Remembering Freedman's Village
February 28, 2012
A house stands on a hill, the American flag flying proudly out front overlooking thousands of pure white headstones honoring military heroes. Along the outer edges of Arlington National Cemetery near where the Netherlands Carillon tolls outside the cemetery's walls, rest more than 3,000 former slaves in Section 27, separated from war veteran headstones by one word: civilian.
Custis-Lee Mansion and the land surrounding it is where history was made. The first free neighborhood in Arlington, Freedman's Village, from 1863 to 1888 and claimed 17.5 acres of the Custis-Lee Mansion land. The rest of the estate went toward creating ANC.
"When Robert E. Lee [and the confederate Army] lost the war, all of his slaves were freed," said Craig Syphax, president of the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington. Syphax is the great-grandson of Maria and Charles Syphax, who were slaves at Arlington House, also known as Custis-Lee Mansion.
Custis-Lee Mansion is named after its owners, George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington through her first marriage. Custis was raised by Martha and George Washington after his own father, John Parke Custis, died. After marrying Mary Lee Fitzhugh, the couple had four children, but only one, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, survived. In 1831, the Custis daughter married Robert E. Lee.
The Black Heritage Museum website explains all the slaves from Mount Vernon were inherited by George Washington Parke Custis, who relocated the slaves to his property in Arlington.
"[Maria's] mother was Airy Carter, a Mount Vernon house slave, and her father may have been George Washington Parke Custis," states the museum website. "This would explain why in 1826 she and her children, Elinor and William Syphax, received from Custis not only their freedom but a seventeen and one-half acre plot of land located in the southwest portion of the Arlington estate."
However, a wartime tax law required all property owners pay taxes in person, according to the museum website. Mary Randolph Custis Lee, the wife of Robert E. Lee and last private owner of the mansion, did not show up to pay taxes on the Arlington House. Maria Syphax, having no proof of owning the 17.5 acres, was forced to relinquish all grounds to the government which became Freedman's Village.
The village itself took up only a small portion of the 17.5 acres. It was comprised of a school, a hospital, and various churches and homes, said Syphax. "[Inhabitants] mainly worked outside of the village on neighboring farms [to] get produce and sell it to people in the village."
The village was meant to be self-contained, though the freed slaves still relied on field work to keep the town thriving, said Syphax.
At the time, Columbia Pike ran straight through to the 14th Street Bridge. The roads between Henderson Hall's main gates and Arlington National Cemetery extended straight down to the Pentagon, which approximately formed Freedman's Village.
It began with the District of Columbia slaves being freed on April 16, 1862 by Congress, according to the National Park Service website. At first, the freed slaves were contained within camps in D.C. However, after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on Jan. 1, 1863 freeing all slaves within the Confederacy, the camps became overcrowded and were deteriorating as slaves headed to Washington for safety and work.
"For many abolitionists and some in the government, Robert E. Lee, as the leading Confederate general, came to personify slavery and unrealized freedom for millions of blacks in America," as stated on the National Park Service website. "The use of his home as a camp for freed persons was thus thought to be very appealing and appropriate by many in the north."
"[The government] wanted to put [the slaves] to work to raise corn and other products, so they could be used locally," said Bobbi Schildt, a former Arlington school teacher, explains in a "Tell Arlington's Story" video clip on the Arlington County website. "Thousands of people lived there. Eventually it became a community with a church, a school. Toward the turn of the century it was closed by the federal government."
When the time came to close the village, the churches separated and, with their followers, created the different African-American communities in Arlington. Mount Olive Baptist Church created what is now known as Arlington View. Mount Zion Baptist Church created what is now known as Green Valley, said Syphax. However, according to the "African American History in Arlington Virginia" booklet from the Arlington convention and Visitors Service, both churches stem from the Old Bell Church.
However, not all freed slaves made it out of the village before it shut down. At a death rate of two people per day there were outbreaks of scarlet fever, measles and whooping cough which was nothing compared to the death average of five people a day in Washington D.C., according to the ANC website.
It's also important to note that following the Civil War from 1865 to 1872, the Freedman's Bureau, which ran the village for most of its existence, worked to make transition from slavery to freedom easier. The bureau faced creating a new social order founded on freedom and racial equality for more than four million liberated slaves and impoverished whites, according to the National Archives website.
If interested in learning more about the history of Custis-Lee Mansion and Freedman's Village, ANC will be hosting two two-hour tours on Feb. 22 and 29 at 10 a.m. The tour, called "African-American Civil War History at Arlington National Cemetery," will include guided van tours through ANC. Reservations are required as space is limited; call 703-235-1530 to reserve a spot on the tour.