The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gentrification and displacement of African Americans in Northern Virginia predates Civil War, report finds

In the 1920s, the creation of the Lee Highway led to the demolition of the Black enclave of Tinner Hill in Falls Church, according to a study from VCU's Center on Society and Health that traced current racial inequities to policies going back to colonial times. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Centuries before the words “gentrification” and “displacement” drifted into the vernacular of urban planners, politicians and advocates, the practice of displacing Black families, razing their communities and ensuring their exclusion from wealthy, White neighborhoods had already been well established in Northern Virginia, according to a new report.

Researchers with the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University traced current racial inequities to past policies that choked off resources to Black communities tucked away in and around the affluent suburbs of the nation’s capital.

According to the report, segregation and systemic exclusion from homeownership, education and other systems have “had the combined effect of preventing people of color from finding better lives elsewhere and facilitating the disproportionate concentration of wealth in white communities.”

The report, published Monday by the center and the Northern Virginia Health Foundation, began as an examination of Black displacement and its lasting impacts on Black communities — their health, wealth, education and access to opportunity. Researchers said they originally thought they would primarily examine issues of redlining — which led to racial discrimination in mortgage lending and home sales in the 1930s and beyond — or policies enacted in Virginia during Reconstruction, but instead, they found themselves going further and further back, all the way to colonial times.

The research offers a look beyond a 2017 study that identified pockets of poverty dubbed “islands of disadvantage,” in which poor residents, who are also largely people of color, face living conditions that researchers concluded take as many as 18 years off their lives.

“People are often clueless as to the backstory of what happened years and years ago that literally drew the maps of where these neighborhoods are located,” said Steven Woolf, the director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at VCU. “You start pulling the threads and before you know it, you’re back 600 years when the area was first colonized.”

Life expectancy in an affluent census tract can be 18 years higher than those in the poorest, report found.

The report starts in 1649, when King Charles II of England rewarded his loyal supporters with land grants throughout the newly established Virginia colony on parcels that European settlers had seized from Indigenous peoples. The new landowners, wealthy British statesmen, had surnames such as Fairfax, Culpeper, Lee, Washington and Mason. They increased their wealth and political power over generations, by relying on the labor of enslaved people and by being at the center of some of the most defining historical events of their time — the establishment of the United States of America, the creation of the Virginia Constitution, the Civil War.

Meanwhile, the lives and legacies of Black Virginians have historically been controlled and regulated by these same families, their descendants and the systems they helped to create, researchers found.

When the Civil War began, Virginia had the largest population of enslaved people of any Confederate state. After the war, during Reconstruction, the federal government created Freedman’s Village — a community where formerly enslaved Black people could live on the Arlington estate of Robert E. Lee. The village offered jobs, schools and farms where residents could work the land. But 20 years later, the government changed its mind. Black families were evicted to free up the land for military use, the report states.

This history of displacement continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the 1920s, the creation of the Lee Highway led to the demolition of the Black enclave of Tinner Hill in Falls Church, according to the study. In the 1940s, the federal government invoked eminent domain to seize land and push Black residents out of two Black communities — East Arlington and Queen City — so construction on the Pentagon could begin. Washington-Dulles International Airport was built on top of what had once been known as Willard, a largely Black village in Loudoun County.

“These African American neighborhoods had vibrant culture, churches, social networks and residents … but as you move forward in time, you see the desire to acquire that land for largely White homeowners and businesses and so a set of steps were taken by local politicians at the time to rebrand those neighborhoods as slums,” Woolf said. “This was an intentional marketing strategy done to convince people that these folks needed to be displaced.”

The list of places built over the remains of vibrant Black communities goes on: Prince William Forest Park, the now-shuttered Landmark Mall, Fort Ward Museum and Alexandria City High School, among others.

Government-backed displacement was compounded by discriminatory lending practices, restrictive zoning policies and the establishment of covenants, which restricted the sale of homes to “non-Caucasian buyers.” These practices have “thwarted the efforts of Black families to buy and retain land or homes,” the report states, in a nation where property ownership has long been considered one of the primary mechanisms for creating generational wealth.

The report goes on to recommend ways in which state and local governments can begin to counteract this history.

Among its recommendations are increasing allocations to the Virginia Housing Trust Fund, which seeks to create and preserve more affordable housing, limiting exclusionary zoning that blocks the development of multifamily housing structures and discourages mixed-income neighborhoods, expanding and enforcing affordable housing voucher programs, and creating land banks, which can manage and distribute vacant land throughout the region and earmark parcels for uses that help alleviate the region’s housing crisis.

The report also specifies policy recommendations for a wide range of other topics that researchers said contribute to ongoing inequities in Northern Virginia, including closing the racial wealth gap, expanding and ensuring voting rights for all by restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated people and eliminating gerrymandering, establishing vocational training programs and bolstering education for Black families by reducing the dropout rate among students of color, increasing the diversity of the workforce in Northern Virginia schools, and expanding access to early-childhood education.

The study, which was commissioned before the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, took on renewed urgency, researchers said, as the spread of the virus exposed a stark difference in health outcomes between White communities and Black and Latino communities.

“The pandemic, the recent gubernatorial election and so forth all put front and center the polarization in our society about how we think about race and racism and how we talk about our past,” Woolf said. “The value of thinking in a clear-eyed way about the past is not only important for historical accuracy and education, but also thinking in a sensible way about future policy in a way that is sensitive to that past and tries to address the vestiges of it, the legacy we’re all still left with.”