College of Humanities and Social Sciences
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Built by the People Themselves: African American Community Development in Arlington, Virginia, from the Civil War through Civil Rights

Lindsey Bestebreurtje

Major Professor: Jennifer Ritterhouse, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Suzanne Smith, Stephen Robertson

Innovation Hall, #211
March 27, 2017, 01:00 PM to 11:00 AM


Built By the People Themselves tracks African American community development as the processes of suburbanization and segregation shaped lives, the built environment, and the law in the northern Virginia county of Arlington from the 1860s to the 1970s. It traces the strategies black Arlingtonians used to create lasting communities that met their own needs and reflected their own preferences when possible within the context of white domination in a Jim Crow society. Since its earliest suburban development, Arlington was made up of diverse neighborhoods, each with divergent, competing visions for the area’s future. Some of the oldest of these neighborhoods were three African American neighborhoods – Hall’s Hill, Johnson’s Hill, and Green Valley. For more than one hundred years, Arlington’s white leaders and developers used zoning, planning, restrictive covenants, redevelopment, and loan policies to limit and attempt to push out Arlington’s black population. Racial division, class division, and competitions over aesthetics unfolded in these battles for space. My exploration of the process of creating and defending communities within the suburban environment analyzes how the physical environment of Arlington reflected racial tensions, as competitions over race, space, and aesthetics literally built a physical manifestation of a county divided under Jim Crow. This study tracks how black communities both challenged and supported white suburban visions. Their community planning traditions highlight the important role the process of suburbanization played in black community development. Key concepts explored through this work are the role of community, and how people used these communities to shape the development of suburban environments through their homes, neighborhoods, and the built environment. Three main themes in this project are to question what constitutes a suburb, to question the meaning of racial separation to see when separation amounted to segregation or when it provided space for black communities to grow, and to question how Arlington’s proximity to Washington, D.C. impacted the area’s development via employment, new residents, physical occupation, and policy. While power differentials made it so white, middle class ideas mostly dominated the suburban landscape, the continued presence of the three anchor black communities and their impacts on the county as a whole show how black visions of suburbanization played a role in the area’s development. 

Print Friendly and PDF