Arlandria, an Alexandria neighborhood situated between the leafy hills of North Ridge and Four Mile Run, is perhaps best known for its Latino businesses and community, concerts at the Birchmere and Dave Grohl giving it some fame in a Foo Fighters' song.
You may have been in Arlandria - The Farmers Market on Mount Vernon Avenue, an Alexandria Aces game, cycling on Four Mile Run – and not even known it.
Nevertheless, Arlandria is a charming and distinct community. The neighborhood rose up in the 50s, but part of it has a fascinating history before that.
Sunnyside was a community of African-American families. Its progenitor was Charles A. Watson, who acquired about five acres of land south of Four Mile Run. If you live in the Lennox Place at Sunnyside, you are residing where Watson built the subdivided community on a slight hill about three miles north and east of Alexandria.
By the way, all of this came about for me by way of a request. Dr. Krystyn Moon, who has done and is doing some remarkable research on immigration to Alexandria, wanted to know if I knew about a marker in Sunnyside.
Nary a clue, I confessed.
But sleuthing was fairly easy. The one page on the web shows the marker in a flower bed. I found it at the entrance to Lenox Place at the corner of Shorter Lane and Charles Avenue, just off Old Dominion Blvd. (Interesting to compare the two maps. The one on the marker that says Road to Ballston is Glebe, and Mount Vernon Road is Old Dominion Road).
Anyway, fun to find out about this piece of history. I’ve used the Watson Reading Room next to the Alexandria Black History Museum and never bothered to ask or look up who Watson was.
Seek and ye shall find. The museum has a nice primer.
The Watson Reading Room is named in honor of Charles and Laura Watson.
After Charles Watson died in 1874, Laura Watson and her sons developed the Sunnyside neighborhood near what is now West Glebe Road and Mount Vernon Avenue. Many small black neighborhoods were formed in Alexandria after the Civil War, possibly encouraged by the new legal protections offered during Reconstruction.
After the end of Reconstruction in Virginia in 1870, Sunnyside would have provided an opportunity for home ownership to African Americans rebuffed by banks and shut out of white residential areas by Jim Crow laws.
In 1992, Sunnyside residents decided to use funds from a terminated home ownership assistance program to build the Watson Reading Room. The site selected for the reading room, next to what is now the Alexandria Black History Museum, was rich in African-American history as well. During the Jim Crow era, it held a black church, school, and drug store. It is located in Uptown, which boomed after the Civil War as newly emancipated African Americans migrated to Alexandria to find work.
One of the galleries at the National Museum for African American History and Culture is titled - "Making a Way Out of No Way." Like Moses Hepburn before him and Samuel Tucker after, Charles Watson knew a little something about these obstacles. His story and this marker serve as a reminder once again that whether the story takes place in the city or the suburbs, African Americans are just as much a part of the fabric of Alexandria as those of other colors.