Pentagon Land Has Long History of Ousted Settlers

Before the Pentagon was built, the land housed several thriving communities, of which several were African American. The federal government paid residents to leave.
Before the Pentagon was built, the land housed several thriving communities, of which several were African American. The federal government paid residents to leave. (By Eddie Mccrossan -- U.s. Air Force)
By John Kelly
Sunday, November 2, 2008

Y ears ago, I met a fellow who said he used to live in Queen City on the Virginia side of the Potomac. He said it had docks, a tannery, a smithy shop, a school, a dentist, a doctor and many thriving businesses. Then FDR decided to put the Pentagon there. What happened to all the former residents of Queen City?

-- James W. Lawson Jr., Rockville

As late as 2000, visitors to the Pentagon were handed an information sheet that described the land on which the massive building was built as "nothing more than wasteland, swamps and dumps."

There might have been wasteland. There might have been swamps and dumps. But there were also several thriving communities, including Queen City, also known as the Mount Olive subdivision, home to about 150 African American families.

They weren't the first inhabitants, of course. When John Smith explored the area 400 years ago, he encountered a native village called Namoraughquend, which he was told meant "place where fish are caught."

By the Civil War, the Indians were long gone, and the land there was even more heavily fortified than most of Washington, dotted by various Union Army installations. Escaped slaves had started a community at the nearby Arlington estate, building and owning homes in what was called Freedman's Village. The federal government administered the hamlet and in 1887 ordered the residents to leave. Some of them founded a community on the north side of Columbia Pike and named it Queen City.

In a 1984 paper on the town, local historian Susan Gilpin described the Queen City of 1910 as a predominantly "literate community of native-born Virginians." Most people owned their homes, on lots that had been subdivided by the trustees of Mount Olive Baptist Church. There were several black neighborhoods in what was then known as East Arlington. Some residents worked at brick factories along the Potomac River. Others commuted to jobs in Washington via Long Bridge.

In his book "The Pentagon: A History," author and Washington Post reporter Steve Vogel quotes a highway consultant named Jay Downer who helped select the site for the military building. The road network, Downer told local planners in 1941, "takes out some troublesome darky slave cabins. This cleans up that strip."

There were areas in the Pentagon's footprint that needed cleaning up -- a place called Hell's Bottom lived up (or down) to its name -- but Queen City wasn't one of them.

Vogel quotes a Queen City resident named Gertrude Jeffress: "Whoever said it was nothing but shacks, well, that ain't true. This was a nice little neighborhood, I'll say that."

Former resident Eddie Corbin, now 76, told Answer Man that he remembers the compact neighborhood. His father, Vincent, worked at a brick plant and drove the firetruck that the Queen City volunteer fire department purchased. Eddie's home didn't have running water, so he'd walk three or four blocks to a spring that burbled from the ground. "The water was the best water I ever tasted," he said. "We would be out drinking that water every day. I can remember one large pear tree was right overtop of that spring. We could go when the pears would fall off into the spring water, and they were ice cold."

Nice neighborhood or not, the government wanted the land. Queen City sat to the west of the building site, right where a tangle of roads was planned to give access to the Pentagon. In early February 1942, notices were sent to families telling them to be gone by March 1. Homeowners received an average of $2,000 per home.

Two temporary trailer parks were set up for residents who couldn't find lodging in a wartime Washington hit by a severe housing shortage. The Corbins lived in their government-issue trailer for two years. Eventually, most Queen City residents resettled elsewhere in Northern Virginia, including the Johnson's Hill and Halls Hill neighborhoods in Arlington. Many moved to what today is the Arlington View area, where Mount Olive Baptist Church is. The George Washington Cooperative apartments were built there in 1949, and some descendants of Queen City residents still live there.

The irony, of course, is that they are also descendants of the people who used to live in Freedman's Village before they were expelled by the government.

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