1950s

Ballston Common: The Birth, Death, & Rebirth of the D.C. Area's First Major Shopping Mall

“To describe this shopping center in words is a bit difficult because of its extremely high efficiency in the use of every square foot.”

While it may be hard today to imagine the shopping center at the intersection of Arlington’s Glebe Rd. and Wilson Blvd. as an exciting and advanced piece of architectural planning, it truly was at its opening in 1951.  At the time, it was the largest suburban retail space on the East Coast, and the first ever to be built around a parking garage (which also happened to be the largest parking garage in the United States). This sort of retail design was an absolute novelty, and an early hallmark of both the post-War evolution of the American suburb, as well as the DC area’s growing population. Its name, however, was a little on the nose: Parkington.

The Little Italy Under the Parkway

The last three residents of Arlington's Little Italy: Josh (Guiseppe) Conduci, Carl (Carmelo) Conduci, and Philip (Filippo) Natoli. (Reprinted with permission of DC Public Library, Star Collection at Washington Post)

Few would believe that Arlington County once contained its own Little Italy – and few would recognize it if they saw it. Unlike the prototypical image of urban markets and crowded apartments, what Arlingtonians once referred to as "Little Italy" (or "Little Sicily") was an isolated makeshift village occupied by Italian quarrymen and their families on the banks of the Potomac, accessible only by footpath. 

Eat Anywhere! Mary Church Terrell, the Lost Laws, and the End of Segregation in D.C. Restaurants

Washington Afro American headline from June 9, 1953.

On Friday, January 27, 1950, Mary Church Terrell met three friends for a late lunch in downtown Washington. Terrell, then 86, entered Thompson’s Restaurant on 7th Street NW around 2:45pm with Rev. William H. Jernigan, Geneva Brown and David Scull. Their party was integrated – Scull was white while the others were black – however, Thompson’s Restaurant was not. Like most other D.C. eating establishments at the time, it was whites only.

As the group went about selecting entrees along the cafeteria line, Manager Levin Ange emerged and informed them that Thompson’s did not serve “colored” people. Terrell clarified, “Do you mean to tell me that you are not going to serve me?” When Ange confirmed that was the case, the group left the restaurant.

The chain of events was, of course, entirely expected. As a leader of Washington’s civil rights movement for half a century, Mary Church Terrell was well aware of Thompson’s policy. But she and the others didn’t go to the restaurant to be served. Rather they went with the expectation of being turned away – the necessary, if also demeaning, first step toward bringing a new sort of legal challenge, which they hoped would topple segregation in the nation’s capital.

Artist's rendering of CIA headquarters built in Langley, VA. (Source: CIA.gov)

Designing America's Spy Headquarters

Can you imagine the world’s most powerful clandestine intelligence agency spread out across a series of ramshackle offices in and around Washington, DC? Well, that’s what constituted the Central Intelligence Agency in 1953, the year that Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles announced a plan to build one large, secure campus that would be home to the rapidly growing spy agency.

Cover of December 8, 1957 Sunday Star magazine, which featured Sam and Friends.

The Muppets Take Maryland

Jim Henson’s shows and characters are renowned throughout the world. Creator of The Muppet Show, Labyrinth, and, of course, the beloved Sesame Street, Henson gained fame through his innovative puppetry, his unique characters, and his ability to tackle serious and educational subjects while still retaining the humor and sense of fun that characterized all of his work. By the late ‘60s, all of America was familiar with Henson and his creations. But the people of the D.C. area were the first to see his Muppets in action, and it was in D.C. that he got his first big break.

The Pentagon Goes Up in Flames, 1959

Smoke rises from the Pentagon on July 2, 1959. (Photo source: Arlington Fire Journal blog)

The call came in to the Arlington County Fire Department at 11:16am on July 2, 1959… The Pentagon was on fire.

ACFD units raced to the scene, soon to be joined by deployments from 34 other jurisdictions including Falls Church, Alexandria, Fort Myer, the District, Prince Georges County, Bethesda and the Inter-Agency Government Pool — over 300 firefighters in all.

When trucks reached the scene, black smoke hung over the building, so thick that they had to form a human chain in order to navigate. Firemen groped, clawed and cut their way to the blaze, which had erupted in the Air Force statistical services offices between rings C and D and corridors 1 and 10.

D.C. vs. The Flying Saucers... On Screen and in Real Life

Imagine what Hollywood filmmakers would've come up with if they had gotten their hands on Project Blue Book reports like this one back in the 1950s. (Photo source: Project Blue Book)

From the late 1940s until 1969, the U.S. Air Force kept a record of all of its investigations into supposed alien activity in a report called Project Blue Book. Until a few days ago, the project archive had been accessible only by visiting the National Archives in downtown D.C. But, now the records are online! So, you can see the reports on the many UFO sightings that occurred in the Washington area over the years... like this one... and this one... and a host of others.

Of course, UFO's have long been a source of fascination to Americans and images of alien invaders in the nation's capital have captured our imagination for decades. In honor of the new Project Blue Book release, we take a look at the 1956 Columbia film, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, which had a special connection to Washington -- not only in the plot of the movie itself, but in the real-life inspiration behind some of the scenes of terror.

Alexandria's Earl Lloyd broke the color barrier in professional basketball when he debuted for the Washington Capitols on October 31, 1950. (Photo source: NBA.com)

Alexandria's Earl Lloyd Breaks Basketball's Color Line

Earl Lloyd was a rising basketball star at West Virginia State College, but little did he know how soon he would become an important part of sports history. Toward the end of Lloyd’s senior season he was heading to class with a classmate and she told him she heard his name on the radio that day. Unaware of what she was referring to, Lloyd simply asked what she heard. She told him some team in Washington called the Washington Capitols had drafted him.

“You’re going to Washington and they’re going to try you guys out, so show them your best,” said Lloyd’s college coach, Marquis Caldwell. Being from Alexandria, Virginia, it was almost a homecoming party for Earl Lloyd. Before he was at West Virginia State, he graduated from Parker-Gray High School in 1946, Alexandria’s only African-American high school.

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