Arlington Charter buses roll up to Arlington National Cemetery every day, depositing tourists who scramble uphill to see the eternal flame on President John F. Kennedy’s grave. People stream in all directions, toward the Tomb of the Unknowns or to remember at tombstones of loved ones lost to war.
Few, however, head downhill to a quiet corner near the Iwo Jima Memorial.
Down here, there are no memorials to ancient battles, no ornate headstones honoring long-dead dignitaries. There are only rows of small unassuming white tombstones, many engraved with names like George, Toby and Rose.
They are the only visible reminders that part of the nation’s most storied burial ground sits atop what used to be a thriving black town — “Freedman’s Village,” built on land confiscated from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Milton Rowe recently made his way slowly around the famous grounds with Wayne Parks. There’s nothing here now to tell visitors that freed slaves once lived here, but the two men say they feel a connection with this land because they can both trace their ancestors to Freedman’s Village.
Parks said he remembers his grandfather repeatedly bringing him to the cemetery as a child to explain the bond. Parks’ great-grandfather, James Parks, lived in Freedman’s Village and other locations around the cemetery after being freed from servitude to the Lee family.
James Parks (March 19, 1843–August 21, 1929) was a freed slave who is prominently buried in Arlington National Cemetery and is the only person buried there who was born on the grounds.
He was born a slave but was later freed by his owner and continued to work at the cemetery as a grave digger. He helped historians locate some of the buildings and landmarks that existed prior to the establishment of Arlington National Cemetery such as the slave cemetery, roads and other key locations.
He died at Freedman’s Village in Arlington, Virginia and was granted special permission to be buried at Arlington by the Secretary of War.
Parks was born a slave on March 19, 1843 in Arlington, Virginia to Lawrence Parks and Patsy Clark.
The first graves in Arlington National Cemetery were dug by James Parks, a former Arlington Estate slave. Parks was freed in 1862 under the terms of the will of his former owner, George Washington Parke Custis. He still lived on Arlington Estate when Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton signed the orders designating Arlington as a military burial ground. Parks served in the U.S. Army from 1861 to 1929 by working as a grave digger and maintenance man for the cemetery.
Prior to his death Jim Parks gave specific locations for the wells, springs, slave quarters, the slave cemetery, dance pavilion, old roads, icehouse, blacksmith shop, and kitchens. He stated that all of his grandparents and parents were buried in the slave cemetery. At the time the article was written, the Department of Agriculture was in the process of uprooting the sacred ground for a farming area. It is not known what happened to the bodies interred in the slave cemetery.
At the time of his death he left behind one of the few slave accounts on record from which much of the restoration of Arlington House was based. His testimony provided a complete record of the people who inhabited the plantation, the slaves and the Custis-Lee family.
When Parks died on August 21, 1929, the Secretary of War Henry Stimson granted special permission for him to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors and his grave can be found in section 15, grave 2, map grid G 26 near Selfridge Gate (West Gate). James Parks is the only person buried in Arlington National Cemetery who was born on the property.
James Parks, an interesting, respectful, kindly old Negro: Born a slave at Arlington House Estate about 1843. Died Arlington County, Virginia, August 21, 1929. He belonged to George Washington Parke Custis, proprietor of Arlington Estate from 1781 to 1857. “Uncle Jim” lived and worked at Arlington practically the whole of his long and useful life, in appreciation of his faithful service the secretary of war granted special permission to bury his mortal remains in this National Cemetery. Requiescat in Pace.
“I was sitting on this wall gazing out over the cemetery, and all of a sudden, I got it,” Parks said. “Our DNA is intrinsically intertwined in this property, integrated in this property. The spirits of my ancestors continue to exist here in this property, so I find like my grandfather, I now come here for strength, I come here to commune with them.” Arlington National Cemetery was established on land confiscated from Lee and his family in 1861 after the general took command of the Confederate forces.
“I was sitting on this wall gazing out over the cemetery, and all of a sudden, I got it,” Parks said. “Our DNA is intrinsically intertwined in this property, integrated in this property. The spirits of my ancestors continue to exist here in this property, so I find like my grandfather, I now come here for strength, I come here to commune with them.”
Arlington National Cemetery was established on land confiscated from Lee and his family in 1861 after the general took command of the Confederate forces.
The Civil War leaders of the Union buried soldiers’ bodies on the property in hopes that Lee would never want to return, and Parks’ ancestor dug the very first grave near the Freedman’s Village burial site.
With the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862 led many former and escaped slaves to Washington seeking shelter and employment. To manage this surge in population, the Quartermaster of the Washington Military District recommended resettlement of former slaves in the “pure county air” of the Arlington Plantation in May 1863. Freedman’s Village was formally opened on December 4, 1863.
The federal government turned some land about a half-mile north of Lee’s mansion into a town specifically for freed slaves who had nowhere to go. At its height, more than 1,100 former slaves lived in a collection of 50 1½-story duplexes surrounding a central pond.
Although the town was supposed to be temporary, the freed slaves provided shelter, clothing, food, medical care – including a hospital – schools and training in employable skills to former slaves. A school was opened with 150 students, and grew to 900, both children and adults. In the village’s industrial school, residents gained employable skills apprenticing as blacksmiths, wheelwrights, carpenters and tailors — to make a life for themselves.
“I think it would have very much resembled a town anywhere in America today with that population. They had the same needs as anywhere, and they sustained themselves by working,” said Thomas Sherlock, historian at Arlington National Cemetery.
Eventually, the village site, with a spectacular view of the nation’s capital and the Potomac River, became desirable for development. Despite impassioned protests from the freed slaves, the federal government paid the residents $75,000 for the buildings and property, Freedman’s Village remained open under the supervision of the War Department until 1888, when it closed and tore down the town in 1900.
Freedman’s Village survived long after the Civil War, thriving for 37 years and sowing the seeds of Arlington’s African American community. Arlington’s Mount Zion and Mount Olive Baptist churches both descended from the village’s Old Bell Church. Residents of Freedman’s Village gained political influence in the 1870s, enabling villagers to elect officials who went on to become some of Arlington’s most prominent leaders. After 25 years of existence, the village was closed in 1888, and the land returned to military control. Former Freedman Village residents who remained in the area established such continuing neighborhoods as Arlington View, Butler-Holmes, Halls’s Hill and Nauck.
Saving the city would have been a “gift to the American people to remember the struggles which seem like was a long time ago, but 150 years is not that long ago,” Sherlock said.
The only trace of Freedman’s Village left on the grounds are the lonely graves in Section 27 near the Iwo Jima Memoria