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Arlington National Cemetery 150 years ago: African American presence

As Memorial Day approaches, the nation turns its attention toward remembering men and women who died while serving in the US Armed Forces. Formerly known as Decoration Day, the national holiday celebrated the last Monday in May, was originally set aside to commemorate Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. This year the holiday takes on particular significance in commemorating Arlington National Cemetery, which for the past 150 years has served as resting place for service members from every conflict in U.S. history, from the American Revolution all the way up to Iraq and Afghanistan.

A wreath stands at the grave of Army Pvt. William Christman, the first military burial at Arlington National Cemetery. The wreath-laying ceremony was part of the events celebrating 150 years at famed final resting place for military personnel and others.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Origins of the famous burial site go back to the Civil War. Situated in Virginia near the border of Washington, D.C., Arlington Cemetery was part of the estate of belonging to George Washington Parke Custis, adopted grandson of George Washington and later the father-in-law of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. When Virginia seceded from the Union, Northern troops occupied the estate.

In the early years of the Civil War, the need for a burial ground was particularly critical due to the increasing number of wounded soldiers sent back to Washington where they died in unsanitary hospitals at an increasing rate. On June 15, 1864, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered the Arlington Plantation to be turned into a military cemetery for fallen Union soldiers. Arlington Plantation was thus turned into a burial ground, in part, also as a way to disgrace Lee, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy.

Since its beginning, there has been a notable African American presence associated with one the most visited cemeteries in the nation. According to the Official Website of Arlington National Cemetery, James “Uncle Jim” Parks (1836-1929), a slave born on the 1,100-acre Arlington Plantation Parks, left a rich oral history of his 93 years at Arlington. This history reflects some of the earliest years in black life in America, as he witnessed the transformation of the 1,100-acre Arlington Estate from a proud southern plantation to grounds for Union fortifications and eventually the final resting place for 400,000 active duty service members, veterans and their family members and others.

Among the 16,000 Civil War soldiers buried at Arlington, many were U.S. Colored Troops (blacks who served in the Union Army), three of whom were Medal of Honor recipients. Their headstones are marked with the Civil War shield and the letters U.S.C.T.

The official Website of ANC also reveals that in June 1863, Freedman's Village was established on the Arlington Estate, as a camp for slaves who had been freed as the Union forces moved South, or those who had escaped from slave owners in nearby Virginia and Maryland. Known as contrabands, more than 3,800 former slaves are buried with their headstones marked with the words "Civilian" or "Citizen." The exact location of Freedmen's Village is not known, but generally it was located in what is now the southeast section of the cemetery.

In an article in“The Grio,” Wayne Parks, great-grandson of James Parks, who lived in Freedmen’s Village and other places on the Arlington Estate, said he remembers his grandfather repeatedly bringing him to the cemetery as a child to explain the bond he felt with this special place. While visiting the hallowed grounds, Parks commented, “I was sitting on this wall gazing out over the cemetery and all of a sudden I got it . . . . Our DNA is intrinsically intertwined in this property, integrated in this property. . . .” Parks recognizes the contribution that his great grandfather made to the place where he lived for 93 years and where he was buried along with thousands of other African Americans who gave their lives in service to the nation, making Arlington National Cemetery one of the most revered historic sites in America.

The accompanying video shows flags being placed on gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery prior to Memorial Day.

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