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Black History Through a Gateway

Freedman’s Village links today’s black neighborhoods to earliest point of freedom.

<i>Note: Over the course of February, in observance of Black History Month, the Arlington Connection will profile some of the historical sites featured in the Black Heritage Museum’s new brochure, “African American History in Arlington.”</i>

In Halls Hill, a historically black neighborhood in North Arlington, neighborhood leaders are looking forward to the construction of a gateway this spring, a gateway that will serve as a newly built monument to that area’s history.

This week, some of the county’s lack leaders were discussing a much older gateway, a gateway that links today’s black communities with some of their earliest American ancestors.

“We tried to show how the other communities were spin-offs from African-American life in Freedman’s Village,” said Alfred Taylor, President of the Nauck Civic Association. Taylor served as moderator for a discussion of the Village’s place in local history on Thursday, Feb. 13.

Freedman’s Village, which began as a wartime refuge for emancipated and fugitive slaves in 1863, is one of the locations highlighted in “African American History in Arlington,” a new brochure from the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington.

Located on property confiscated from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that eventually became Arlington National Cemetery, Freedman’s Village was the first free home for many of the black families whose descendants still live in the county today. The settlement was intended to be a temporary holdover for blacks to learn a trade and develop skills and resources necessary to survive as free men after the Civil War.

As such, the Village became what Taylor calls “the gateway to the communities of Arlington.” Mount Olive Baptist Church, Mount Zion Baptist Church, and Lomax AME Zion Church, still important black churches today, all trace their roots to Freedman’s Village.

So do predominantly black neighborhoods like Halls Hill and Nauck. Both neighborhoods and all three churches are also featured in the Black Heritage Museum’s brochure.

DESCENDANTS OF ORIGINAL settlers in Freedman’s Village say efforts to preserve their ancestors’ history has far-reaching implications for local residents and for the county as a whole.

“It was so rewarding for me personally to know that the genealogical research I’ve done is now going to bear fruit in Arlington County,” said Zsun-nee Matema, a Silver Spring resident and descendent of several Freedman’s Village residents.

Matema said young people especially need to learn how the history of the Village shaped life in Arlington today. Young people “don’t know how much they’re missing about their own self-knowledge,” she said.

Taylor agreed. Many of his neighbors have sold historically significant properties and move away, without ever learning about the history in their own houses.

It’s not a problem exclusive to the younger generation, though. “In the past… a lot of the history was excluded,” he said.

But with efforts to highlight the history of places like Freedman’s Village, the Black Heritage Museum is helping to change that. “It’s now things like this that really tell the story of what some of the residents of Arlington county endured in order to remain in the county, and why they have such a love for the county,” said Taylor.

While it’s important to preserve and understand black history, Matema said, there’s also a danger in focusing on black history as a subject separate from the history taught in most classrooms.

“It’s so important that we not separate these histories,” she said. Even the term “black history” is inaccurate, she said. The history of people of African-Americans is really a “tri-racial or tri-ethnic history,” she said. Her ancestors, like many residents of Freedman’s Village, shared the genes and the culture of Native Americans and whites as well as Africans.

PRIDE REPLACES SHAME as efforts to understand and preserve black history continue.

Talmadge Williams, President of the Arlington NAACP, said for generations many blacks viewed slavery as a shameful part of their family histories. “Now that we’re calling on them, they’re still somewhat bashful,” he said. Things are beginning to change. “They’re not so much ashamed of their history as they were in the past,” said Williams.

In Nauck, residents walk with their heads held high and are rekindling the entrepreneurial spirit that led to the creation of Freedman’s Village and Arlington’s black neighborhoods in the first place, said Taylor. “There’s a newfound spirit of trying to develop the land yourself.”

“I feel honored that the Rowe family has stayed in Nauck,” said Milton Rowe, whose grandchildren are the sixth generation of blacks to live free in Arlington. Since the days of Freedman’s Village, the Rowes have lived in Nauck and attended Lomax AME Zion Church.

Rowe’s great-grandfather William, like many free blacks at the time, learned a trade while living in Freedman’s Village, using his skills as a blacksmith to help others in the black community even after moving to a new home.

The Village presented many employment opportunities for black residents. During the Civil War, Villagers helped in the war effort and received the same wages as white workers.

Despite its original status as a temporary settlement, many Villagers remained on the site for years, partly to take advantage of the school and hospital for black residents. Congress purchased the Freedman’s Village property in 1900 for $75,000, pushing the final residents into other parts of the region.

A recreation of the original Freedman’s Village is currently on display in Arlington Cemetery.