Black History at Arlington National Cemetery

Born as a slave to one of Virginia's leading plantation owners in the early 1800s, James Parks (section 15, site 2) died at age 93 after a lifetime that took him from a loyal servant for the South's greatest general to a quiet grave site in the nation's most famed cemetery.

At the time of Park's funeral in 1929, Daniel "Chappie" James (section 15, site 2) was a 9-year-old boy working odd jobs to earn money for flying lessons.

Within the 140 years that spanned the lifetimes of these two men, thousands of blacks were interred at Arlington National Cemetery — their silent headstones echoing the impressive progression of roles blacks have played in America's growth.

Civil War

"Uncle Jim," as Parks was called throughout his life, left a rich oral history of his many years at Arlington. This history reflects some of the earliest years in black life in America, as he witnessed the transformation of the 1,100-acre Arlington Estate from a proud southern plantation to grounds for Union fortifications and row upon row of silent headstones.

Parks was born on the Arlington Plantation of George Washington Parke Custis, adopted grandson of George Washington and later the father-in-law of Robert E. Lee. Of his boyhood, Parks remembered, "We used to go to Washington 'cross the long bridge, or we'd dress up and row across. People would look at us and say: 'Who's them fine folks?' Then some'd say: 'They's the Custis coloreds. They have their own horses an cows, an' raise their own stuff.' Some owned houses in Washington when they were slaves."

"Maj. Custis left his will in 1857," Parks continued, "sayin' we was to be free in five years — everyone, from the cradle up, was to be given $50 and be free. Col. Lee was to administer the estate, but when the five years were up, they (Union soldiers) were here, and there wasn't no estate; but Col. Lee give us our freedom."

Parks chose to remain at Arlington. In fact, Arlington was "home" to him for more than 90 years. During the Civil War, he did odd jobs for the Union Army. He helped build Fort Whipple, later renamed Fort Myer. Toward the end of the war, when the estate was beginning to be used as a military cemetery, he helped dig graves and bury the dead.

Sixteen-thousand Civil War soldiers were buried at Arlington during those turbulent years, among them many U.S. Colored Troops (blacks who served in the Union Army) who were buried in sections 27 and 23. Their headstones are marked with the Civil War shield and the letters U.S.C.T. Three of these men were Medal of Honor recipients.

Although 180,000 blacks served with the Union forces, less than 100 of them were officers. Maj. Alexander T. Augusta (section 1, site 124) was the first black surgeon in the Army. Although given an officer's rank, he was paid black enlisted wages during much of his service.

Parks was also associated with many of the blacks who were living in Freedman's Village during and after the war. Few history books talk about this historic site, and there are only rows of headstones today where there once lived between 1,500 and 3,000 Civil War contrabands (fugitive and liberated slaves).

Civilian gravestone

Freedman's Village was established on the Arlington Estate in June 1863, as a camp for Civil War Contrabands (slaves who were freed as the Union forces moved South, or who had escaped from local Virginia and Maryland slave owners). Existing for more than 30 years, Freedmen's Village provided housing, education, training for employment skills, medical care and food for the former slaves.

Homes in the village were wooden and housed two to four families each. Villagers lived mostly on crops they grew themselves or on Army rations. There were frequent outbreaks of scarlet fever, measles and whooping cough. The average death rate was two-per-day, which was lower than the five-per-day average in Washington, D.C. More than 3,800 Contrabands are buried in Section 27, their headstones marked with the words "Civilian" or "Citizen."

The village was run by the Freedmen's Bureau during most of its existence, and at one point employed U.S. Colored Troops to protect fugitive slaves from their former slave owners. The exact location of Freedmen's Village is not known, but generally it was located in what is now the southeast section of Arlington National Cemetery.

Parks outlived slavery, the Civil War and two wives. During his many years he fathered 22 children. When he died in 1929, the secretary of war made an exception to policy, and Parks was buried at Arlington Cemetery. James Parks rests among the hills and trees he played in as a boy, worked in as an adult, and remembered as an old man.

Spanish American War

In the latter years of Parks' life, America became enmeshed in another conflict — the Spanish-American War. When the battleship Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor, Cuba, in 1898, 22 black sailors went down with the ship. They are among the 163 sailors buried in section 24, adjacent to the mast of the USS Maine Memorial. Four months after the Maine explosion, American forces aboard the USS Florida near Tayacoba, Cuba, were providing reconnaissance on Spanish outposts in the area. They were discovered by Spanish scouts and came under heavy fire.Two black privates in the 10th U.S. Cavalry, Dennis Bell (section 31, site 349) and George H. Wanton (section 4, site 2749), volunteered to go ashore in the face of the enemy and aided in the rescue of wounded comrades; their rescue efforts followed numerous attempts. Both men were awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis J. Reimer helps representatives of the 24th Infantry Regimental Combat Team Association unveil a Buffalo Soldier plaque in Arlington National Cemetery honoring Spanish-American War Buffalo Soldiers.

World War I

By 1917, Parks was an old man enjoying his grandchildren at Arlington. Five of his sons, though, enlisted and joined the more than 400,000 blacks who served in uniform during World War I. Most of these men were assigned to stevedore-depot and other laborer units, but approximately 10 percent were assigned to combat units.

Despite segregation and discriminatory assignments, 1,300 blacks were commissioned officers. The highest-ranking black officer, and the first black to reach the rank of colonel, was Charles Young (section 3, site 1730). Much controversy surrounded the medical retirement of Col. Young, who was the third black graduate of West Point. To protest his forced retirement, he rode his favorite horse from Ohio to Washington, D.C., to prove his stamina and appeal for reinstatement. Many people felt he was retired to prevent his eventual promotion to general officer during wartime expansion.

Col. Young was not reinstated until a few days before the war ended. He died in 1922, while serving as military attache in Liberia. His memorial service was conducted in the Memorial Amphitheater with more than 5,000 people present.

The first black combat troops arrived in France in December 1917. The 369th Infantry joined the French 4th Army at the front. The unit stayed in the trenches for 191 days, the longest front-line service of any American regiment. Among the soldiers was 30-year-old Spotswood Poles (section 42, site 2324). Although a combat veteran with five battle stars and the Purple Heart, Poles was often referred to as "the black Ty Cobb." His claim to fame came in baseball; he was considered the finest player in the Negro leagues in the early 1900s. In 1914, for example, Poles recorded a batting average of .487.

Henry Johnson (section 25, site 64) was also a member of the 369th. He fought in the Argonne Forest and was the first American soldier to earn France’s highest military honor – the Croix de Guerre. On the night of May 14, 1918, Pvt. Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts were on sentry duty when the Germans began firing at them. Roberts was wounded soon after the firing began. Johnson continued fighting even after taking bullets in the arm, head, side and suffering 21 wounds in hand-to-hand combat. Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross.

World War II

When World War II arrived, more than 2.5 million blacks registered for the draft. Almost 75 percent of them were assigned to the Army. By September 1944, 8.7 percent of the Army was black. Blacks were predominately assigned to service or combat-support units, and only a small percentage to combat arms. Within the combat-support units, blacks were segregated in quartermaster and transportation units.

By war's end, members of the black 92nd Infantry Division received more than 12,000 decorations and citations, including nearly 1,100 Purple Hearts, 16 Legion of Merit Awards, 95 Silver Stars and two Distinguished Service Crosses. They suffered more than 3,000 casualties. Two black division officers, 1st Lt. John R. Fox and 2nd Lt. Vernon J. Baker (section 59, site 4408), received belated Medals of Honor Jan. 13, 1997. Fox's Medal was presented posthumously.

The black 761st Tank Battalion fought for 183 continuous days in more than 30 major assaults in the European Theater of Operations. After six nominations, the battalion finally received the Presidential Unit Citation in 1978. The battalion's white commander, Col. Paul L. Bates, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, March 1, 1995. Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers, a black member of the battalion, received a posthumous Medal of Honor Jan. 13, 1997, for his World War II service.

Staff Sgt. Edward A. Carter II, a black non-commissioned officer who served with Company D, 56th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 12th Armored Division was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor Jan. 13, 1997. He was reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery (section 59, site 451) the following day. Other black soldiers who received posthumous Medals of Honor Jan. 13 were Maj. Charles L. Thomas, Pfc. Willy F. James Jr. and Pvt. George Watson.

On Oct. 25, 1940, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. (section 2, site 478) became the first black general in the regular armed forces. In the course of his 50 years of service, Gen. Davis received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Bronze Star Medal, the French Croix de Guerre with Palm and the grade of commander of the Order of the Star of Africa, Liberian Government.

Almost 150,000 blacks served in the Navy during World War II. In 1941, Dorie Miller, a messman aboard the USS Arizona, was awarded the Navy Cross for shooting down four enemy airplanes during the attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1943, the USS Mason (a destroyer escort) and PC1264 (a submarine chaser) were staffed with all-black crews and all-white officers and petty officers. Within six months, black petty officers replaced white petty officers on PC1264.

In 1945, the Navy had its first black officer, who was assigned to PC1264. Wesley A. Brown became the first black graduate at the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1949. It was not until 1962 that a black, Lt. Cmdr. Samuel Gravely, commanded a U.S. warship, the USS Falgout. Gravely (section 66, site 7417) would become the first black flag officer.

Blacks did not enter the Marine Corps until 1942. All 17,000 of them served in segregated units, mainly in service positions. Even though 7,590 were sent overseas, few saw combat.

On Jan. 16, 1941, when the Army Air Force formed the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron, the "experimental" Tuskegee Training Program was initiated. Blacks were selected and trained to be pilots at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The all-black 332nd Fighter Group was formed soon after and was placed under the command of then Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (Davis was the first black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy to become a general officer in the regular army. He retired at the rank of lieutenant general). During World War II, black women had their first opportunity to serve in significant numbers in the military. Forty of the first 440 officer candidates in the first class of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps were black. Approximately 800 black women from the Army, Air Force and the Army Service Forces became the 6888th Central Postal Battalion. Under the command of Maj. Charity Adams, the unit was charged with establishing a postal directory for Europe. Black women also served in the Army Nurse Corps. In 1944, on a "trial basis" black women nurses were permitted to treat white American soldiers. The "experiment" was deemed successful.

Arlington National Cemetery was established in 1864, and for more than 80 years blacks were buried separately from white service men. On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which established, "that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin." The new policy was to go into effect "as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale."

Although it was years before the services effectively integrated, the national cemeteries throughout the country adopted the policy immediately and disbanded burial segregation regulation in 1948.

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War was the first large-scale battlefield for an integrated American armed force. There is no argument as to the role blacks played in combat nor in the casualties of the war. There were 20 blacks among the 237 Medal of Honor recipients.

U.S. Army Gen. Roscoe Robinson Jr. was the first black in the Army to attain four-star rank. In a 34-year military career that began in 1951, the U.S. Military Academy graduate served with the 7th Infantry Division during the Korean War and the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam.

Between them, he earned two Silver Stars, three Legion of Merit awards, the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Bronze Star Medal. He served as the U.S. representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for the three years preceding his retirement in 1985. He died July 22, 1993, and is buried in Section 7A, site 18.

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