Lyon’s Legacy is a limited-run opinion column on the history of housing in Arlington. The views expressed are solely the author’s.
Lyon’s Legacy was a series that ran for the last four months on ARLnow, telling a story of the history of housing and racism in Arlington, and putting forward a suggestion for one way we could end the regime of economic exclusion that has dominated most of our county for the last century. As the series ran, some eagle-eyed readers kindly identified a few mistakes in the historical research.
In this follow-up article, I’ll address and hopefully correct those errors. You can read the whole essay, with these corrections incorporated, here.
All of these errors are significant, in the sense that any factual error in a piece of historical writing is significant. But correcting these errors does not change Arlington’s history of racial exclusion through single-family zoning and does not change our responsibility to end this exclusion by legalizing multifamily housing county-wide.
I offer my apologies to readers for my failures in research and my gratitude for those who helpfully corrected my mistakes.
1. My description of Freedman’s Village failed to mention that residents were subject to labor requirements — a major omission. Nonetheless the Village was a better place for Black people to live in the 1870s than most of the rest of the South, as proven by their commitment to staying there until they were evicted in the winter of 1887. An imperfect attempt at racial inclusion would still make a fine symbol for our county.
2. Crandal Mackey’s raid on Rosslyn was not solely motivated by white supremacy. I failed to mention that one of the primary victims of the raid, Eddie Heath, was white; I underemphasized the extent to which violent and non-violent crimes did indeed take place in Rosslyn; and for the sake of the narrative I didn’t mention the same-day raid in Jackson City (another relatively unsegregated community).
Mackey was also a prohibitionist, and it may well be that he saw alcohol, rather than Black people, as the more significant barrier to Arlington’s development. But prohibition and racism were closely intertwined, and it’s worth remembering that drugs are still used as an excuse for selective enforcement and police brutality today.
3. Arlington did not institute segregation districts in 1912. Virginia passed a law in 1912 permitting localities to institute such districts, and five years later the law was deemed unconstitutional. During that five years, Arlington did not take advantage of its power to segregate. This detail is pretty much irrelevant to the history of segregation after 1917.
4. When touching on the history of economic racism in America, I referenced median household wealth. This can be a misleading indicator because it doesn’t account for variation in age, family size, etc. But my argument wasn’t meant to be nuanced — I was only trying to show that there exists a large historical racial wealth gap in our country. This inequity is real, and it can be illustrated by any number of more nuanced indicators.
No matter how it’s measured, the racial wealth gap has a major bearing on people’s ability to buy single-family homes in Arlington.
5. I failed to tell the stories of other racial and ethnic groups besides Black and white Arlingtonians. A major portion of our county today is Hispanic or Latino, and we boast sizable populations from countries all around the world. Those are fascinating, important stories, and they deserve to be told well in their own articles.
Lyon’s Legacy is a limited-run opinion column on the history of housing in Arlington. The views expressed are solely the author’s.
I grew up in Arlington because, in the 90s, it was a place where middle-class parents could afford to own a home and raise two children. I loved my childhood here. But because of Arlington’s economically-exclusive zoning laws and their contribution to rising housing prices, I don’t expect to be able to give my kids the same.
This is the eighth and last part of Lyon’s Legacy, a biweekly series on ARLnow. You can read the whole thing, with citations, here.
As I grew up, my family lived in three neighborhoods: Tara-Leeway, Woodland Acres, and Cherrydale. All were wonderful, with lovely neighbors, beautiful parks, friendly schools, and — my favorite — peaceful libraries. But all three are subject to restrictive single-family zoning, prices have skyrocketed, and on my NGO salary I can’t imagine ever being able to afford a home and children in any of them.
Now I am grown enough to see that Arlington has a choice. We can leave our zoning restrictions in place and watch our county turn into an exclusive enclave of the super-rich. Or we can build a few stories taller, turn some car parking into bike lanes, and smile at the kids of the new middle-class family in the apartment next door.
Legalize six-unit apartments on any lot in Arlington. Use the zoning code, not the GLUP. Remove requirements for setbacks and off-street parking. Build bike lanes, bus lanes, schools, and parks to provide for the new residents. Legalize neighborhood retail. Our neighborhoods will not only become more inclusive, they will also become more sustainable, economically productive, safer, socially-connected, and physically and mentally healthy.
Lyon’s changes to our county a century ago were radical. He and men like him utterly transformed Arlington, converting it from farmland to exclusive suburbs. Many things that Lyon did were good: he left us with beautiful parks and charming homes. But he also left us with laws, forged in racism, that have only become more stringently exclusive as housing prices have risen over the last few decades. To expunge racist exclusion from Lyon’s legacy in Arlington, we now must be as bold as he was then.
Confronting exclusive zoning, we not only face racial injustice — we face our own contributions to global climate change. Those of us living in Arlington’s northwestern, single-family, economically-exclusive ZIP codes of 22205 and 22207 have the largest carbon footprint in the county, over 60 CO2-equivalent tonnes of greenhouse gas per household per year. Carbon emissions in DC’s ZIP codes of 20001 and 20009 are about half of that. This is largely because people living in walkable neighborhoods drive cars less, but also because it’s more efficient to heat and cool apartments than single-family homes.
Just as with housing affordability, in climate change a compromise is insufficient. Minor increases in density through duplexes or rowhomes will not be enough to overcome Arlington’s car dependence and allow us to live less carbon-intensive lifestyles, doing our part to restrict anthropogenic global warming to 1.5 degrees C. Nor will electric cars, not when their batteries depend on extractive rare-earth mining and electricity from burning coal. If Arlington believed in climate science and in the urgency of the crisis, we would get rid of our garages, not just change what we park in them.
Lyon’s Legacy is a limited-run opinion column on the history of housing in Arlington. The views expressed are solely the author’s.
“A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups. By policy, I mean written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people. There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.”
– Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be An Antiracist
This is the penultimate part of Lyon’s Legacy, a biweekly series on ARLnow (you can read the whole thing, with citations, here). Until now we’ve been looking back into history, trying to understand the part racism played in Arlington’s transformation into a suburb. This time we’ll see what antiracism could do in the transformations of today. This time we’ll face the Missing Middle Housing Study, and you’ll learn what you can do to make your voice heard.
‘Missing-middle’ housing is anything denser than a single-family detached house but smaller than a high-rise tower. The ‘white-washed, one-and-a-half story duplexes’ of the Freedman’s Village were a form of missing-middle housing. So are the rowhomes of Georgetown, the triple-deckers of New England, the five-story canal houses of Amsterdam, the eight-story city blocks of Paris. A century ago, Frank Lyon and people like him made them illegal in Arlington. In most of our county, our zoning still bans them today.
By setting aside three-quarters of our land for single-family homes, our zoning code artificially inflates the supply and deflates the cost of high-end houses, while doing the opposite to apartments and condos. Our zoning code privileges the wealthy.
Over the next two years, the ongoing Missing Middle Housing Study could legalize some forms of more affordable housing. The question is whether it will legalize enough. The math is clear: wealth inequality is so extreme that legalizing duplexes alone won’t make Arlington the inclusive county we say we want to be. We have to legalize apartments.
The median income for Black households in the greater Washington area is about $75,000 per year, while the median income for white households is $124,000. A home is affordable when the sale price is no more than roughly 4.5 times the family’s annual income, so a median-income Black family can afford to buy a home costing up to about $340,000.
Existing houses in Arlington cost an average of $959,000, up by over $100,000 since 2018 alone. But for new single-family detached houses with five or more bedrooms in Arlington, which are by far the most common kind of new house in our county, buyers are willing to pay an average of over $1,600,000. The gap between what Black families can buy and what our zoning code produces, the gap between $340,000 and $1,600,000 — that gap is Lyon’s legacy.
The gap between $340,000 and $1,600,000 is also the first thing we need to know in order to undo Lyon’s legacy. It tells us that duplexes, like the ones in Freedman’s Village, won’t be enough. Half of $1,600,000 is $800,000, and $800,000 is still too much.
So what kind of housing would median Black families be able to afford in Arlington? Assume it costs $2,000,000 per lot to replace an old single-family home with a new missing-middle one. This is almost certainly an underestimate, so it’ll underestimate the density required. $2,000,000 divided by $340,000 is about six. Six is the magic number for the Missing Middle Housing Study. If we make it legal and feasible to build six-unit buildings on any plot, then landowners will be able to build housing that is dense enough to be racially inclusive while also being profitable enough to compete with the demand for single-family homes.
You can see the details in your own neighborhood by using a model I’ve assembled using data from across the county. The economic reality is more complicated, yes, but the model is a first-order place to start.
To make apartments and condos feasible, we have to do more than make them legal. Today, single-family detached houses are required to have ‘setbacks’ — yards in front, in back, and on both sides, and they must have parking spaces. There are also height restrictions. We must remove those onerous requirements. Two years ago, Minneapolis legalized three-unit buildings in every neighborhood. But they didn’t change any setback or parking requirements. The reform didn’t work: you can count the number of new three-unit buildings since then on one hand. In addition to removing setback, parking, and height restrictions, these new buildings must also be legal for anyone to build, without a costly review process: we must have a rezoning rather than a GLUP change.
This kind of zoning isn’t insanity. It won’t tear Arlington apart. Similar reforms have already been adopted in Sacramento, CA and Portland, OR. Many others, including Charlotte, NC, are considering the policy. These cities haven’t transformed overnight, but they’re gradually starting to see more affordable homes being built.
Legalize apartments, anywhere in Arlington. These could include subdivided houses, garages and sheds turned into studios, or new homes built in backyards. They could be mixed-use, with homes above cafes, restaurants, corner stores, or bakeries. Somewhere, neighbors might consolidate their lots to build together. Elsewhere, someone with a large lot might subdivide it, selling their backyard and keeping their home.
The H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program is housed today at 1601 Wilson Boulevard, a hundred-million-dollar building located not far from the place in Rosslyn where, a little over a century ago, a posse fired at a fleeing Black man because white landowners wanted to make the county more profitable for real-estate development.
But when I was a student at the H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program, it was housed at 4100 Vacation Lane. That building had once been Stratford Junior High School, and on February 2nd, 1959, it was the first school in the Commonwealth of Virginia to be racially integrated.
When I skipped class for pizza, my slices came from the same shopping strip where, in 1960, Howard University students faced off against the American Nazi Party in sit-ins that desegregated eateries across Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax. We studied that history with pride during my four years at H-B. We may even have studied the 1968 Supreme Court decision that made racially-restrictive covenants — Lyon’s bluntest tool — illegal across the nation.
But somehow, despite Arlington’s proud history of civil rights activism, my H-B graduating class of perhaps 90 students included only three or four who were Black. The number of other racial and ethnic minorities, and of low-income white students, was also disproportionately small. We studied school integration, sit-ins, and voting rights at H-B Woodlawn. What we did not study were the ways that implicitly-racist policies, like exclusive zoning, survived that activism and remain with us today.
This is the sixth part of Lyon’s Legacy, a biweekly series (you can read the whole thing, with citations, here). This series is not intended to claim that Frank Lyon or his developments are uniquely responsible for Arlington’s present problems. Rather, the particular story of Lyon is meant to illustrate the broader history of how economically-exclusive zoning, established a century ago in an atmosphere of white supremacy, still dominates our county and our nation today.
In Frank Lyon’s time, just decades after Emancipation, Black Americans usually — though of course not always — had less money to spend on housing than white Americans did. By creating large lots and banning missing-middle housing, developers of the time ensured that their homes would be so expensive that low-income people, including most Black people, couldn’t afford them.
That was the beginning of a two-handed strategy that keeps Black families out of places like Arlington to this day. With one hand, as we saw two weeks ago, local and federal governments adopted the technique, pioneered by Lyon and his peers across the country, of economic exclusion through car-oriented, low-density land use. With the other, the same governments limited financial and employment opportunities for Black people, trapping many in a cycle of poverty. By the time that explicitly-racist policies were curtailed in the 1960s and ’70s, the damage had been done, and most Black people were priced out of most suburbs.
A century ago, white supremacy in Arlington was bigger than Frank Lyon. It reached up into the County Board, down into secret societies, and so deeply into our county’s life that its fingerprints are still found in our elections, our zoning laws, and traces hiding in our rafters and backyards.
This is the fifth part of Lyon’s Legacy, a biweekly series on ARLnow (you can read the whole thing, with citations, here). It will tell an eight-part history of how Black people, and other groups that experience racial or economic discrimination, have been excluded from living in Arlington County.
Last time, we saw how Frank Lyon and other private developers used three strategies to keep Black people out of their new neighborhoods: racially-restrictive covenants, economically-exclusive zoning, and automobile-oriented design. This week, we’ll see how Arlington’s government — like governments across the country — adopted these techniques of segregation and imposed them everywhere.
Lyon wasn’t alone in wanting an all-white Arlington. In 1912 the County Board passed a segregation act preventing the sale of houses to Black people in all new developments. The law was in effect for five years until a 1917 Supreme Court decision nullified such government-imposed segregation policies across the nation. But private restrictive covenants like those used by Lyon, on individual homes and neighborhoods, weren’t made illegal for another few decades.
The County Board’s first attempt to keep Black people out of Arlington was vexed by the Supreme Court. But they didn’t give up. The Board adapted Lyon’s technique of exclusivity through expense into Arlington’s first-ever county-wide zoning code in 1930.
Almost the entire county was zoned exclusively for single-family detached houses. The code made it illegal to build apartments, rowhouses, duplexes, or stacked flats across Arlington. This ban kept poor people out of new suburbs and it arrested the growth of existing Black communities, most of which already had the middle-density housing that the zoning code forbade. Unlike the restrictive covenants, which were nullified decades ago, this economically-exclusive zoning remains in effect on almost three-quarters of our county.
Exclusive zoning was motivated, in part if not entirely, by white supremacy. The same zoning code also enabled the construction of a racial segregation wall to separate Hall’s Hill, which was Black, from the white neighborhoods of Fostoria and Waycroft. Parts of this wall still stand today, though many of the remains were toppled in 2019’s July flash flood. One of the code’s authors, Edward Duncan, helped to write the 1912 segregation law. The 1930 zoning code was not racist in its language, but it was racist in its intent and its impacts.
Arlington wasn’t uniquely racist. The story was familiar across the country.
Legal historian Richard Rothstein shows: “…there was also enough open racial intent behind exclusionary zoning that it is integral to the story of de jure [legal] segregation. Such economic zoning was rare in the United States before World War I, but the Buchanan decision [by the Supreme Court to ban explicit segregation] provoked urgent interest in zoning as a way to circumvent the ruling.”
Still today, in many major American cities, as much as 90% of residential land is zoned exclusively for single-family detached houses.
Nor was the zoning code the only county-wide racist policy that Arlington witnessed in 1930. In the beginning of that year, four members of Arlington’s Black community offered their candidacy for County Board. At the time, that body’s seats were determined on the basis of district, unlike our at-large elections today.
In the light of Arlington’s geographic segregation, the district voting system meant that a Black candidate actually had a shot at winning. For white Arlingtonians, this was unacceptable.
“IN THIS early-twentieth-century era, when African Americans in the South faced terror that maintained them in subjugation, when African Americans throughout the nation were being driven from small towns where they had previously enjoyed a measure of integration and safety, and when the federal government had abandoned its African American civil servants, we should not be surprised to learn that there was a new dedication on the part of public officials to ensure that white families’ homes would be removed from proximity to African Americans in large urban areas.”
Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law
A century ago, Robert E. Lee defeated both George Washington and Pocahontas. The contest? A decision to rename the county today known as Arlington.
In 1919, this was Alexandria County. But it was growing. The county was tired of being confused with Alexandria City to its south. So the Civic Federation held a contest to choose a new name, and “Arlington,” the name of Robert E. Lee’s personal mansion, won out over our nation’s first president and one of its most mythologized Native inhabitants.
This is the fourth part of Lyon’s Legacy, a biweekly series (you can read the whole thing, with citations, here). It will tell an eight-part history of how Black people, and other groups that experience racial or economic discrimination, have been excluded from living in Arlington County. Last week, the story told how Frank Lyon and his allies built their power in our county. This week we’ll see what they did with it.
Arlington’s new symbol was a good one to represent the new county that men like Frank Lyon were building. Lee fought for white supremacy just decades earlier, and the Union army drove him out of his home. Now Lyon led the county’s developers and planners to create a new Arlington. Frank Lyon, by pen and by brick, would succeed where Lee by sword had failed. The developers and planners of Lyon’s day embeded white supremacy so deeply in the foundation of our county that it has not yet today been driven out.
The raid in Rosslyn was a turning point. Shortly after that day, Lyon claimed a stake in the county’s land values: he became a real-estate developer. First, he joined a colleague to build a few blocks of houses in Clarendon; then he bought out that colleague’s share of the business and built a few more. But it wasn’t until 1919, the year of the county’s renaming, that Lyon really got going. That year he broke ground on Lyon Park. Four years later he began Lyon Village. Today those neighborhoods hold about 3,500 houses. Lyon’s partners in the Good Citizen’s League built many other neighborhoods: Maywood, for example, was largely organized by Crandall Mackey. By the time Lyon was done, nearly three percent of all the land in Arlington County had passed through his personal hands.
Frank Lyon, like other white developers and legislators of the time, did all he could to keep Black people out of Arlington. Lyon used three methods to this end: restrictive covenants, exclusive zoning, and automobile-oriented design.
Lyon’s first technique was blunt. Whenever he sold land, Frank Lyon made a binding contract with the buyer that they would never sell or lease the land to Black people or to any other non-whites. The legal agreement remained with the property, so that no Black person would ever be able to live on the land except as a servant. This type of contract was called a “restrictive covenant,” and it was the most explicit weapon in Lyon’s arsenal.
One such covenant mandates that “neither said property nor any part thereof nor any interest therein shall be sold or leased to any one not of the Caucasian race.” Racism even became a selling point. Lyon Village was advertised under the claim that it was “reserved for the white race alone.”
The second technique was pragmatic: Like many developers of his time, Frank Lyon made sure his houses would be expensive.
“Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose… That exactly is what this convention was elected for — to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limitation of the federal Constitution, with the view to the elimination of every Negro voter who can be gotten rid of.”
Carter Glass, Virginia Constitutional Convention, 1902
Arlington wasn’t always white. Before 1900, the population of the county was nearly 40% African-American. By 1950, it was less than 5%. Today, the number is still less than 10%.
This is the third part of Lyon’s Legacy, a biweekly series on ARLnow (you can read the whole thing, with citations, here). It will tell an eight-part history of how Black people, and other groups that experience racial or economic discrimination, have been excluded from living in Arlington County. Last week, the story told who Frank Lyon was and what he found when he arrived in the county. This week, it will tell how he began to leave his mark.
In 1901, Frank Lyon and Crandal Mackey travelled to Norfolk to attend the Virginia Commonwealth Constitutional Convention. As at similar conventions across the South, the convention’s leaders hoped to use the resurgent power of white Democrats to upend the Reconstruction-era constitution that had enfranchised Black citizens.
Lyon served as Clerk of the Committee; Mackey was one of our county’s delegates. In Norfolk, they heard Senator Carter Glass say that the “white race” held the “divine imprimatur of that intellectual and racial supremacy which gave them the exclusive right of government.” Glass’s new constitution was about to give Lyon and Mackey just the advantage they needed to reshape our county in the convention’s vision of “racial supremacy.”
The 1902 Virginia constitution was imposed without popular approval and it systematically disenfranchised African Americans across Virginia. A poll tax was levied. Land ownership was made a condition for voting. The statewide electorate was cut in half. Jim Crow reigned. The new constitution remained in place until 1971.
Across the nation, the Progressive movement brought reforms at the turn of the century. It fought political corruption, regulated labor standards, and modernized the schools. But: “The blind spot in the Southern progressive record — as, for that matter, in the national movement — was the Negro, for the whole movement in the South coincided paradoxically with the crest in the rise of racism. The typical progressive reformer rode to power in the South on a disenfranchising or white supremacy movement.”
Crandal Mackey, and the rest of the Good Citizens’ League, was no exception.
A year after the constitutional convention, Mackey ran for Commonwealth’s Attorney. The incumbent, Richard Johnston, was a white landowner whose family sold a neighborhood’s worth of land to the county’s Black residents. Mackey took on Johnston in an election with heavy racial overtones.
“The reduction of the negro vote… under the new Virginia constitution, helped Mackey wonderfully,” wrote the Washington Times. He won by two votes.
Frank Lyon didn’t run for office. He bought the county’s preeminent weekly newspaper, the Alexandria County Monitor. As the historian Lindsey Bestebreurtje describes, “under Lyon’s leadership as owner and editor, The Monitor pushed League policies and opinions.” He built an image of Alexandria County as a desirable suburban retreat for Washington’s growing upper-middle class. He also built an image of Black people and saloons as obstacles to progress.
Arlington County was once home to a community of former slaves so prosperous that tours were given to foreign dignitaries as evidence of America’s racial progress.
Today, just about the only physical trace of Freedman’s Village is a plaque on a highway overpass. Some of the descendants of that community remain in Arlington today, but for others, exile has been made permanent.
This is the second part of Lyon’s Legacy, a biweekly series on ARLnow (you can read the whole thing, with citations, here). It will tell an eight-part history of how Black people, and other groups that experience racial or economic discrimination, have been excluded from living in Arlington County. Last week, the story started with Freedman’s Village. But with the destruction of that community comes the arrival of Frank Lyon and others who willfully embedded white supremacy into our county’s laws and urban planning.
What those men did is still with us, a century later.
By the 1880s, the county’s white leaders began to agitate against Freedman’s Village. One of Virginia’s U.S. senators called it “improper that government property should be continually occupied by squatters who have no interest in it such as to stimulate improvements.” These ‘squatters’ were residents who had worked to build on the land for a quarter-century, paid rent, and paid municipal, state, and federal taxes of all kinds. But they were Black, and their law-abiding industry didn’t turn a profit for white real-estate developers in the county. The government issued eviction orders at the beginning of winter, 1887. Mt. Zion Baptist Church, like all the other people, businesses, and institutions in Freedman’s Village, had to go.
The diaspora of Freedman’s Village took root across the county and beyond. The forbearing evictees settled in middle-class Black communities like Johnson’s Hill, Butler-Holmes, and Green Valley, as well as poorer areas like the farms of Hall’s Hill and the bustling Queen City. Queen City was so egalitarian that some residents later recalled that “a man sometimes didn’t know he was poor until he was 27 years old.” But Queen City isn’t on any Arlington map today. Only fifty years later, the government demolished their homes a second time — not to build the Pentagon, but to build the Pentagon’s freeway exit.
In the late 19th century, the county’s Black community had political power. No fewer than five Black men served on the County Board between 1871 and 1888: William A. Rowe, John B. Syphax, Travis B. Pinn, John W. Pendleton, and Tibbett Allen. Tibbett Allen lost his seat under suspicious circumstances and was replaced by a white Confederate veteran. There were no more Board members of color for a full century afterwards.
After the dispersal of Freedman’s Village, before the turn of the century, there were Black neighborhoods, there were white neighborhoods, and there was Rosslyn. Rosslyn was a residential district inhabited by working-class Black people. They were attracted by the chance to live so close to the Federal jobs across the river, where racial discrimination in employment wasn’t quite as intense.
Rosslyn was also “Dead Man’s Hollow,” a thicket of saloons, gamblers, and sex workers. It attracted white Washingtonian drinkers, too, on the merit of its location: The county was outside the jurisdiction of Washington’s cops, but close enough that a drunk who’d blown his streetcar fare on cards could teeter home across a bridge. And the county maintained a police force totalling two — not enough for a crackdown.
But what made Rosslyn special wasn’t the Black people or the saloons — it was their combination. These saloons weren’t segregated. At least one was Black-owned. These were tables where spades and diamonds meant more than black and white.
“A nation may lose its liberties and be a century in finding it out.” -John Mercer Langston
My county’s seal is a six-columned pediment, classical white on a blue field. This is the facade of Arlington House, built by enslaved Black people for George Washington’s step-grandson, the later home of Robert E. Lee, and the namesake of the county.
Arlington is changing. The seal is changing too, with an effort to replace the image of Lee’s mansion.
For us to make Arlington a county we can be proud of, we must understand how the racism in our past runs deeper than an image of a facade. For the new seal to be more than an empty symbol, we must use that understanding to build an antiracist future. To shape the change that is coming, we must know the legacy not only of Robert E. Lee but also of Frank Lyon and the men like him who, a hundred years ago, turned our county from hilly farms into the exclusive suburbs we know today.
This article is the first of a series. Over eight parts I will tell the story of Frank Lyon, the scars his racism left on our county, and how we can begin to heal those scars. These parts will be published biweekly, and as they’re published, you’ll also be able to read them with citations here. But this story is bigger than Lyon. This is in fact a story about the vast majority of neighborhoods across Arlington, indeed, across the United States — Frank Lyon only happens to illustrate it clearly.
In order to see the full picture, we first have to look at the decades after Lee departed and before Lyon arrived. We have to remember the decades when Arlington was Black.
At the dawn of the Civil War, Lee lost Arlington House. Although the county’s citizens voted to stay with the Union, secession carried Virginia, and the nation prepared for war. On the eve of war’s outbreak, Lee called for his wife, Mary Lee Custis, to leave their mansion and join him in Richmond. She ordered their one hundred and ninety-six enslaved people to pack the family silver and transport it to the Confederate capital. Mary Lee Custis stayed a few last days among the dogwoods, looking down at Washington in the late Virginia spring. Then she fled. Union soldiers took possession of the estate a few days later, toppling trees and erecting barricades in the elegant gardens to establish a fortified camp.
But as the war that ended slavery took its course, refugees began to appear in Washington. At least 16,000 Black people arrived in the city over the course of the war. They sought safety from violence and slavery. The fledgling capital didn’t have enough space for all these people, and the War Department established emergency camps for them. The officers of that department may have smiled at the justice when, in 1863, they turned over the grounds of Arlington House to establish one of the happiest of those new settlements. What had been home to Lee and the people he enslaved became a place for free Black families: Freedman’s Village.
More than a refugee camp, this was the first planned development in the county. The War Department set up the fundamentals for a decent life. They established schools, including vocational schools; they built a hospital; and they offered honest jobs for honest pay. But the heart of the village was the houses:
One-hundred white-washed, one-and-a-half story duplexes were constructed along a quarter-mile long thoroughfare through the Village. The clapboard houses used a pared-down version of the Classical Revival style… Classical Revivalism used symmetry and columns to allude to Greek temples, symbolically connecting America to the ancient democracy and its ideals through architectural style. In its vernacular execution at Freedman’s Village, the Classical Revival architecture used color and symmetry to convey the ideals of the movement. The external symmetry of the home was meant to lead to social harmony and stability. The white color of the homes was meant to encourage cleanliness, godliness, and order. Initially chosen by the War Department, this housing type was embraced by black Arlingtonians. They took great care in the maintenance and upkeep of these homes. When building their own homes later residents often recreated this style.