On April 20, 1861, Robert E Lee resigned his commission in the US Army and shortly thereafter entered into confederate military service. By the end of May 1861, union troops had occupied the Arlington estate. In 1864 Mrs. Lee lost her home for failing to comply with a wartime law that required property owners in ‘insurrectionary districts’ to pay their real estate taxes in person.
On January 11,1864, the federal government purchased Arlington at a public auction for $26,800. That same year, 200 acres of the estate were set aside for the Union of war dead. In April 1862, President Lincoln emancipated all the slaves living in district of Columbia. By May 1863 the idea of a village to harbor freight slaves had gained widespread support within the Lincoln administration and constitution of shelters began. Throughout its early years Freedman’s village entertained numerous government officials who took an interest in the welfare of ex-slaves living there.
General Oliver O. Howard
In May 1865 Andrew Johnson appointed Oliver O. Howard as the first commissioner at the Freedmans’ bureau that was founded to assist the recently freed Enslaved. As a general in the union army he poured political weight to help the facility grow. He was also instrumental in establishing Howard University and a Director of a bank. The village came under the jurisdiction of the US Army and was governed by military commanders. In March 1865 the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands assumed jurisdiction of the village. From its beginning as a tent camp the village grew into a large community not only for refugees from other states but also from many of the former Arlington enslaved who found a home here.
The training center known as the Industrial School provided training for blacksmiths, wheelwrights carpenters and shoemakers. The carpenter trainees made the desks first for the school while the trailer apprentices made clothing for the residence of the home for the age. The home was a large structure which provided shelter for people unable to care for themselves, including the very old, the permanently disabled and those needing custodial care. Abbott hospital which was established in November 1866 provided medical care for the residence. They provided 50 beds and a staff of 14 medical officers who care not only for hospitalized patients but also for the Gen Village population. Residents who did not work in the school’s home or the hospital worked as field laborers on the adjustment farms; these farms produce corn wheat potatoes and vegetables which the villages sold for profit. Workers receive $10 monthly Half of which went to a general fund to maintain the village. After the war the desire to assist freed slaves laws a great deal of support among the general public and fewer resources were made available to the villages. Nearly a generation has passed since the end of the Civil War and public sentiment in the United States has changed. No longer with the villages considered refugees of slavery. By 1890 after nearly 30 years Freemans village was dismantled and the residents were forced to leave. Without the financial and moral support of the public and the federal government the village could not sustain itself. Many of the families had lived there for over 20 years. They had received an education, found adequate jobs and worked hard to improve their lives.
Many influential Freedmen were very active and supporting the bureau. Elizabeth Keckley and Sojourner Truth who were former slaves were very highly respected by influential figures in this country.
Born into slavery Elizabeth Keckley learned to sew from her mother and grew so skilled in the craft that she made extra money for her master by sewing for his friends and acquaintances. In the 1860s Elizabeth moved to Washington DC and made her living sewing for wealthy women. Just a few days before the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln Mary Todd Lincoln spilled coffee on the gown she planned to wear for the event. She needed a dressmaker to make a replacement quickly. A friend recommended Elizabeth. She worked nonstop to finish the dress and both Lincolns were pleased with the results. That inaugural gown was the beginning of a close relationship between the two women. Elizabeth became the first lady’s trusted confidant. As a champion for change Elizabeth Keckley was the president and founder of the first Contraband Relief Association. This organization raised private monies for the programs that supported the newly freed enslaved who lived at Freedmans village.
Born into slavery around 1797 Sojourner was the second youngest of 12 children. Sojourner was forced to marry an enslaved man named Thomas. Together they had five children. She escaped from her owner and was taken by a quaker family name Van Wagner. While living with the Van Wagner’s she was able to sue for custody of her son Peter who was illegally sold to an Alabama planter plantation. She won the lawsuit making her the first Black woman to sue a white man and win. From 1864 to 1868 she worked with the national Freedman’s relief Association and Freedmen’s bureau. Sojourner helped the women in the village learn how to clean and take care of their children. She encouraged mothers to send their children to school and to challenge them to go to the adult classes available at the school. She learned one day that white men from Maryland were coming to the village and stealing children. Sojourner, the seasoned warrior, caught them in the act and said, “if you try anything like that again I will make the United States rock like a cradle.” The. Men left her alone and stopped raiding the Freemans village. Doing this time President Lincoln received her in the White House. Sojourner was the first Black woman to have this honor. Today, in section 27 of Arlington National Cemetery, rest the bodies of some Freedmans’ Village residents.