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Freedman Village of the Dead

By Mark Blickley

PROMPT—No one noticed ...

A dozen years ago, I visited Arlington National Cemetery for the first (and only) time. As a reluctant participant in the Vietnam War, I was hoping that my visit to this "hallowed ground" would offer up some kind of comfort, some sort of pride, for having served my country during wartime. It provided neither comfort or pride for me.


As I delved deeper into the history of Arlington National Cemetery, I was surprised to find that the issue of racial identity is also alive on this hallowed ground. From 1864 until 1890, it served as the site of an encampment for the formerly enslaved, known as Freedman's Village. Freedman’s Village resulted from Lincoln's emancipation of all enslaved people living in the District of Columbia on April 16, 1862. Given Washington's proximity to the southern states, many escapees from slavery—as well as those liberated by advancing Union troops—found their way to Washington in search of a new life. Overcrowding and disease forced the government to relocate many different camps (including one inside the U.S. Capitol Building) to Arlington as a temporary refuge, but the camp grew to be known as Freedman’s Village, providing permanent housing and other community services to liberated Black men, women, and children for nearly thirty years.

At its inception, the village came under the military jurisdiction of the U.S. Army and was governed by a military commander. Many residents complained that life under military rule was not much better than slavery.


After the war, the desire to assist those who had been enslaved lost a great deal of its support among the general public, and fewer and fewer resources were made available to the villagers. Neighboring residents complained of the crime associated with the village and of the financial burden they were forced to assume as federal assistance to the villagers was reduced. By 1890, the villagers were no longer considered refugees from slavery, and Freedman’s Village was dismantled and the residents were forced to leave.


Thus, more than three generations before Franklin Roosevelt's administration, a harsh welfare "state" was founded at Arlington National Cemetery. The negative result from this noble experiment proved to be a microcosm of contemporary racial strife. I'm at a loss to explain why this earliest of governmental precedents concerning the race question wasn't factored into 20th century policy decisions. I imagine that some invaluable insights could be gained by studying how a Freedman’s Village, in the course of a single generation, could evolve into what many believe acted as a Freedman’s Prison. I suspect that the truth of this failure has been discreetly buried under humanely inscribed Arlington Cemetery monuments, ones that applaud the government's benevolent establishment of Freedman’s Village to help the down-trodden African-American victims of the Civil War.

Discreet burials of another kind were performed at Arlington. There existed a policy of segregating Black warriors from white that lasted for nine decades. The expulsion of living Black residents from cemetery grounds in 1890 was replaced with the expulsion of deceased Black residents by depositing their corpses in a separate area, away from their white counterparts. Segregated even in death, Black soldiers were denied the same hero status given to whites. This "Freedman Village of the Dead" existed until 1948.

 

Mark Blickley grew up within walking distance of New York's Bronx Zoo. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild and PEN American Center. His latest book is the flash fiction collection, Hunger Pains (Buttonhook Press). Mark writes from Long Island City, NY.

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