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”.

Freedman's Village Cemetary
Freedman's Village Cemetary

Freeman's Village

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

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.

James Parks
James Parks

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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Comments 11 comments

pmccray profile image

pmccray 4 years ago from Utah Author

Thank you for your compliment and kindness. Much appreciated.

adrienne2 profile image

adrienne2 4 years ago from Atlanta

Hi pmccray! First let me say I voted your article up, interesting. A truely written-written piece of history that you shared with the hub pages community. I feel your hub should be voted as Hub of the day. Your hub is rich with a piece of black history. I love to read stories on history, you truely did your research and presented the information well. Thank you for bringing a part of black history month to the HP community!

pmccray profile image

pmccray 4 years ago from Utah Author

My beautiful friend Nell Rose . . I feel the same way. I was so angry when I first found out about this small village nestled in one of the most famous pieces of ground in the US. Those that resided on the site were heroes too fighting a different war. A war of injustice. Thank you for taking your time to read and comment.

pmccray profile image

pmccray 4 years ago from Utah Author

Michele Travis - I think it is more of erasing a horrid sick time in American History. We are a citizenry that live in a constant state of denial. Not only does this type of omission hurt white youth, but blacks also, because they don't know where they came from and how far we've come. Thank you for taking your time to read and comment.

pmccray profile image

pmccray 4 years ago from Utah Author

Thank you so much Jools99. It saddens me that this a model hidden in the old plantation mansion is the only glimpse of what was. Thank you for taking your time to read, comment, vote and share!

pmccray profile image

pmccray 4 years ago from Utah Author

Thank you creativeone59, I never knew either. My mom pointed me in the direction of this story. It was quite amazing. Thank you for taking your time to read and comment

creativeone59 profile image

creativeone59 4 years ago from Gold Canyon, Arizona

Thank you Pmccray,for sharing a touching and awesome story that I never knew. Thanks for you for sharing it. Godspeed. creativeone59

Michele Travis profile image

Michele Travis 4 years ago from U.S.A. Ohio

@ Jool and Nells please forgive me for going off topic. Black History Month and the memorial plaque only tells half the story, it's not really telling the human story. Please forgive me for going off topic, I should not have done that.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

I'm with Nell on this one, even the memorial plaque only tells half the story, it's not really telling the human story. Excellent hub, very interesting, voted up etc etc &shared.

Michele Travis profile image

Michele Travis 4 years ago from U.S.A. Ohio

This is a wonderful hub. So many African Americans have done many wonderful things in the history of this country, but it is not even taught to children in school. They have helped shape our country many times.

This is just one of them. History has given credit to Thomas Edison for the invention of the light bulb, why aren't we taught that Lewis Latimer's innovations towards it's developments? Until Latimer's process for making carbon filaments, Edison's light bulbs would only burn for minutes. Latimer's would burn for hours.

There are many more, but sadly nobody knows because schools do not teach this. Why? I don't understand. Why don't we care about black history?

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Hi, this makes me so mad I want to come over there and rebuild the village! why? thats whats going through my mind. America was built on slavery, hard work and multiple nationalities. It should be acknowleged as such. sometimes places or deeds get left behind through laziness of the modern people and sometimes through hate or embarrassment, either way I think people should stand up and say, hey, look whats going on. got me on my soap box again! lol! take care nell

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