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Stories from Queen City

The loss of a neighborhood, the cost of progress

In Queen City, a man sometimes didn't know he was poor until he was 27 years old, say some of those who lived there.

The tight-knit African-American neighborhood no longer exists, but the community's spirit still survives in scattered memories.

Queen City was situated, based on different oral and written historical accounts, on a patch of land immediately west-southwest of where the Pentagon now stands and was the size of somewhere between two blocks to 16 blocks.

In its place now is a sprawling intersection. The community was devastated and neighbors were dispersed in the name of progress.

"Queen City was not razed for the Pentagon building, but the overall Pentagon project. In order to accommodate the large number of individuals who would be commuting to and parking at the Pentagon on a daily basis, extensive accommodations had to be made for the automobile," author Claire Burke wrote in "Arlington's Queen City."

"The cloverleaf highway structure, which the Columbia Pike feeds into and is found to the west of the Pentagon, remains the exact location of Queen City. Therefore, Queen City was destroyed for Pentagon's needed transportation corridor, which eventually would come to include over thirty miles of highways and ramps, including twenty-one overpasses."

Originally the home of residents displaced by the federal government's closure of Freedman's Village -- a post-Civil War attempt to house freed and displaced slaves -- people in Queen City came from across the South.

There, everyone knew each other, and each other’s business.

Most families owned their own home, either a single-family home or a row house.

"A lot of them were built by local builders and a lot were built by the people themselves, the people who lived there," said John Henderson, who moved to Queen City with his stepfather from Charlotte, N.C.

The houses lacked running water and indoor plumbing. But there was a spring along the southern wall of Arlington National Cemetery.

"There was a large pear tree right over the spring," said Eddie Corbin, a former Queen City resident. "When they were ripe, they would fall into the spring. They were the best pears you ever tasted."

Residents walked every day and filled two or three buckets of water to take back home, he said.

Life in Queen City

Henderson and Corbin recently shared their stories of Queen City at Arlington Central Library. This article is based on their stories.

Henderson remembers no doctor, no dentist and no undertaker in Queen City. People had to go into Washington for those services. The doctors, dentists and undertakers in Arlington only served the white community.

There is some discrepency on this in written and oral historical accounts.

Queen City residents could only go to two hospitals -- Freedman's Hospital, which would later become the Howard University Hospital, or the District of Columbia General Hospital.

But not many people had vehicles. If someone had an emergency, they had to find a neighbor with a car.

Based on Henderson's recollection, Queen City proper had a church, a place that sold fish sandwiches, a gas station and a general store.

About 16 blocks down the road, Henderson said, there was one barber shop, an ice cream shop, a grocery store, a fruit store, a post office, a brickyard and one pool hall. There, you would find one fire department and two shoe repair businesses -- one in a storefront, and another in the form of a man who found his customers on foot. There were three churches -- Mount Olive, Mount Sinai and the House of Prayer -- four gas stations, three auto repair shops, two bus lines and a trolley.

People worked and shopped at these places. Women also found jobs as domestic servants and some men worked for the federal government and at the cemetery, Henderson said.

Originally, the nearest fire station was on Virginia Highway at 23rd Street, said Corbin, whose father had been a firefighter.

"We needed one, so (the residents) had dinners and parties and whatnot and they bought an engine and built the fire station," he said.

Children walked to the black school, Hoffman-Boston Elementary, about three miles away in Johnson's Hill -- the community today known as Arlington View.

The youngsters made a baseball field to play in and they made roller skates from things they found at the dump. They would skate across the 14th Street Bridge.

Young men from Queen City signed up for military service early on in World War II to avoid being drafted. Many families had ties to the military: Parents worked at different military installations, and older residents had fought in previous wars.

But then the military needed more.

A Community Lost

Plans for the Pentagon were approved in the summer of 1941, and construction was soon under way.

A government surveyor came to Queen City a year before they started clearing people out, surveyed each house and recommended that residents make improvements. Building started at that time with little regard for residents and work happened around the clock.

Corbin remembers the construction of a large trench in the street from the future site of the Pentagon to Fort Myer. Afterward, he said, residents could not go out of their front gates. When the government did buy homes from the residents, it did not pay enough for the homeowners to build new houses in other black communities.

The relocation was devastating.

"Everyone who lived there was really separated. Some went to one area and some went to the other," Corbin said. "Uncle Sam put up trailers on Johnson's Hill and put up trailers in Green Valley."

Green Valley is in the Nauck community in Arlington.

"The trailer city was there for another four years," Henderson said. "People were put in what was called two-bedroom trailers."

Corbin had five people in his family, so they had two trailers.

Many families went to live in these trailers because they did not have anywhere else to go -- the housing shortage in Washington caused by the war didn't help. The shortage was only made that much worse by segregation, which further narrowed an already extremely limited range of places to live.

The trailers were rough temporary housing. They were joined together by a boardwalk and sometimes the rats were so big you could feel them under the floorboards, Henderson said.

"You would be standing on the boardwalk and the rat would come and your whole body would shake," he said.

There was also a communal building that housed bathrooms with showers.

"It was quite a trying time," Henderson said. "I think the love and association of people is what kept people together. I sometimes thank the Lord that I was raised in that community. People didn't have much money. The neighborhood itself, I don't remember anyone getting angry at anyone... just a wonderful way to grow up."

Henderson and Corbin both talked about how Mount Olive Church built it's new home after being evicted from the land it had been on in Queen City, thanks to the construction of the world's largest office building.

The congregation brought some of the original bricks from Queen City to build the foundation of the new church. Boy Scout Troop 505 cleaned the bricks so they could be used. The community built the church and worshipped in a tent during its construction.

Queen City had been a strong community where even though there was not a lot of wealth, there was always enough food, clothing and support to go around.

"It was a nice place to grow up," Henderson said.

That community was lost to make way for the Pentagon.

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