“Their spiritual strength and their hope for a better future allowed them to persevere through slavery and the freedom which they gained.”–Stephen Hammond,seventh generation Syphax descendant
A Continuing Influence
During and after the Civil War, African Americans who had lived on this plantation built new futures and led their communities. Some, like Lucius Bingham, left the estate and enlisted in the Union Army. Others, like James Parks, stayed and worked for Arlington National Cemetery. William Syphax fought to improve education for African Americans while Ada, Annice, Emma, and Sarah Gray influenced Arlington House’s restoration, forever molding our interpretation of this place. While their experiences were different, each person had a unique path to freedom as they created new lives for themselves. Their descendants continue to shape the story of this area today.
Supplying a Workforce
Before the Civil War, this space was a storeroom, a place to keep tools and supplies. The enslaved lined up here to receive rations.
Storage Room Turned Living Space
During the Civil War, the Gray family stayed on the estate. They cut doorways between rooms to transform the entire building into their home.
The Choices of Wartime
Both plantation residents and formerly enslaved people who fled here seeking freedom confronted new challenges and opportunities. In May 1861, the Lee family left Arlington House, and the US Army crossed the Potomac River to occupy the estate. Arlington’s residents were among the four million enslaved Africans who had to decide whether to stay or leave their homes as the war dragged on. Many at Arlington found jobs with the US military. After 1863 some former Arlington residents enlisted in the Union Army. Their efforts, both on and off the battlefield, helped defeat the Confederacy and ensured that Robert E. Lee and other slaveholders would never hold the power to enslave again.
“I give up my child upon the word and honor of the government to go and tote his musket and he had gone and lost his life. I think Sir that it is enough”–A woman being denied financial support after her son was killed in the Army.
Lucius Bingham was born enslaved at Arlington Plantation and enlisted in the Union Army in 1865. Nearly 200,000 African Americans enlisted in the military during the Civil War. Today, the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC commemorates their service.
Shaping a Cemetery
James Parks, formerly enslaved, chose to remain at Arlington. During the Civil War, Parks, like many other Arlington residents, worked for the US military building fortifications. The pay was more than a soldier’s and equal to that of a white laborer. One day, acting on orders, he dug the first two graves of what would later become Arlington National Cemetery. Parks laid to rest both soldiers and former slaves and worked for the cemetery until the 1920s. When interviewed, a reporter asked why he stayed. Parks replied, “Arlington’s my home.”
“I’s carved out the last resting places for them all. When they get in the ground, they all alike: generals and private soldiers: all alike, sleeping in the same bed of ground.”–James Parks
The first military burial took place at Arlington in May 1864. In June, the War Department officially designated this area a national cemetery. James Parks worked at Arlington National Cemetery for 61 years. When he died in 1929, he was buried in Section 15 with full military honors. Parks is the only person interred here who was born on the property.
Building a Community
The people who escaped slavery looked for a new home and a place to raise their families. During the Civil War, formerly enslaved men and women overwhelmed Washington, DC’s crowded refugee camps. In 1863 military authorities chose the Arlington Plantation grounds as the site for a temporary Freedman’s Village. Some 2,000 newly free men and women settled in the new community. Missionaries and prominent African Americans like Sojourner Truth provided food and services for the freedmen. Residents practiced trades, cultivated crops, and attended schools and churches. After the war, the government tried to close the village, but the residents fought for their homes. They transformed what was once a temporary camp into a robust community for 37 years.
”How appropriate that Lee’s lands should be dedicated to two such noble purposes—the free living black men whom Lee would enslave, and the bodies of the dead soldiers whom Lee has killed in a wicked cause.” –The Liberator, July 15, 1864
Slaveholders in Maryland raided Freedman’s Village, hoping to re-enslave the self-liberated. Abolitionist Sojourner Truth threatened to “make the United States rock like a cradle” if the practice did not end. The US government stopped the practice. The Army ran the camp, and some freedmen complained the military regulations made village life little better than slavery.
Despite numerous hardships, the residents of Freedman’s Village built a thriving community, enduring and overcoming crowded conditions, slave hunters, and several attempts to close the site down. Their efforts sustained Freedman’s Village until 1900.
Protecting a Community
In 1887 the US War Department decided to demolish Freedman’s Village and ordered the residents to leave. The residents protested. John Syphax, son of former Arlington slaves Charles and Maria Carter Custis Syphax, took up the villager’s cause. Syphax submitted a petition, stating that the residents had a “valid claim to a part of Arlington.” The military backed down, and the village remained open for another 13 years.
The son of former slaves and great-great grandson of Martha Washington, John Syphax became an Arlington County landowner, a justice of the peace, and a Virginia state legislator. The site stayed open until 1900.
“Twenty-four years residence at Arlington, with all the elements involved in this case inspire the hope that full and ample justice will be done even to the weakest members of this great republic.”–John Syphax, January 18, 1888
Fighting for Their Home
Before the Civil War, George Washington Parke Custis gave a parcel of land to Maria Carter Custis Syphax, his daughter by an enslaved woman. After the US military seized the Arlington estate, including the Syphax plot, the family worried they would lose their home. Maria’s son William petitioned the government to honor his family’s claim. In 1866 President Andrew Johnson signed the “Bill for the Relief of Maria Syphax,” which saved the family’s home.
Maria Carter Custis Syphax was the daughter of Arianna Carter, an enslaved woman, and George Washington Parke Custis. In 1826 Custis freed Maria Syphax and gave her land on the estate.
William Syphax was a lifelong community advocate. A Department of the Interior employee during the Civil War, he later served on the DC Board of Trustees of Colored Public Schools and fought to desegregate education in Washington, DC.
William Syphax wrote a letter to the federal government regarding his family’s claim: “My Mother and Father, -— Charles and Maria Syphax, --— have resided on the Arlington estate all their lives.”–William Syphax, January 1866
An Enduring Legacy
The newly freed men and women of Arlington and their descendants shaped the community and remained connected to this place.Older residents like Louisa Bingham petitioned the government for their right to stay on the estate. Some Arlington families settled in Freedman’s Village, while others established homes in nearby Arlington View, Butler-Holmes, and Nauck. Selina and Thornton Gray’s son Harry worked at the Department of the Interior for 40 years. Harry’s son Thornton fought in World War I. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, near where his grandparents were born. Today, the National Park Service continues to partner with descendants to record and honor the memory of their ancestors.
“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. The spirits of my ancestors continueto exist here…I now come here for strength, I come here to commune with them.”–Wayne Parks, great-grandson of James Parks
“We have a claim on the Estate.”–Petition by Leonard Norris, Louisa Bingham, Austin Branham, Lawrence Parks, Margaret Taylor, and Thornton Gray, March 2, 1868
Sarah, Ada, Annice, and Emma, daughters of Selina and Thornton Gray, visited Arlington in the 1920s and 1930s to provide advice on the restoration of the mansion and grounds.