Freedmans Village Bridge in Arlington, Virginia, is a four-lane structure that carries Washington Boulevard over the major state highway, Columbia Pike. Just a mile away from Route 1, this bridge is named after the historic site that once occupied the land. For over a century, the roadway bore no signs of its significance. In 2015, improvements made to the roadway allowed developers to replace a structurally unsound bypass, while also recognizing an important part of Arlington’s history.
Freedmans Village During the Civil War
In 1862, Congress passed legislation declaring all enslaved persons free in the District of Columbia. With the Civil War still raging in other parts of the country, most enslaved Blacks—either recently freed or attempting to escape—sought refuge in the North. In 1863, the U.S. converted land seized from Robert E. Lee’s estate into Freedmans Village: a settlement that included 50 one-story houses, farms, a hospital, an orphanage, and a home for the elderly. The property’s transition from a slave owner’s plantation to a gathering spot for freed enslaved persons was intentional, a symbolic representation of the North’s break from the South and its traditions of slavery. Builders considered it a “model community” for a transitional dwelling place: one that could give formerly enslaved persons receive vocational training and an education, before they moved on to begin their lives as free people elsewhere.
The Reality of Freedmans Village
The reality of Freedmans Village translated differently from its founder’s intentions. African Americans began arriving in droves from the Virginias and beyond. Labeled “contrabands” because the South still considered them its property, Black people found themselves sharing the one-story houses that had been divided in two. It was common for one dwelling to house two to four different families. As the population grew, so too did the disease and disrepair caused by limited resources. (Take, for instance, the property’s single well. It drew from swamp water that led to smallpox outbreaks.)
The population’s quick growth was compounded by the fact that people used this transitional location as a permanent residence. Their reticence to leave made psychological and practical sense. Many African Americans had lost family members at the auction block. To be able to live together in peace—no matter how squalid the living conditions—must have provided some emotional relief. Meanwhile, areas outside the camp weren’t welcoming, to say the least. Exploitation, abuse, and the fear of recapture or enforced servitude made Freedmans Village appear to many as the safest bet. By 1864, the overpopulation and governmental neglect had rendered the village’s conditions barely tolerable.
Abolitionist Sojourner Truth lived in the settlement for a year, striving to rectify the situation. She provided the villagers with spiritual and practical guidance, including how to care for themselves, perform domestic chores, find work, and value themselves and assert their rights as human beings. She worked with Lincoln and other missionaries for assistance during this time, and for a while, her efforts succeeded. The government supplied the housing and facilities for supporting the several thousand inhabitants, including building a school. African Americans could seek independent employment, or work on the nearby government-owned farms for a salary of $10 a month (half their earnings went to a “general fund” for maintaining the village). Residents began to participate in Freedmans Village with the intention of making it a permanent home.
The Village’s Dissolution Through Present Day
As time went on, relations between the government and inhabitants of Freedmans Village grew tense. Local whites complained about the villagers, finding fault with any number of actions: from cutting down trees to using up relief fund money that they believed should go towards their own interests. Meanwhile, the Freedmans Bureau began charging tenants rents that ranged from one to three dollars a month: an amount that many considered unfair and refused to pay. In 1868, the settlement faced its first eviction battle. They won, although 150 elderly people were forced to go to Freedmans Hospital. A second, stronger attempt at eviction arrived in 1882, spearheaded by local leaders and government planning who wanted to turn the land into a public park. In 1886, these efforts won out, and the war department ordered Freedmans Village residents to leave, denying their request for $350 to offset the cost of moving. By the 1890s, the village had been almost completely destroyed, and in 1900, the government officially closed it.
Two acts of grace helped the displaced at this time. Local farmers, many of them former slaves themselves, offered land to village residents. These plots later became neighborhoods that are recognizable today as Halls Hills and Nuack. Then the government allotted $75,000 to be split between former residents and their heirs. This total represented the property’s estimated value, and was paid out by the contraband-fund: a tax levied on residents during war time because of their technical status as “property.” Meanwhile, Robert E. Lee’s eldest son received $150,000 and the title to the lands in a decision made by the Supreme Court.
Most of the land was turned into present-day Arlington Cemetery, and a small portion was converted to roadway. Today, visitors can see two plaques on the new structure: a bridge not just across roadways, but time.