Black History Month - Village Lost?
Meaning of the Celebration
Kicking off my annual Black History Month submissions with a quote from California Governor Edward G. Brown’s Proclamation
“African-Americans have played a central role in our nation’s history, but for too long historians ignored or glossed over their contributions and the injustices they have suffered. The origins of Black History Month can be traced to the scholar Carter G. Woodson, who in 1926 conceived a yearly celebration to help rectify the omission of African-Americans from history books”.
Located in Section 27, near the Netherlands Carillon and the Marine Corps Memoriallies a little known secret, a village that once stood in a corner of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. In this hulled out corner the land is dotted with some 3,800 tombstones, a few carrying the names of slaves or “unknown”, the only remaining remnants of a black settlement known as Freedman’s Village.
The solitude of what's left of Freedman’s Village belies the daily hustle and bustle of tourists who visit Arlington National Cemetery by the thousands yearly. Visitors make their way toward the tombs of Unknown Soldiers, the Iwo Jima Memorial and stand mesmerized by President John F. Kennedy’s graveside eternal flame.
The land was seized from General Robert E. Lee's family, in1861. Union soldiers were laid to rest there in hopes of preventing the General from returning to the property. Slaves and fugitives slaves, who at the time were considered property, and had no place to go were allowed to reside on property which was located about one half mile from the Lee family mansion Arlington House.
Give a Man a Fish and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a man to fish and you Feed Him for a Lifetime" Chinese Proverb
Even though the living situation was to be temporary the new occupants wasted no time in constructing proper living quarters for themselves. The population increased and with that building increased adding more than fifty one– and-a-half story duplexes built around a pond. A mess hall, laundry, 50 bed /14 member staff hospital, stores, churches and a home for the aged / infirm were also added. The village could not be distinguished from any other town of the era.
150 students attend the first school shortly after the village was settled, and during its height held 900 students consisting of both children and adults. Freedman's was self sufficient touting an training / industrial center, training the residents in carpentry, shoemakers, tailors, wheelwrights and blacksmiths. In turn trainees provided clothing, shoes and furniture for the villagers. Crops of wheat, corn, potatoes and various vegetables were farmed for personal use and sold for profit.
"Religion Without Humanity is Very Poor Human Stuff" Sourjourner Truth
Residents with farm, construction or government employment received a wage of $10.00 weekly; half was paid to the federal government for management of the town. Others who resided on the property paid between $1.00 and $3.00 in rent. Even though these former slaves were free and managed to hone a life for themselves from the corner of a former plantation, the tentacles of hate still slithered their way onto this temporary oasis.
Whites, who lived nearby, frequently raided the village kidnapping children to use as slave labor. Parents who dare report the crime were arrested and jailed. Sourjourner Truth, one of the village’s most notable residents, briefly resided in Freedman’s Village while teaching and counseling the residents.
Truth, preacher and freedom fighter, encouraged the residents to stand up for themselves and not to take this type of treatment lying down. Upon learning about the supposed dissension local law enforcement decided a nice stint in jail would stifle the uppity rabble-rouser.
When authorities confronted Sourjourner she promised to “rock this nation like a cradle” if they laid hands on her. The comment put the fear of God in the men who backed off, and the kidnapping ceased. Unfortunately, as expected, this did nothing to stem the tide of hate from the local white Virginia residents’ death threats to Freeman’s Village occupants were a frequent occurrence.
James Parks was a slave on the Arlington property when it was owned by George Washington Parke Custis. Staying throughout the Civil War and through the period when Freedman's Village was located there.
He then was employed as a grave digger in the cemetery until his death. By special permission of the Secretary of War he was buried in Section 15 of Arlington National Cemetery.
All Good Things Must Come to An End
Then as now property with a view is considered prime real estate. Residents enjoyed a jaw dropping view of the Potomac River and the capital, which made it a mouth watering prospect for developers.
In 1887 the federal government gave the villagers 90 days to vacate the premises paying them $75,000.00 for the property and its buildings, despite an outcry from residents. In 1900 the buildings were torn down without a care, lacking insight, at the time, regarding the future historic value of the village. This, along with most Afro American, history was ripped from our grasp disposed of and forgotten like so much trash.
Residents scattered to surrounding cities. Some went on to hold important positions near the village, one William A. Rowe, a blacksmith became the first black policeman and holder of a county post in Arlington. William Syphax was elected to the Virginia General Assembly both were largely responsible for creating Arlington county.
Some pieces of the village, beside the lonely tombstones, still exist. Mount Zion Baptist Church, Lomax African Episcopal Zion Church, and Mount Olive Baptist Church were all started in Freedman's Village.
Unfortunately, in Arlington Cemetery proper there is only a model of the village inside Lee's former home, but no signs (with exception of the site 27 sign above) nor plaques to acknowledge the village site itself. Nothing to note the accomplishments and struggles of the former residents only remnants of desolate grave markers. Acknowledged as paid squatters and nothing more. Only recently has the word “contraband” been removed from some the headstones of those who died in Freeman’s Village changing their status to civilian.
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