National cemetery celebrates Black History Month with tour
February 28, 2012
By Jim Dresbach
More than two dozen of the historically curious gathered at Arlington National Cemetery Feb. 22 for a tour involving the roles African-Americans played in the shaping of the cemetery, its vicinity and Arlington House. The excursion not only explored the hallowed ground of Arlington but delved into the master/slave relationships at the plantation home of George Washington Parke Custis and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The two-hour Black History Month tour included bus stops at McClellan Circle, Arlington House and Section 27, where the first African-American servicemembers were buried at the cemetery.
"We're going to be looking at sites relating to African-American history including the American Civil War," said National Park Service ranger and tour guide Matthew Penrod. "This is an inaugural program where the National Park Service and the United States Army joined together to present meaningful programs and interpretations relating to the history of this marvelous place. We are in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. It's really our generation's opportunity to reflect on the meaning of that war and its legacy."
The initial stop was at McClellan Circle. Tour guests learned of the logistical significance the area played in the pre- and Civil War eras.
"To the north [of McClellan Drive] was pasture and to the south was the [plantation] farm," Penrod pointed out. "Along the road were buildings and barns, blacksmith shops and slave quarters, stables. This was the working part of the plantation, and this road was the main avenue to Arlington House."
From the McClennan Circle vista, Penrod also explained where Arlington House slave burial grounds were once located. Those final resting places, located between the current ANC public parking area and the Potomac River, have been lost to the Lee Highway, the George Washington Parkway and urban sprawl.
"As a slave cemetery, it was unlikely the graves were marked," Penrod told the crowd. "But as hundreds of thousands of people took over this area during the Civil War and years afterward, all the knowledge of the cemetery was lost. When the highways came in, the cemetery may have been paved over. It is very unfortunate."
The tour's next attraction was the Freedman's Village site in the southern half of the cemetery in the vicinity of South Eisenhower Drive. Penrod noted that abolitionist leader Sojourner Truth lived for a year at the village and helped to assist villagers when overzealous plantation owners looked to reclaim their slaves.
"Many moved into Freedman's Village because they were fearful their masters would come looking for them. Plantation owners from Maryland actually came into Freedman's Village demanding that their property be given to them," Penrod said.
Many of the tour group found the Freedman's Village segment of the tour fascinating.
"I wanted to learn more about African-American history specifically here in Arlington," said Lisa Lipinski. "I'm a licensed D.C. tour guide. I wanted to know more, especially about Freedman's Village."
After viewing of graves of prominent African-Americans near the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Old Chapel gate, the crowd gathered near the rear of Arlington House where original slave quarters still stand. Penrod told the story of slave Selena Gray and her custodianship of Arlington House. At the advent of the War Between the States, Gen. Lee's wife entrusted the keys to the slave when it was imminent that the Union Soldiers were going to occupy Arlington and possibly loot and pillage the mansion.
"These are the only historic slave quarters still in existence here at Arlington," Penrod said. "There were many others, especially down at the farm area. They were very well-built."
The Charles and Maria Syphax Family, who once were slaves of George Washington and were moved to Arlington House, were also a line of the tour discussion.
The tour concluded with a visit to Section 27 on the northern edge of the cemetery near the Netherlands Carillon. That area is the home of the first African-Americans to be buried at ANC and the first African-American Medal of Honor recipients.