On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed “An Act for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia,” more commonly known as the “District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act,” or simply the “Compensated Emancipation Act.” Approved by the Senate on April 3, and by the House of Representatives on April 12, the bill ended slavery in Washington, D.C., by paying slave owners for releasing their slaves.
One unforeseen consequence of the legislation was the difficulty of feeding, housing, and otherwise caring for large numbers of newly-freed individuals who up until then had few personal resources. The problem was exacerbated during the first year of the Civil War by a large migration of escaped slaves from the Upper South, often referred to as “contrabands,” seeking protection behind Union lines in the nation’s capital. Between April and October 1862, the number of needy blacks swelled from roughly 400 to over 4000.
Initially, authorities established several temporary camps throughout the city to harbor the free blacks and contrabands. Overcrowding, however, quickly led to poor sanitary conditions, which spawned outbreaks of smallpox and other diseases. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation announcing his intention to free “all persons held as slaves within any State . . . in rebellion against the United States” on January 1, 1863. Anticipating an even greater influx of former slaves into Washington, federal authorities began pursuing other options.
On May 5, 1863, Lieutenant Colonel Elias M. Greene, chief quartermaster of the Department of Washington, and Danforth B. Nichols of the American Missionary Association announced plans to construct a new refugee center across the Potomac River from the capital to accommodate former slaves. The site they selected was Arlington Estate, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s plantation and the former home of George Washington Parke Custis, President George Washington’s adopted son and step-grandson. Construction began during the summer on Lee’s estate, which the Union army had occupied since the start of the Civil War. Soon thereafter, former slaves began occupying the grounds about one-half mile south of the mansion. On December 4, 1863, during a ceremony attended by Congressional delegates and other notable federal officials, the site was officially dedicated as Freedman’s Village.
From 1863 until early 1865, the U.S. Army and special agents from the Treasury Department governed Freedman’s Village. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands assumed those duties after it was established on March 3, 1865.
More than a Refugee Camp
Freedman’s Village was more than a refugee camp. Greene and Nichols envisioned a community as a temporary home where residents would receive a basic education and learn vocational skills that would enable them to be self-sufficient. To that end, the community included:
- Primary and secondary schools established and administered by the American Tract Society, headquartered in Boston. When the primary school opened on December 7, 1863, 150 students, including children and adults, were in attendance. A year later, nearly 900 learners were enrolled. By the summer of 1865, nearly 150 students were attending the village’s secondary school.
- An industrial school where students trained to become blacksmiths, wheelwrights, carpenters, shoemakers, and tailors. An apprenticeship program enabled trainees to support the village by making clothes, shoes, and furniture for the residents.
- A “home” for the aged and infirm who were incapable of caring for themselves. In 1866, the average population of the institution was about ninety residents.
- Abbott Hospital, constructed in 1866, had fifty beds and a staff of fourteen employees.
- A community laundry to encourage hygienic living conditions.
- A community kitchen or mess hall where residents could cook or take their meals.
- At least two churches—Mt. Olive Baptist Church and the Old Bell Church
Village residents lived in one-and-a-half-story wooden houses. Each of the more than fifty homes was divided in half to initially accommodate two families. Later, as the village’s population grew, some of the structures may have housed up to four families. Originally designed to shelter about 600 residents, the population may have approached 3,000 at its peak.
The able-bodied residents of Freedman’s Village were required to work, either for nearby employers or on government farms surrounding the village. Workers were paid $10 each week but between ten to fifty percent of their salary was appropriated for rent and to offset the community’s operating costs. Residents came to view these charges as onerous and rent collection became a serious problem.
Another source of contention was the strict discipline established and enforced by the military and, later, Freedmen’s Bureau authorities. Animosity heightened when some residents complained that they were subjected to beatings and sexual abuse from white soldiers who patrolled the village. When asked about the atmosphere in the village one resident observed, “. . . don’t feel as if I was free, (ap)pears like there’s nobody free here.”
Although the Freedman’s Village was established as a temporary stopover to prepare hundreds of transient freedmen for success outside of its boundaries, it gradually morphed into a semi-permanent settlement that housed a fixed population that numbered in the thousands. As the village grew, it suffered from overcrowding and the population spilled out into surrounding areas, prompting protests from white neighbors.
As early as 1868, the federal government began considering plans to close Freedmen’s Village. The movement to do so gained momentum as property values near Arlington increased later in the nineteenth century. In 1882, local government officials embraced a federal proposal to dismantle the camp and use the land as a public park.
Village residents organized politically to prevent the closure, electing John Syphax, whose mother had been a slave at Arlington, to represent them. They successfully forestalled the inevitable for a few years, but on December 7, 1887, federal officials notified the residents that they had ninety days to vacate their homes. The next year, Syphax petitioned the War Department to compensate each homeowner $350 for improvements made to the property. During the 1890s, the government leveled the village. In 1900, federal officials transferred the property to the Department of Agriculture and awarded reparations of $75,000 to be divided amongst former residents or their heirs.
Today, the Pentagon, the Navy Annex building, and part of Arlington National Cemetery are located on the land formerly occupied by Freedman’s Village. In section 27 on the eastern edge of the cemetery, more than 3,800 markers bearing the inscriptions of “civilian” and “citizen” mark the graves of former Freedman’s Village residents.