Self-Guided Tour: Black History of Arlington National Cemetery

This post is a self-guided tour of black history at Arlington National Cemetery. We invite you to join us on an overview of Arlington Cemetery tour led by one of our incredible guides – we offer this guided tour every week of the year.

Use the self-guided tour below as a complement to exploring more of Arlington’s incredible heroes. 

 

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The simple white marble headstones lined up in rows across Arlington National Cemetery are arranged without regard to rank, gender, branch of military or race. The cemetery began in a time of slavery and has grown through segregation and discrimination. 

From the Civil War to our current conflicts, this self-guided tour of the black history of Arlington National Cemetery highlights only a few of these soldiers and sailors who broke through barriers and boundaries to become the first of their race to reach certain military accomplishments.

 

Whether you walk, bike, drive or Metro to Arlington National Cemetery, you’re first stop will be the Visitor Center. Here you can purchase bottled water, use the restrooms, visit the gift shop, and pick up a map of the cemetery.

All graves are listed with their number if you want to find a particular one. Please note some sections do not allow you to walk amongst the graves, so please view these from the road! There will be chains and/or signs asking you to stay off the grass.

Our first stop is easy to get to from the Visitor Center. Enter the cemetery by taking the winding sidewalk from the Visitor Center, past the white Welcome to Arlington Cemetery sign. You’ll cross Eisenhower Drive and enter the burial grounds on Roosevelt Drive.

Follow this up the hill, past Weeks Drive and Grant Drive. As you round the corner, you’ll find the grave of Woodbern Remington, a small marble headstone, follow this row back along to the left and you’ll see the large black granite rectangular headstone of Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and his father, Benjamin O Davis Sr. just before it.


 


Self Guided Black History of Arlington Tour - Ben Davis Jr

 

STOP A: Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. & Jr. – Section 2, Grave E-478-B

The senior Benjamin O. Davis has the date 1877 listed on his grave because that is the date he gave to the army officials in order to enlist at the start of the Spanish-American War. Historical records place his birth more likely in 1880, too young to have joined.

He was encouraged to become an officer by his commanding officer, Charles Young, also buried in ANC, the only black officers at the time. Davis, Sr. passed with training by Young, especially needed in mathematics. He continued a military career and in 1940 was promoted to brigadier general.

Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. is the first black general officer in the United States Army.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. joined the United States Army with the intention of being a pilot – the Air Force was not a separate branch yet. He was the first officer to get his wings from the Tuskegee Army Air Field in 1942.

Davis, Jr. attended West Point but his classmates ignored him hoping he would leave. He had no roommate and ate alone, but he would graduate in 1936 – the first black graduate since his father’s mentor, Charles Young in 1889.

In 1936 there were two officers in the US Army – both of them Davises. Davis, Jr, was not allowed to join the Army Air Corps or enter the officer’s club on base but in 1941, he became a member of a black flying unit – the Tuskegee Airmen.

After fighting and flying in WWII, Davis Jr. was an integral part of integrating the Air Force.

In 1998 he was advanced to four-star general, the first black general in the United States Air Force.

Backtrack down Roosevelt Drive and turn left on Grant Drive. On the hill on your left, you’ll see Daniel Chappie James. You may have to look behind you as you walk along Grant Drive as the front of his headstone faces in the same direction as you’re walking.


 


Self Guided Black History of Arlington Tour - Chappie James

 

STOP B: Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. – Section 2, Grave 4968-B-LH

While attending Tuskegee University and playing football, Daniel James was often compared to his brother, Charles, an all-star football player in Florida A&M. Daniel got the nickname Chappie at this time – as a diminutive for Charles, since he was too big to be Junior.

James began civilian pilot training during WWII, but would not see combat as part of the US Air Force in the Korean War, where he flew 101 combat missions.

He continued as an operations officer and pilot through the 1960s, also finding time to appear on a TV game show and working on community efforts. With the outbreak of the Vietnam conflict, he was sent to Thailand.

He was named wing vice commander under Col. Robin Olds. Their formidable team earned the nickname “Blackman and Robin”. He flew 78 combat missions in Vietnam, including piloting in Operation Bolo with seven kills, the highest in any mission during the Vietnam War.

In 1975, James was the first black American to be promoted to four-star general.

Upon his death three years later, he had earned 26 military awards and many more civilian awards. He is remembered both for his service and speeches on patriotism.

Continue along Grant Drive past the benches for the tram stop. When the road dead ends, you’ll see the granite plaza for the Kennedy Memorials. Walk just past with the plaza on your left and you’ll see also on your left a bench-like memorial for John W. Weeks. Behind it, you’ll see the black stone for Thurgood Marshall.

While you’re here, you should visit the memorial for the Kennedy brothers, who supported the Civil Rights movement.


 


Self Guided Black History of Arlington Tour -Marshall

 

STOP C: Thurgood MarshallSection 5, Grave 40-3

Born Thoroughgood, he shortened his first name at a young age. Thurgood Marshall is buried on “Justice Hill” surrounded by other Supreme Court Justices in 1993. At the top of his tombstone is the seal of the Supreme Court and on the back, the simple epitaph “Civil Rights Advocate.”

Marshall is most remembered for being the first black American to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court. His legal career was groundbreaking before this. As the counsel for the NAACP, he argued before the Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education trial that effectively outlawed segregation in public schools.

Though he never served in the military, Marshall, like many others, was given special permission to be buried in Section 5. Next to him are seven other Supreme Court Justices.

The next three stops are on the far east end of the cemetery. Continue up the hill along Sheridan Drive. If you’d like to visit Arlington House and take a guided tour with the National Park Service, you may detour momentarily by taking the set of stairs you’ll see on your right up to the top of the hill.

After visiting Arlington House, return the way you came. You’ll want to reach the end of Sheridan Drive as it deadends on Meigs Avenue. You’ll see the small white Old Chapel building towards your left, continue along Meigs Avenue towards the Old Chapel. As you reach the intersection of Meigs Avenue and McPhearson Drive, find the grave of Chambers McKibbin to your right and stop D, Isaiah Mays is back 7 rows.


 


Self Guided Black History of Arlington Tour -Mays

 

STOP D Isaiah Mays – Section 1, Grave 630-B

Corporal Isaiah Mays was born a slave in Virginia in 1858. Nearly thirty years later he was a corporal in the 24th Regiment of the United States Army, one of the original Buffalo Soldier units.

On May 11, Mays and ten other Buffalo Soldiers were escorting Paymaster Major Joseph Wham and his cache of $28,000 (around $775,000 in today’s terms.) Eight of the soldiers were wounded and the payroll was stolen. The robbers did not have a high opinion of black soldiers and only fired above their heads originally in an effort to scare them off until the soldiers fought back. Under enemy fire, Mays walked and crawled over two miles to get help.

For this act of gallantry, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. The stolen payroll, however, was never found.

Isaiah Mays left the Army and was denied a federal pension. He died and was buried in a pauper’s grave at the Territorial Insane Asylum, which also housed those in poverty. It was not until 2009 that his remains were moved to Arlington National Cemetery in a manner befitting a Medal of Honor recipient.

Continue along Meigs Avenue almost to the edge of the cemetery. Just before you reach the parking lot, Stop E is three rows back to your right amongst the larger headstones. Alexander Augusta has a large dark monument, directly behind a roughly cut stone headstone on steps.


 


Self Guided Black History of Arlington Tour -Augusta

 

STOP E: Alexander Augusta – Section 1 Grave 124-C

Alexander Augusta was born in Virginia in 1825 but as a free man who secretly learned to read. He earned his medical degree in Toronto after being denied admission to medical colleges in the U.S.

Augusta came to Washington DC at the beginning of the Civil War after writing to Abraham Lincoln to offer his services as a physician. He received a presidential commission to the US Army in 1862 and the following year was promoted to major as a surgeon for black troops.

Augusta was the first black physician in the US Army and the highest-ranking black officer at the time. Though an officer’s rank, he was paid only an enlisted man’s salary for most of the war. In a few months, he was also named head of the Freedman’s Hospital, making him the first black hospital administrator.

He often faced discrimination. He was attacked while wearing his officer’s uniform on more than one occasion. Augusta was active in promoting equal rights on public transportation.

He left the military in 1866 as a Lieutenant Colonel to work as part of the Freedman’s Bureau and in private practice.

His headstone reads “Commissioned surgeon of colored volunteers, April 4, 1863, with the rank of Major. Commissioned regimental surgeon of the 7th Regiment of US. Colored Troops, October 2, 1863. Brevet Lieutenant Colonel of Volunteers, March 13, 1865, for faithful and meritorious services-mustered out October 13, 1866.”

Turn left on Garfield Drive which runs along the very edge of the cemetery. As the road begins to veer to the left, you’ll rows of graves directly head of you. Starting along the wall with Grave 15G-12, you can follow this row until grave 2, James Parks.


 


Self Guided Black History of Arlington Tour -Parks

 

STOP F: James Parks – Section 15, Grave 2

James Parks is the only person buried in Arlington National Cemetery who was also born here. He was born a slave on the Arlington estate of George Washington Park Custis, to be given his freedom as part of Custis’ will.

As a freed man he remained at the estate working for the US Army who had taken control of the land during the Civil War. Uncle Jim, as he was called, worked for the Army from 1862-1929 as a maintenance man and gravedigger for the cemetery.

James Parks dug those first graves of both fallen military soldiers and poor freedman to be buried in cemetery. When the government decided to refurbish the old Arlington House as a memorial to Robert E. Lee and update the grounds to their original state, Parks provided detailed testimony as to how the house and the gardens looked and were used.

Though he did not meet the official military requirements to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, the government agreed that no one was more deserving of the honor. Parks was interred with full military honors in 1929.

Continue along Garfield Drive around the quarter of the circle to turn right on McPhearson Drive. Turn left at the first intersection with Farragut Drive. The next road to your right is a circular driveway that leads you to the next stop, the mast of the USS Maine.


 


Self Guided Black History of Arlington Tour - Williams

 

STOP G: USS Maine Memorial

The start of the Spanish-American War was the tragic explosion of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in 1898. At this time, sailors of all nationalities were integrated.

Of the 350 men on board, 30 were black. They worked in the engine room and mess hall but there were also five petty officers and three experienced seamen. 22 of the 163 sailors who died in the explosion and are buried in Arlington National Cemetery are black. They are buried in Section 27 near the base of the memorial.

Aboard the USS Maine was Fireman William Lambert, who was the pitcher for the ship’s baseball team, and the only black man on the team. There was a friendly game scheduled with an All-Star team from Cuba before the ship exploded.

With the USS Maine Mast to your back, you’ll be facing the white marble columns of the Memorial Amphitheater. You may detour here to see the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

If you choose not to do this, walk along the left side of the amphitheater along the flagstone walkway keeping the amphitheater to your right and walk down the hill. When you reach the circular benches, another flagstone walkway turns right. At this corner, you’ll see a tall brown headstone facing you which says Louis.


STOP H: Joe Louis Barrow – Section 7A, Grave 177

Joe Louis Barrow is not known for his military career but rather his boxing. As the heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949, he defended his title more than twenty-five times against the best from all over the world. This included the 1939 bout in Yankee Stadium against the German fighter, Max Schmeling who was hailed by Adolf Hitler as an ideal. The “Brown Bomber” Louis knocked out Schmeling in two minutes and four seconds.

Louis joined the Army as a private in 1942 and traveled for the next three years performing for over two million soldiers in more than 96 matches. Louis was more than just a heavyweight boxer. He was an inspiration to society in a time of depression and war. Though technically not eligible for burial in Arlington National Cemetery, upon his death in 1981 President Ronald Reagan waived requirements so Joe Louis could be buried here.

His former challenger, and friend, Max Schmeling was a pallbearer and helped pay for his funeral expenses. His wife Martha would be buried there ten years later. The back of his tombstone visible from the sidewalk depicts his heavyweight championship career.

Continue down through the circular benches to Roosevelt Drive and turn right. Keeping an eye to your right as you walk along, you’ll see a granite headstone with four stars facing the road with no graves in front of it for our next stop, Roscoe Robinson.


STOP I: Roscoe Robinson, Jr. Section 7A, Grave 18

General Roscoe Robinson, Jr. graduated from West Point in 1951 in time to serve as a platoon leader and rifle company commander in the Korean War, where he earned the Bronze Star.

In the Vietnam War, he earned the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, 11 Air Medals, and two Silver Stars.

Robinson was promoted to major general and commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, the first black commander of this division.

Robinson is the first black four-star general in the US Army.

Continues along Roosevelt Drive until it dead-ends at Porter Drive and turn right. You’ll walk along Porter Drive for a few minutes, the graves to your left will be memorial headstones that say In Memory Of at the top. When you stop, you’ll see on the right a mix of smaller and larger headstones. Stop J, Charles Young, will be a large sarcophagus amongst these with it’s back next to a tree, at Grave 1730-B.


 


Self Guided Black History of Arlington Tour - Young

 

STOP J: Charles Young – Section 3, Grave 1730-B

Colonel Charles Young was born into slavery in 1864 but quickly was freed when his father escaped to Ohio and joined the Union Army to fight in the Civil War.

After the war, he graduated first in his class in an all-white high school in Ohio because it was the only school available. Young joined as a cadet at West Point, rooming with another black student, John Hanks Alexander.

He was the third black graduate of West Point, the first black U.S. national park superintendent, first black military attaché, first black to achieve the rank of colonel, and highest-ranking black officer in the United States Army until his death in 1922.

During WWI, he was forced to retire. The common assumption is that this was due to the fear of him out-ranking white officers, many of whom complained and applied for transfer rather than be commanded by a black man. The military gave medical reasons and to prove his stamina he rode his horse from Ohio to Washington, DC.

Young died in 1922 and received full military honors. Last year in 2013, his house in Ohio was designated the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument.

Backtrack the way you came along Porter Avenue, passing Roosevelt Drive. You’ll come to a starburst intersection of Porter, Grant and Jessup Drives. Turn right on Grant Drive and then left on Pershing Drive. As Pershing starts to turn to the left, you’ll notice the graves on your right change which direction they face.

This marks the line between section 20 and section 4. You’re looking straight at Section 4, walk into the section to the fourth line of graves and turn right. Follow this line until Grave 2749, George Wanton.


 


Self Guided Black History of Arlington Tour - Wanton

 

STOP K: George H Wanton – Section 4, Grave 2749

Master Sergeant George H. Wanton served in the US Navy from 1884-1888 and then joined the United States Army in 1889 as part of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment, more commonly known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

During the Spanish-American War, he was aboard the USS Florida off the Cuban shore. A party of 16 American scouts was stranded on the shore by enemy fire and several rescue attempts would fail at what became the Battle of Tayacoba.

Wanton and three others (Fitz Lee, William Thompkins, Dennis Bell, who is also buried in Arlington at Section 31, Grave 349) under the command of Lt. George Ahern volunteered to try again. They would launch a night attempt and successfully rescue the scouts despite enemy fire. He would be awarded the nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor.

In 1921, when the WWI Unknown Soldier was being interred in Arlington, Wanton was selected to serve as an honorary pallbearer. He resigned from the military in 1925 and would die in 1940.

Continue along Pershing Drive until it dead-ends on Jessup Drive, then turn left to head back to the starburst intersection. Standing at the intersection, you’ll see Bradley Drive to your right. The first row of graves you see begins with 25-80-O, follow this row until you reach Grave 64, Henry Johnson.


 


Self Guided Black History of Arlington Tour - Johnson

 

STOP L: Henry Johnson Section 25, Grave 64

After America got involved in WWI, the first black combat troops joined the French Army at the front in December 1917. The 369th Infantry remained the longest front line service of any regiment for the United States military after staying in the trenches for 161 days.

In May 1918, Sergeant Henry Johnson repelled an attack of a German raider party while on guard duty. Using his rifle and bolo knife he was able to prevent the capture of his fellow guard and save his fellow soldiers. This act earned him the nickname “Black Death.”

He was the first American soldier in WWI to earn the Croix de Guerre, a French medal for valor in combat. When he returned to the States, however, his honest depiction of racism in the trenches would lead to criticism, arrest and loss of work. He would posthumously be awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross.

Also serving in the 369th was Spotswood Poles (section 42, site 2324)., better known for his baseball career. He was known as the “Black Ty Cobb” and led the Negro leagues before the war.

With Henry Johnson’s grave behind you, walk ahead to Bradley Drive and turn right at the road. At the first intersection, face right along Eisenhower Drive. Ahead of you is the general area of Freedman’s Village, our next stop, which no longer exists.


 


Self Guided Black History of Arlington Tour - Freedmans Village

 

STOP M: Freedman’s Village

You will hear many talk about the honored military veterans who are buried in Arlington National Cemetery, how it is a military cemetery and you must have had some military affiliation to be buried on the grounds. Or perhaps you heard of the history of the house before the war and how it was the home to the Custis and Lee families. While this is true with some exceptions today, there is an entire section of Arlington Cemetery, now lost, that heralds back to its early days after Lee left but before it was a military cemetery.

An enslaved family who had worked for both the Washington and Custis families received their freedom in 1826 along with 17.5 acres of land. The Syphax family informally owned this portion in the southwest portion of the larger estate but had no written deed. When the Union government took control of Arlington Estates, with no way to prove it was theirs, the Syphax family lost their home. A small portion of it would be used to create a new home for other freed slaves.

In 1863, after the emancipation of slaves in the southern states and District of Columbia, many blacks fled to the capital city in hopes of finding work, families, food and more importantly, safety. To the government, they were contrabands – treated with much the same respect as confiscated enemy property. With the city overflowing, a society not yet ready for full integration, and a firm belief that these poor souls had neither the knowledge nor resources to care for themselves, the government set up a camp for them.

On the seized lands of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, known then as Arlington Heights or the Arlington estate, about half a mile south of Arlington Mansion, was Freedman’s Village.
 


Self Guided Black History of Arlington Tour - Freedmans Village

 

Built to house 600 residents in small wooden framed buildings, the village was meant to be a temporary stop. It boasted schools, hospital, home for the aged, laundry, mess hall, churches and over 50 duplex residences. Its goal was to educate newly freed black men, women and children in the basics of reading and writing as well as teach them a trade. Once they’ve learned to build a life for themselves, it was time to move on.

For many of the inhabitants, this would be one of the first times in their lives living out of bondage. Here many received a basic education. In its early years, Sojourner Truth worked at the village trying to improve the conditions and encouraging residents to stand up for their rights.
 


freedman_village

 
In search of new-found freedom and in spite of the squalid conditions of the camp, new refugees kept arriving. The village would continue to outgrow the infrastructure. Soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Myers ran freedman’s Village with the same military rigor they experienced from their own commanding officers.

While residents of the village worked for $10 a month’s pay on the construction and farming projects, they only received half of it. The other half was kept to maintain the village. Families lived on military rations since the food grown on the farms were sent to Washington city to sell to consumers there.

When it was time to move one, it seemed many were happy to leave.

For many of them, however, there would be no relocation. There was only one well and even that came from a swamp-like portion of the land. Smallpox, measles, scarlet fever among others contributed to a death rate of two persons per day. Nothing unusual for the day as nearby Washington city had a rate of five persons per day.

Though often incorrectly associated with Section 27, the Freedman’s Village own cemetery is lost with no headstones to mark the graves. The only clue was uncovered with the building of the nearby Sheraton Hotel that unearthed some portion of the Freedman’s Cemetery.
 


ANCAirforce

 

When residents outgrew the village, spreading into nearby Arlington County and political concerns grew; the government forcibly relocated the residents in 1900. They were offered $75,000 compensation. Many of the families did not move far and current residents of Arlington Country can trace their heritage back to Freedman’s Village. Local churches stemmed from those created amongst the residents, modern historically black neighborhoods grew from the new homes of displaced inhabitants.

Arlington National Cemetery expanded through the years with fallen soldiers. No trace of Freedman’s Village remains today amongst the headstones.

The southern section of the cemetery and area around the Air Force Memorial and Pentagon’s Navy Annex today used to be the home of 1,500 recently freed slaves trying to make their way in a new world.

Continue along Bradley Drive until you reach a grave number 60-9758, on your left. Follow this row along nearly to the other side, for grave 9836. This is section 60, where many of our fallen men and women from our current conflicts are laid to rest. Please be respectful of any families, memorials and services happening in this area.


STOP N: Hazel Johnson-Brown – Section 60, Grave 9836
(also featured on our self-guided tour: notable women in Arlington National Cemetery)

As a young girl, Hazel Johnson-Brown was inspired to become a nurse but her application to nursing school was rejected because she was black. Not letting this stop her, she attended Harlem Nursing School in New York.

In 1955, not long after segregation was banned in the military, she joined the United States Army serving as a staff nurse in Japan and chief nurse in South Korea.

She also served as Assistant Dean of the University of Maryland School of Nursing from 1976 to 1978 and as Director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing. When she was selected as Chief of the Army Nurses Corps, she was promoted to brigadier general in 1979, making her the first black woman general in the United States Army.

Continue along the row to reach the opposite side you entered, York Drive. Turn left on York Drive and head back to Eisenhower Drive. Turn right and follow this along past the entrance to the Visitor Center, past Memorial Drive and underneath the arches.

Shortly after you’ll see Custis Walk, a set of narrow stairs to your right. Follow this and when the stairs end, you’ll see the back of Medgar Evers to your right, often with many stones on top. The back is blank and says 36-1431 near the top.


 


Black History of Arlington Cemetery - Evers

 

STOP O: Medgar Evers – Section 36, Grave 1431

Civil Rights activist, Sergeant Medgar Evers served in the European Theater and the Battle of Normandy with the United States Army during World War II from 1943-45.

Upon returning from the war, he became involved in Mississippi civil rights actions, from the Regional Council of Negro Leadership to the NAACP. Evers was involved in the efforts to enroll James Meredith and desegregate the University of Mississippi, which had earlier denied his application to law school due to race. His position as the NAACP field secretary for Mississippi made him a target for those opposed to civil rights.

On June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers was assassinated in his driveway. He was initially refused entry to the hospital because of his race but would die shortly after being admitted.

Over 3,000 mourners attended his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery where he received full military honors.

Continue along Custis Walk until you reach the edge of the cemetery. The red brick wall surrounding the cemetery has an exit, the Ord Wetzel Gate at the end of Custis Walk. This entire section 27 is our final stop.


 


Black History of Arlington Cemetery - Section 27

 

STOP P: Section 27

Section 27 on the north side of Arlington National Cemetery contains more than 3,000 graves often incorrectly associated with Freedman’s Village. Not only military headstones, but you will also see white markers bearing the words CIVILIAN and CITIZEN, sometimes only first names, or descriptions such as BLACKSMITH’S SON.

You can access Section 27 from the main entrance on Memorial Drive or by the Ord-Weitzel Gate off Marshall Drive north of the cemetery (no private vehicle access). The Ord-Weitzel Gate also leads you to the Netherlands Carillon and the Marine Corps Memorial (Iwo Jima). This section is not far from the end of our Arlington National Cemetery guided walking tour.

These are the graves the poor freedmen who could not afford or were allowed burial elsewhere. However, these were not inhabitants of nearby Freedman’s Village, with its own cemetery. Those buried in Section 27 are non-military, often those who lived in Washington city or nearby Alexandria. Many of them were re-interments from other cemeteries, and many are those of members of the United States Colored Troops.
 


Black History of Arlington Cemetery - Christman

 

The first military burials at Arlington National Cemetery were of white Union soldiers away from the house. The first military serviceman buried here was Private William Henry Christman, of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry. He was interred in Arlington National Cemetery on May 13, 1864. He had died of the measles at Lincoln General Hospital on Capitol Hill. More men died from disease than battle wounds during the Civil War. His grave is still marked in Section 27.
 


Black History of Arlington Cemetery - Harris

 

When it was later decided to bring burials closer to the house to cement the government claim on the land, this lower cemetery section was increasingly used for impoverished freedman and black soldiers of the United States Colored Troops.

There are more than 1,500 black soldiers and sailors buried here, their graves indicated by U.S.C.T. One man buried here, Sgt. James H. Harris, of the 38th U.S. Colored Troops has an additional inscription on his gravestone. Sgt. Harris earned the Medal of Honor, the highest medal one can receive. He earned this for gallantry at the Battle of Chaffin’s farm where more than half of his regiment were killed but he and two others charged ahead fighting the Confederates in hand to hand combat.
 


Black History of Arlington Cemetery -

 

Over 3,000 poor blacks that had little to do with the military are buried in Section 27. A family member of the deceased would petition the Quartermaster General for burial in Arlington. They would be provided with a coffin, an ambulance, and a plot. This section of the cemetery was treated separately from the rest.

Many of the earlier white burials were moved to the “upper cemetery” and in the thorough record-keeping, burials in this section were referred to as the “Contraband Cemetery” instead of “Arlington National Cemetery” as were the other burials up the hill. This might be the cause of confusion associating it with Freedman’s Village. There was a proposal to have this section blocked away from the rest of the cemetery with woods.

As you’re visiting Section 27, you can tell the age of the various headstones by their size and style. If this were the 1860s, the headstones would have been large whitewashed wooden markers with black painted words. None of these survive.
 


Black History of Arlington Cemetery -

 

By the 1870s it was decided to replace these rotting headstones. Granite and marble markers with a rounded top measuring four by ten inches were inscribed with the name of the deceased in a shield. For those unknowns, a small block with only a number carved into the top marks the grave. This unknown marker was discontinued in 1903.
 


Black History of Arlington Cemetery -

 

The various religious and military emblems on the marble headstones offer information about the individuals. From their religious beliefs to military organizations and medals they have earned.

More modern headstones were replaced in the 1990s after this section had fallen into disrepair. These are slightly larger with no shield carved into the front. Unfortunately, subsequent studies show that many of the headstones are inaccurate – listing known soldiers as unknowns. Or in the case of James Harris – he actually has two, side by side. One actually marks the grave of Moses Ludley, who died on June 27, 1866.

 

To exit the cemetery, you can continue out Ord-Wetzel Gate where you’ll see the large steel Netherlands Carillon and further afield the Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial. It is an easy walk to Rosslyn Metro from here. Or you can turn around and follow Custis Walk back to the first road, Schley Drive and turn left back under the arch at Memorial Drive. This will lead you back to the Metro or Visitor Center.

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About the author

Canden is a historian and tour guide in Washington DC with three published books about the city. She has traveled extensively and lived in London, UK where she attended University College London for a Masters in History and in Seoul, South Korea where she taught English. While her family is now based in DC, she still explores the world. Her two children (both under the age of 3) have their passports and own frequent flier accounts. She has been a part of the Free Tours by Foot team since 2011.

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