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Activists Preserve Legacy of Freedman’s Village

Land exchange between county and Department of Defense would enable building of Black Heritage Museum.

How many Arlington residents know that nearly 90 percent of the county’s population in the 1870s was black?

How many know that the federal government built a town, named Freedman’s Village, for thousands of newly freed slaves during the height of the Civil War on what is now Arlington National Cemetery?

Talmadge Williams, the chairman of the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington, poses these questions while sitting in the organization’s cramped office above the Wachovia Bank on George Mason Drive. On the television in the background, Bill Clinton has just taken the stage at the memorial service for Coretta Scott King at a church in Atlanta.

For more than a decade, Williams and other prominent Arlington activists have worked tirelessly to establish a museum that would detail the long and illustrious history of the county’s black inhabitants.

“We have a rich history in Arlington but it hasn’t been documented,” said Williams, who is also the executive director of the Arlington branch of the NAACP. “We’re going to document it so the generations to come will be able to see who these people were.”

Thanks to an impending land swap between the county and the Department of Defense, that long-held dream is close to becoming a reality.

Although the deal is not yet finalized, the DoD intends to exchange four and a half acres of land that currently holds the Naval Annex buildings for an equivalent slice of property to the north, which would provide the space for an expansion of Arlington National Cemetery.

On the county’s new land, a museum dedicated to the history of Arlington is expected to be built, with the Black Heritage Museum at its epicenter, said Bill Thomas, a planning supervisor with the county.

THE EFFORT IS spearheaded by a coalition that includes the Black Heritage Museum, the Arlington Historical Society, the county’s Historic Affairs and Landmark Review Board and the Arlington Heritage Center Task Force.

Don’t start lining up for tickets just yet though; the DoD will not begin to vacate its buildings on the Naval Annex property until 2010. And the coalition is only in the embryonic stage of fundraising for construction of the Arlington history museum.

The proposed site for the museum is adjacent to the Air Force Memorial, which is still under construction. County officials are discussing building a memorial dedicated to the Arlington victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the site as well, Thomas said.

“Arlington has a unique story to tell,” Thomas said. “So many prominent people have lived here.”

With the cemetery and Air Force Memorial next door, the county hopes that thousands of tourists will also take the time to visit the museum, and learn more about the origins of Arlington and the integral role its inhabitants have played in shaping the course of the nation.

If built on the intended location, the museum would look out onto the original location of Freedman’s Village. A glass wall with a rendering of the village would sit at the entrance, so visitors can imagine what the site might have resembled in the 1860s.

“We will use the museum as a place to educate the community about Freedman’s Village and the impact it had on the nation,” said Joan White, president of the Black Heritage Museum.

FREEDMAN’S VILLAGE was established by the U.S. government in the summer of 1863 as a temporary refuge for slaves recently freed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Following Lincoln’s declaration, thousands of former and escaped slaves traveled from across Maryland and Virginia to the nation’s capitol in search of shelter and employment. Most of them were placed in vacant buildings near the Supreme Court, or other camps interspersed throughout the city.

The camps were over-crowded and squalid. Disease was rampant, since the camps lacked toilets and basic sanitation, said Sara Collins, a former librarian at the Virginia Room of Central Library.

“The freed slaves had nothing but the rags on their backs,” said Sherman Pratt, a local historian. “The Union thought that they ought to get these poor souls out to ‘fresh country air.’”

The Union army had already confiscated the Curtis estate, which included Arlington House, which had briefly been managed by Robert E. Lee before the war. The government decided it would be the best place to relocate the freed slaves.

Soon a bustling village was built on the estate grounds. On average, between 1,000 and 3,000 individuals called Freedman’s Village home, though the numbers rose and fell on a daily basis, Collins said.

A school opened to educate the hundreds of children in the village, and a vocational training center was operated in order to teach the freed slaves a trade. A make-shift hospital was also built on the grounds, and at one time housed 50 beds.

“People were coming and going,” said Collins, who is also a member of the Black Heritage Museum’s board. “As soon as they had learned a trade and could purchase land, they left. Many worked for the army.”

During the 1870s, at the height of the federal government’s reconstruction efforts, the residents exerted a high degree of political power. The estate straddled two of the three districts that encompassed Alexandria County, and villagers were able to elect black officials, Collins said.

The village was intended to be only a temporary residence for the freed slaves, and the government refused to let the inhabitants buy their plots of land. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, the residents moved out of the village into the surrounding neighborhoods, and by the turn of the century Freedman’s Village was dismantled.

TODAY, THE DESCENDANTS of the original residents of Freedman’s Village still live in the surrounding Nauck, Hall’s Hill and Butler-Holmes neighborhoods. Arlington’s Mount Zion and Mount Olive Baptist churches are both off-shoots of a church founded in the village.

Advocates for the Black Heritage Museum hope that they will be able to collect and preserve artifacts from Freedman’s Village. White said she has talked to descendants of the freed slaves about sharing their stories and old photographs with the museum.

“The more we get together and talk to one another, the more we will learn about their history and who these people were,” she said.

The coalition of Arlington historic organizations is beginning to coordinate its fund-raising campaign for the museum, and White said she hopes to begin the first donation drive this summer.

Thomas, the county planning supervisor, said he believes that fund-raising will pick up once the county officially has the land, but adds that it will be a long process.

“Everyone says they will help with funding once we have the site and are ready to go,” he said.