In June of 1863, on the grounds of the federally confiscated Robert E. Lee Arlington estate (today's Arlington National Cemetery), the U.S. government established Freedman's Village as a temporary wartime refuge for emancipated and fugitive (“contraband”) enslaved people. The creators intended it to be a model community for freed persons where the open air would improve their health and have other benefits. Transforming part of Confederate General Lee’s plantation estate into a community for freedmen likely served a strong symbolic purpose, too.
The village evolved into a unique and thriving community with schools, hospitals, churches and social services. Living at Freedman's Village was the first experience of a life out of bondage for thousands of African Americans, including a number of the enslaved people who formerly lived and labored on the estate. Here, on the plantation they had built and maintained, residents began to have some increased control over their lives.
While intended to be temporary, the community survived long after the Civil War, thriving for 37 years — from 1863 until 1900 — and sowing the seeds for Arlington's African American community. This lasting legacy connects Arlington National Cemetery to the national history of slavery and emancipation. It forms a significant episode in the cemetery’s early years and remains rich with untold stories.
To bring this historical episode to light, the museum created a fascinating model of Freedman’s Village, which is part of a cosponsored exhibit on slave life at Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.