off from National airport, an amenity that the folks in the million-dollar houses over by Lorcom Lane enjoy every two minutes, starting at 6 am.
    As to the streetcar, like many of my neighbors, I was at best an equivocal supporter, realizing as they did that there isn’t room on that four-lane road for a streetcar and also realizing that I would almost never have used it even though it would have run four blocks from my house. The buses and auto traffic on Columbia Pike are a big pain, and while the road is unlovely, it’s not a whole lot unlovelier than Wilson Blvd. or lee Highway, especially since they replaced the 7-11 at Lee Highway and George Mason Drive with a Title Max.
    Concluding, I think you raise some interesting points, but push them farther than the facts will go. Not many of your readers outside of Arlington will know that, however, so you’re good.

    • Bruce Harmon
      December 5, 2014 at 16:49

      I should have made it clear that Wakefield was the new state-of-the-art high school WHEN IT WAS BUILT, which was in the 1950s. It’s been eclipsed, and so being replaced, but the original Wakefield building was a lot newer than the much older original Washington-Lee building.

      • Bruce Harmon
        December 5, 2014 at 16:59

        Hey, I just noticed that your headline promised another raw deal for Freedman’s Village, but you never explained that. I think that there were some in the county who wanted a museum or something to memorialize the site, which probably was where the Navy Annex was before they tore it down this year. The county worked out some kind of land swap with the Feds so they can expand Arlington Cemetery to make room for more bodies from our perpetual wars, and as part of that deal I think they’re supposed to build something to recognize Freedman’s Village. Not sure where that stands now.

    • Zachary Smith
      December 5, 2014 at 19:47

      Because water flows downhill, and that site close to where Four Mile Run flows into the river is probably the lowest point in the county.

      I suppose you meant to say that in general, the southern part of Arlington County is lower than the northern part. That’s because everywhere along the river is darned near the same elevation. Still, it would have been nice if you’d offered a link to a Topo map. An outsider like myself can make very little sense out of your local situation without many links, and neither you nor Mr. Parry were providing any.

      … the infamous Jefferson Davis Highway that was not so-named by anyone in Arlington

      This doesn’t explain why the good citizens of the area don’t RENAME the highway. That’s a spit in the face of everybody who doesn’t embrace treason. Be assured I’d not be happy driving on a “Robert E. Lee” Freeway or a “Benedict Arnold” Road – those were two more world-class American traitors.

      • Bruce Harmon
        December 6, 2014 at 15:24

        I don’t know how to provide links, sorry. But yes, the highest elevations in Arlington are in the north and west areas, and the whole county basically slopes to the southeast, into the Potomac River. But of course, the river is not all at the same level — it would be a lake if that were so. Four Mile Run drains much of Arlington, although there are some smaller streams flowing directly into the Potomac from the highest points.
        I really don’t know if the “good people” of Arlington have it in their power to rename a federal highway; it’s always stuck in my craw that Rt. 1 is named for Jefferson Davis — that name carries on down through much of the south, except interestingly, in Alexandria and down toward Richmond it’s designated Richmond Highway. As for naming highways for other rebels, Lee Highway runs through north Arlington and throughout all of Northern Virginia there are tons of things named for various confederates and slaveowners such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. Again, interestingly, when Stonewall Jackson grade school was remade into a “traditional” school in the ’70s, Jackson’s name was quietly dropped. The “Lee Mansion,” whose formal name is Arlington House, was in fact the property of the woman whom Lee married; Custis was her family name, and I’m not sure Robert E. Lee ever lived there. The slaves were not his “property”, they were hers, and if I remember this correctly, I don’t think Lee had any slaves. But George Washington, father of our country did, and another fact that’s not widely recognized, at the time of the revolution there were slaves in ALL of the colonies/states — All OF THE– and slavery was continued for several decades before dying out in most of the north. Many of the great fortunes on which the liberal capitalist economy of the northeastern states was built were derived from the slave trade. I say that lest anyone become too enthusiastic about casting stones.

      • Zachary Smith
        December 6, 2014 at 18:55

        … I don’t think Lee had any slaves.

        The many accounts I’ve read say he did. Example:


        And that he was a nastier slave-owner than most.

        Regarding Washington:

        Despite having been an active slave holder for 56 years, George Washington struggled with the institution of slavery and spoke frequently of his desire to end the practice. At the end of this life Washington made the bold step to free his slaves in his 1799 will – the only slave-holding Founding Father to do so.


        On a scale of one to ten, Washington is at least a “9”, but Robert E. Lee is a “0” because he was determined to destroy the US to preserve a horrible institution. That he was a middling good (in the tactical sense) general doesn’t weigh in on the morality scale.

        As far as the ‘original sin’ argument goes, the Brits were worse than the Americans at the start of slaving. But they sort of ‘got religion’ and began opposing the practice. The grandchildren of British slavers were NOT responsible for what grandpa did.

        In terms of morality, I don’t feel any special shame because one of my Revolutionary war ancestors was a slave owner. That was many generations ago, and his sins don’t transfer to me. Still, it’s a point of pride that gentleman was the ONLY slave owner. Another is that not a single ancestor of mine fought for the South. A crazy southern cousin has been trying to locate some delusional patriots and/or traitors in his family tree. No luck so far, thank goodness.

  2. Evangelista
    December 4, 2014 at 21:27

    Mr. Parry, I suggest you read Claude Bowers” book “The Tragic Era”, and what you can of his references and bibliography. Actually read the pages and material. If you do you will recognize a lot of parallels to today, with some remarkable (as in worth remarking, not “amazing¨ ) contrasts. Among the parallels are the manners and styles and actions of the politicians and political leaders. Also the behaviors of the powerful and empowered against the unempowered. Also the importance of suborning the press to the maintenance of the injustice, pillage and robbery. Among the contrasts you should notice the “plight” of the defeated, and how the cases illustrating parallel situations today, including unequal justice and permitted, condoned and abetted thuggery oppression, abuse and murder. You should notice that the victims in the “Tragic Era” were white people, and you should take notice that the abuses parallel uncomfortably closely the abuses today being practiced against black people.
    You should come away with a better understanding of the issues that are being flapped around today as “racist” issues. The issues are not in fact race issues, even though they appear and even masquerade as race issues. The issues are abuse and corruption issues. They are chameleon and take whatever forms the corrupt and abusive are able to color them with. They are the underlying issues, and they boomerang: Jim Crow came out of the so-called “reconstruction”, and reactionary response will come out of the present corruption. About the best that can be done will be to try to focus the reaction to prevent as much peripheral damage and point it to the corrupt and abusive. Knee-jerk racism, for whatever race, or against whatever race, is red-herring and draws attention away from the real core issues, which are directed against anyone of any race, religion or “other” classification that the abusers can use to justify their abusings.

  3. Zachary Smith
    December 4, 2014 at 16:52

    But a vocal contingent of Arlingtonians questioned the promised benefits of the project — whose price tag eventually reached $550 million — and wondered whether it was an example of county-funded excess.


    It was impossible for me to make any sense out of the situation, for the quoted numbers were all over the place. And they seemed to go up constantly – for no visible reason. I found a piece saying that bus stops were to cost 1 million dollars apiece!

    Tinfoil hat time: the local Powers That Be never had any intention of actually building anything for anybody but White Folks. But it was advantageous to pretend they would. Allow time to pass, and to opposition to peak by gold plating the parts of the project which weren’t already made of solid silver.

    Following this line of reasoning, I’d predict the replacement bus service will be as nearly worthless as it’s possible to make it. Supposing it actually happens at all.

  4. Michael\\
    December 4, 2014 at 16:36

    Excellent article. Thank you. There is so much temerity but so little nobility in the technocratic American elite and it’s essential identifying characteristic is comfort with and fearlessness about being exposed as bigoted. Despite the material opportunity available to this pragmatic but insular and thoughtless cohort, who other than heartless fools is shallow and bland enough to wish to be in their racist company? South Arlington wins and rules! M\\

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