Before Urban Renewal: Batestown and Hickory Ridge
While the federal urban renewal program was formally established in the 1954 expansion of the 1949 American Housing Act, the roots of removal of Black communities in the name of urban redevelopment in Northern Virginia go back as far as theand the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal experiments with land-use reform. These interventions paved the way for multiple federal agencies to expand their operations by expropriating privately held land from Black communities in Northern Virginia during and after World War II.
Batestown and Hickory Ridge were two communities in southwest Prince William County affected by pre-urban renewal seizures. The predominantly Black community of Batestown originated on parcels purchased byfamilies in the early 1800s and grew to include a school, two churches, benevolent societies, stores, and cemeteries. Later in the nineteenth century, Black landowner Zeal Williams established nearby Hickory Ridge, a community that had both Black and white residents. When federal agents arrived in the area in 1933 to scout sites for an unannounced government program, they found rural communities living off subsistence farming and varied small income-generating activities. Residents were able to survive on what they cultivated and expressed a deep-seated attachment to their community through kinship ties and religious practices. For example, baptisms were conducted at the convergence of Quantico Creek’s two branches.
In May 1935, the Roosevelt administration created the Resettlement Administration with the goal of moving low-income farmers from eroding or overfarmed lands. The Resettlement Administration was authorized to use eminent domain to acquire property for its Recreational Demonstration Area (RDA) program, which sought to develop sites with between 2,000 and 10,000 acres of inferior land within fifty miles of a major population center into campsites to provide recreational opportunities for poor city children. A model project, the Chopawamsic RDA, would be undertaken at Batestown and Hickory Ridge, which were nestled among thousands of acres of woodland approximately thirty miles from Washington, D.C.
Most RDA program officers were not Black, southern, or rural and saw the modest farming communities of Batestown and Hickory Ridge as inefficient and what the Washington Star categorized as a “rural slum.” Although archaeologist John Bedell’s contemporary site study for the National Park Service indicates that most of the land was not eroded, program officials, he concluded, “did not understand the economies and societies they were trying to reform, or the landscapes on which these economies and societies were built.” A county social worker attested that the area “needed improvement” and that most of its 150 families were underemployed, thus enabling administrators to deem the land “depleted,” condemn houses, and appraise area properties at the low value of $13.33 per acre. Residents who fought the condemnations in court lost their savings, leaving the majority with no option other than selling. Instructed by Chopawamsic RDA project manager William Hull “to buy a quantity of land at low prices,” staffers purchased seventy-nine properties for $138,939, which was $40,000 less than the appraised value and a bargain even by the project’s calculations. Dozens more properties were condemned.
After Civilian Conservation Corps workers transformed country roads into hiking trails and built cabins on former homesites, the Chopawamsic RDA opened in 1936 for white campers; separate facilities for Black campers opened the following summer. Yet the Chopawamsic RDA closed just five years later, when stewardship was transferred to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to train military intelligence officers during World War II. The OSS expanded the site, and forty-four holdout households were evicted with only two weeks’ notice. One former resident lamented that “the money that was being offered for the land was nothing. It wasn’t even enough to buy a house somewhere else. So basically, the people were just being kicked off the land.” After the war, the Chopawamsic RDA reopened as Prince William Forest Park. The area now retains few vestiges of Batestown and Hickory Ridge with the exception of the Little Union Baptist Church and numerous cemeteries.
Federal agencies subsequently undertook more midcentury land expropriations in Northern Virginia. To create a road network for the, the War Department in 1942 used eminent domain to buy all the land in Queen City and East Arlington, two Arlington communities that were home to descendants of Freedman’s Village’s formerly enslaved inhabitants. Residents received less than one month’s notice regarding their removal, meaning that most could not find new housing at a time of an acute wartime housing shortage. The federal government consequently resettled people in a trailer park in Green Valley, a muddy area nearby that many of the new arrivals eventually abandoned as a consequence of the poor conditions. Some 900 Queen City and East Arlington residents were displaced, and 218 houses were demolished. Homeowners received an average of $2,052, while tenants received no compensation. One War Department official said that little thought was given to the welfare of the hundreds of people who were uprooted. Some residents eventually resettled in a nearby public housing development, the Paul Lawrence Dunbar Homes, that was built on land seized from Elizabeth Hicks, a Black landowner.
CIA Headquarters, Langley
Allen Dulles, an OSS field director during World War II and director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1953 to 1961, selected the Langley area of Fairfax County for the agency’s headquarters. Influenced by his OSS training experiences at Chopawamsic RDA, Dulles used eminent domain to displace the Black community of Lincolnsville to develop the CIA complex in 1959. Northern Virginia’s Dulles Airport, named for Dulles’s brother, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, was built in 1958 on the site of Willard, a destroyed Black town.
Suburbanization, Segregation, and “Slum” Clearance in Alexandria
The migration of New Deal and wartime workers into Northern Virginia created a widespread housing shortage according to historian Krystyn Moon. For Black households, that shortage was exacerbated by segregation in some older neighborhoods and exclusion from new race-restricted suburban developments. In Alexandria, a city with a long history of Black property ownership and mixed-race neighborhoods, the city government used public housing development and annexation to remove Black homeowners and entrench segregation.
In 1939, Alexandria created the Alexandria Housing Authority (later the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority or ARHA) to administer a slum clearance program authorized by the federal Housing Law of 1937, a New Deal program passed in response to a national crisis of substandard rural and urban housing. It provided substantial funding to localities for the construction of public housing for lower-income families but required that one unit of “slum” housing be demolished for every new unit of housing built. In October of 1939, the city announced that it had been awarded $900,000 by the federal government for an “extensive” slum clearance project.
Alexandria Public Housing Projects
In 1941, ARHA condemned and demolished 240 homes in The Berg and The Hump, two mixed-race neighborhoods that included descendants of formerly enslaved people who had escaped to Alexandria during the, and replaced the neighborhoods with segregated public housing projects. The Roosevelt administration’s Neighborhood Composition Rule facilitated the segregation of formerly mixed-race neighborhoods by mandating that housing projects for Black residents be built in areas that were predominantly Black, further concentrating the African American population, and that projects for whites be built in predominantly white neighborhoods, providing an incentive to remove Black households.
In Alexandria, the John Roberts Homes were built in the Braddock neighborhood to house white residents, while the George Parker Homes for African American families were built on two blocks of The Berg. The developments were unequal in terms of both quality and quantity, notes Moon. A total of 110 units were built for Black residents, far fewer than what was needed, while 130 were provided for white residents. Moreover, unlike the John Roberts Homes, the George Parker Homes failed to meet local building codes even though the residents had been displaced from supposedly blighted homes. In 1945, the Alexandria Housing Authority further cemented the segregation of public housing when it completed the Samuel Madden Homes Uptown (in The Hump neighborhood) and the Samuel Madden Homes Downtown (in The Berg neighborhood) for Black households.
The federal Housing Act of 1949 and its subsequent 1954 modification gave cities new authority to acquire land through eminent domain and condemnation proceedings. It also provided them with funding to buy large swaths of land designated as blighted, which they were now allowed to resell to private residential, commercial, and industrial developers rather than use for public purposes. In 1952, Alexandria nearly doubled in size when it annexed semirural land west of the city, a move officials justified as necessary to accommodate the city’s growing population. Two thriving and interconnected Black communities were included in the annexation: The Fort, which emerged after the Civil War when formerly enslaved people who had sought refuge at Fort Ward purchased land at the abandoned fort, and Seminary, whose residents’ roots were interwoven with the Episcopal Church institutions on Seminary Hill. Most Black homes in The Fort were self-built, making them targets for claims of substandard construction and sanitation code violations. The entire community was condemned based on the condition of a handful of properties. In 1954, the Alexandria City Council approved funds to redevelop The Fort into Fort Ward Park, an attractive amenity for nearby whites-only suburban residential developments. Because “blighted” property had little market value, homeowners received minimal compensation. As former resident Lucian Johnson recalled in a 2009 oral history, “It was wrong to uproot people who have been there a hundred-some years and you give them a couple hundred dollars.”
Seminary, which had long been known as “Mudtown,” faced the same fate four years later. The city deemed seventy-seven structures in the community substandard and launched the Mudtown Urban Renewal Project to redevelop the site into a new public high school. Having watched their neighbors at The Fort be dispossessed, Seminary residents organized as the Seminary Civic Association (SCA) to avoid that fate. In the early 1960s, the SCA, led by resident Marion Johnson, successfully demanded that ARHA allocate funding for the development of a Black residential subdivision adjacent to the new school.
The SCA’s organizing dovetailed with another Alexandria urban renewal project, the Gadsby Commercial Urban Renewal Plan, named for a well-known colonial-era tavern in the heart of the city’s Old Town historic district. The project, which was part of the city’s renewed “war on the slums,” was slated to demolish twenty blocks of downtown Alexandria. As with similar efforts in other cities, the goal was to revive the King Street commercial district to attract white shoppers back from new suburban shopping malls. Though the Gadsby project concentrated on commercial properties, an estimated eighty households, the majority of which were African American, would be displaced and roughly 75 percent of these would require relocation into public housing, notes Moon. Concerned business owners and historic preservationists fought the planned destruction, while homeowners in Uptown, just outside the project area, fought the use of eminent domain to take twenty Black-owned houses and replace them with ninety public housing units.
Melvin Miller, president of the Durant Street Civic Association and vice president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, led the denunciation of the city’s pattern of seizing Black-owned properties and redeveloping them into public housing, which stalled the project’s implementation for several years. In 1962, the Federal Housing Administration paused funding for both the Mudtown and Gadsby projects until plans to mitigate displacement were developed. That year, the interracial Alexandria Committee on Minority Housing formed and issued a report revealing that over the preceding fifteen years, private development had produced fewer than 150 new units of housing open to Blacks even though Alexandria’s Black population had grown by more than 5,000.
Black organizers recorded some wins in Seminary and Uptown. After a series of contentious public hearings, the scale of the Gadsby urban renewal plan was reduced to twelve blocks. However, the public housing plan remained unchanged, and the twenty Black households in Uptown were displaced by the ninety-unit Andrew Adkins public housing development, which opened in 1967. Of the fifty-four Black households displaced from Seminary by the Fort Ward Park project, sixteen received loans to purchase homes in a tract adjacent to the new T. C. Williams High School. (Which was named after former Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent Thomas Chambliss Williams, a noted supporter of school segregation, and renamed Alexandria High School in 2021.)
Many other Northern Virginia communities rejected urban renewal funding for fear that federally funded public housing would usher in desegregation. Arlington residents, many of them white homeowners who had relocated from Washington, D.C., following school desegregation there, voted against the creation of an urban renewal authority in 1958. Even after 1960, when the Virginia General Assembly allowed the state to accept urban renewal funds without requiring the construction of public housing, voters in Falls Church, Rosslyn, and Clarendon repeatedly rejected the establishment of housing authorities and the acceptance of urban renewal funds.
The initial designs for Alexandria’s largest, costliest, and ultimately final urban renewal project, The Dip, were for status quo displacement: economic development of an increasingly white downtown made possible by the demolition of Black homes and the relocation of Black residents. The project sought to redevelop The Bottoms, a southside neighborhood named for its marshy topography that had been home to a Black community since 1798, when two free Black families leased wood-frame houses on Alfred Street. When the $6.2 million project was announced in 1968, the League of Women Voters lauded its potential to clear a fourteen-block area around Route 1 “to eliminate some of the worst housing and environmental conditions in the city and to provide an attractive gateway to downtown Alexandria.”
When The Dip was completed in 1984, however, the area’s 690 largely Black and low-income residents still called their longtime neighborhood home as a consequence of several coalescing forces. Alexandria’s urban renewal battles of the 1960s, coupled with the political empowerment of Black residents following the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the abolition of the, upended how the city approached planning. Black organizers joined the highest ranks of the city’s development decisionmakers: Melvin Miller became chair of the ARHA in 1970, the same year his neighbor Ira Robinson became the first Black member of the city council since Reconstruction. In 1972, after estimates indicated that most Black residents slated to be relocated for the project could not afford mortgages in the redeveloped housing, the city revised its plans, flipping the three-to-one ratio of owners to tenants. At the same time, the Alexandria City Council and ARHA adopted resolutions that required projects to match the number of housing units that the site had previously accommodated.
The Dip project was paused in 1973 following the Nixon administration’s suspension of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding for subsidized housing construction. As a result, city administrators turned their attention elsewhere and proposed extending the Old Town Historic District to include parts of Uptown. Longtime Uptown resident Eudora Lyles organized her neighbors to pressure the now integrated city council to reject the proposal, arguing that the historic designation would attract outside investors to the community and result in the displacement of existing residents.
After funds for The Dip were released in the late 1970s, officials effectively applied these new insights and redeveloped The Bottoms without displacing Black households. Lifelong Alexandrians who feared being priced out of the city’s market were able to buy or rent new homes in The Dip due to the project’s scale, range of prices, ample subsidies, and prioritization of neighborhood residents for occupancy. As Lionel Hope, a member of the city council during the 1980s, remarked, “People can be proud of The Dip because its residents weren’t dislocated. Justice was done and people were treated fairly.” The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development later recognized The Dip as one of the only urban renewal projects that intentionally and successfully approached redevelopment without displacement of Black residents.
All across Northern Virginia in the mid-twentieth century, federal and local governments disregarded residents’ wishes and appropriated Black towns and neighborhoods with roots in Reconstruction-era community building. By the 1970s, however, societal transformations created pathways for several Black leaders of these struggles to take office, which resulted in governments that listened to community concerns regarding displacement and incorporated antidisplacement strategies into plans for urban redevelopment. In the twenty-first century, the region’s Black institutions and communities—from the Little Union Baptist Church outside of Prince William Forest Park to the bustling streets of The Dip in Alexandria—testify to the battles against land loss and collective struggles for survival.