The land upon which Arlington National Cemetery was created was once the plantation home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Anna Randolph Custis to whom the 1,100 acre plot of land had been willed.
The Lees vacated the land in 1861 at the outset of the Civil War after which the seized property was occupied by the Union army as a camp, headquarters, and soon thereafter, a cemetery. In 1863 the federal government created Freedman’s Village on part of the land as a model community for formerly enslaved people who were transitioning to freedom. Freedman’s Village operated as a self-sufficient community with its own housing, farmland, school, hospital, training facility, and mess hall until 1900. Those who lived at Freedman’s Village were buried on the property and each gravestone is inscribed with “Citizen” or “Civilian.” According to cemetery tour guide, these designations were to indicate that the formerly enslaved people held full and complete citizenship status in the U.S. Their graves are now part of section 27 of Arlington National Cemetery.
African American history, emphasis on American history, runs throughout the cemetery with the grave of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers being one of the first to be highlighted on the tour, followed later by those of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and North Pole explorer Matthew Henson, among others.
I had a few tour guides at the cemetery and found it a bit odd that their presentations about all those buried there were so upbeat. I’m guessing that there is an explicit attempt to make the tours more historic than depressing. I could not help but think, however, about the long road from Freedman’s Village through to today. It is a road that continues through to the social justice issues that we are here to work on.
Several members of our immersion cohort and I have commented on the inspiration this experience is giving us to keep pressing ahead. In thinking about how much the residents of Freedman’s Village must have yearned for true emancipation and justice I cannot help but press ahead. So many others never made it to Freedman’s Village; so many others still are not free. So I press ahead, working for a time when those who come after me will be able to tell stories about how we thrived and not only where we’re buried.
Arlington National Cemetery Brochure: Honor, Remember, Explore