While I was researching my novel set during the Civil War with an Abolitionist heroine, I discovered a fascinating and little-known history at the location we now know as Arlington Cemetery, on the outskirts of Washington D.C. Once part of Robert E. Lee’s family plantation, during the war this land was converted into a refuge and temporary settlement for freed and escaped slaves.
|Schoolchildren at Freedman's Village. Library of Congress, |
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.
With the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia in April 1862, escaping slaves from surrounding areas such as Virginia flocked to the nation’s capital. This influx only increased after the Emancipation Proclamation early in 1863. At first they were housed in various shelters and camps in the city, but as disease began to spread rampant, a better solution was needed. Since Robert E. Lee’s estate had been confiscated by the Union government at the start of the war, this land was seen as a suitable location.
Freedman’s Village was set up with 100 residents in June of 1863 and officially dedicated in December. The village eventually housed up to 3000 people at a time. It consisted of wooden frame houses that held two to four families each, a school that opened with 150 pupils, a hospital, a home for the elderly, several churches, various small businesses, and a vocational training school, all built around a central pond, as seen in the map below.
|Map of Freedman's Village. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16520759|
Conditions did improve for freed families who moved to Freedman's Village, though disease was still a problem—deaths from measles, scarlet fever, and whooping cough dropped from about five a day in the city camps to two a day in the Village. People who had grown up under slavery also had the chance to begin an education, learn a trade, or work the land to support themselves, gaining a measure of control over their lives for the first time.
Life in Freedman’s Village was not perfect—it was established under military rule and law, and many residents felt the degree of freedom here didn’t far surpass what they had experienced under slavery. Tensions arose, whether from the rent required of residents or from neighboring white farmers kidnapping several young people back into slavery. With the help of abolitionist heroine Sojourner Truth, however, who spent a year living in the Village, the mothers of these abducted youth rose up and swore out warrants, and eventually they did get their children back.
After the war, interest in Freedman’s Village waned, but families continued to live in the settlement for several decades. The Village was finally forcibly closed by the government in the 1890s and torn down completely in 1900. Many former residents of Freedman’s Village went on to become prominent members of the community in Alexandria, including William Syphax, who was elected to the Virginia General Assembly, William A. Rowe, who became the first black policeman in Arlington County, and Jesse Pollard, the first black judge in Arlington’s history.
|Freedman's Village Display in Arlington Cemetery Visitor's Center|
If you visit Arlington Cemetery today, there is little hint of this important part of its history. With a little digging, though, when my friend and sister and I visited three years ago, we found traces. In the visitor’s center, there is a map and a few photos of Freedman’s Village—and apparently a model of it in the historic Arlington House, though we didn’t make it in there.
And when we walked to the southern part of the cemetery, in Section 27 not far from the Iwo Jima Marine war memorial, we found gravestones marked “citizen” or “civilian.” These stones, formerly labeled “contraband,” a Civil War era term for an escaped slave, mark the graves of residents of Freedman’s Village. A number of black U.S. Civil War veterans are also buried here, marked by stones with the label “USCT,” for United States Colored Troops.
|Grave of Lewis Sutton, Civil War Veteran, US Colored Troops|
|Gravestone of Mary Grey, Freedman's Village resident|
But you have to look for these stones yourself—no marker points out this spot as the former site of Freedman’s Village, other than the small round sign for "Section 27."
|Section 27 at Arlington Cemetery, site of Freedman's Village|
It seems rather astonishing and sad, that the remarkable history of these American families in their earliest climb out of slavery to a life of their own has been so overlooked and hidden. But if we take the time to seek out and learn their history, to walk on the land where they lived and honor not only where they are buried but their amazing contributions to building this country, then they will not be truly forgotten.
Had you ever heard of Freedman’s Village before? What part of this story struck you most? Please comment and share--I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazines and won the 2013 ACFW Genesis Award - Historical for her manuscript Beneath a Turquoise Sky. A high school teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at www.kierstigiron.com. She lives in California with her wonderful husband, Anthony.