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Black History Illuminated by Tracing Lives of Former Slaves

  • Chris Simkins

February is Black History Month in the United States, a time for paying tribute to people and events that shaped the story of African Americans. One of those events was the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago. It began the process of freeing an estimated four million slaves. Afterwards, the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery across the United States. As a result, many freed slaves came to Washington, D.C., looking for a better life.

Arlington National Cemetery is just outside Washington, D.C. Before it became America's most prestigious military cemetery, it was a thriving community of slaves and then former slaves.

"Here as we look is my great-great-great grandfather Charles Syphax, with my grandfather sitting on his lap," said Craig Syphax. For him, these restored slave homes in Arlington House have special meaning. He's been working on his family history.

"The Syphax story is one that will empower. It will also show you that, no matter how far down you think you are, you can still get up and get to the top of your potential," said Syphax.

Rich history

Craig has spent 15 years unearthing his ancestry. He discovered the Syphaxes were an influential slave family in Arlington and that Charles was owned by the nation's first president, George Washington. He lived at the Washington's home in Mount Vernon and was one of 57 slaves moved to Arlington House with Washington's adopted grandson.

"Every time I research certain aspects of the Syphax family, I find more exciting things that spark my interest to want to keep going and delve into that," he said.

In 1863, thousands of newly freed slaves converged on Washington. So the government set aside land in Arlington, Virginia, called Freedman's Village as a camp for former slaves.

Matthew Penrod is a Park Service Ranger. He said tens of thousands of former slaves lived in Freedman's Village for nearly 40 years in some 100 wooden houses. The community had schools, churches, hospitals and an orphanage.

"It was a place where people could find work. In fact, many of the men and women too would find pretty well-paying jobs working for the Army. It was meant to be a transitional place for people - a sort of way station towards living as free people as well," said Penrod.

Thriving village

Syphax said Charles, his ancestor, became a leader in Freedman's Village.

"The Syphax's became people that could read and write. So they freely taught people how to read and write without charge or anything because we knew that was how you would succeed here in America," he said.

Syphax is working on a documentary about his family and on a new history museum next to Arlington Cemetery. Talmadge Williams is a leader of that effort.

"History not taught could be history repeating itself, and we don't want history to be repeated. We don't need slavery again," said said Talmadge Williams of the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington.

Some former slaves were buried at Arlington Cemetery.

Many say they should be as much a part of history as the fallen soldiers buried here.
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