Education Program Highlight: The African American Experience at Arlington National Cemetery

By TIMOTHY JAMES LAWSON on 8/10/2020

By ANC History Staff

The launch of Arlington National Cemetery’s Education Program represents a major stride forward in our effort to share the rich history of this national landmark with audiences far and wide. Aimed at students of all ages as well as lifelong learners, the program provides free educational materials that showcase the many stories embedded within our grounds. This blog post specifically highlights one of the modules just released as part of the program: The African American Experience at Arlington National Cemetery. To learn more about the other modules and how to use the materials in the Education Program, click here.

The African American Experience at Arlington National Cemetery module forms a key part of ANC’s commitment to interpreting the significant legacy of African Americans on the land that now comprises the cemetery. African American history is woven into every inch of this property. At each stage of its past, from before the creation of the cemetery through its continuing mission today, African Americans have played a role in the events on this land and its evolution into our nation’s most hallowed ground. Through exploring these stories, our educational materials use ANC as a lens through which students can learn about the central issues of American history.

Members of the 369th Infantry Regiment arrive in New York City after their service in France during World War I, February 26, 1919. (National Archives)

Evidence of some African American stories can easily be seen by visiting graves and memorials at the cemetery. Other stories, however, are no longer visible on our landscape, such as the story of the Freedman’s Village that once existed here. This module reveals these stories once more, through historical context, photographs, primary sources, and personal testimonies. Students of all ages will now be equipped to understand the many ways that the African American experience at ANC intersected with the major events that shaped the nation—including slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, segregation, civil rights, military service and more.

During the development stage of the Education Program earlier this year, ANC solicited public feedback about this module and the other two modules just released: The Spanish-American War and Exploring Arlington. Teachers, students, and lifelong learners tested the materials and provided indispensable feedback about how to improve them. For the African American Experience at ANC module, we also benefited from insights shared by the descendent community of Arlington Plantation. This included members of the Syphax family, whose incredible history spans slavery and freedom and remains deeply intertwined with Arlington National Cemetery. Stephen Hammond, a Syphax descendent and family historian, participated in the feedback phase and had this to say about the African American Experience module:

"As a family historian with ties to the Arlington Plantation owned by George Washington Parke Custis, I am pleased to see the ANC Education Program established along with the release of the first education modules. These modules will be extremely valuable for both K-12 education and for life-long learners who want to know more about Arlington and its rich history.” – Stephen Hammond

Craig Syphax, another participant who is also a Syphax descendent, also shared his reflections on the importance of this module:

"We honor legacies by telling the story. To keep the memories alive and to educate as well as preserve. The ANC Education Program is created to administer the intangible moments in time of Arlington's far reaching history, that will educate future generations." – Craig Syphax

Through this collaborative process of creating the African American Experience at ANC module, we are proud to bring African American history into the spotlight. Telling these stories is a major priority of the cemetery’s current interpretive and educational programs. By devoting an educational module to this important topic, we will teach our audience about the central role of African Americans in the history of Arlington National Cemetery and our nation.  

The Freedman’s Village at Arlington National Cemetery, undated. (Library of Congress)

To help you utilize this module, here are a few FAQs to guide you on your educational journey!

►  What topics are included in the African American Experience at ANC module? This module provides a multitude of materials on a variety of topics. They include:

• The United States Colored Troops (USCT): Civil War regiments composed of African American soldiers

• Freedman’s Village at Arlington: a community of formerly enslaved people established on this property in 1863

•  The Freedpeople of Section 27: the resting place of free or formerly enslaved people who died in the Washington, DC area between 1863 and 1867 and are buried at ANC

•  Reconstruction: the tumultuous period of attempted national recovery after the Civil War

•  “Buffalo Soldiers": segregated African American units of the U.S. Army established in 1866

•  The 369th Infantry Regiment: a celebrated segregated unit of African American soldiers who served during World War I

•  6888th Postal Directory Battalion: a segregated African American unit of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) during World War II

• Tuskegee Airmen: a segregated unit of African American military pilots who served during World War II

►  Who can use these materials? Anyone can use these free materials! We have developed resources for many audiences:

 Elementary School
 Middle School
 High School
 Lifelong Learners: anyone beyond school age with the curiosity to learn

►  Do I have to use these materials on-site at the cemetery? Or can I use them at home? The materials are designed to be used from anywhere in the world! Especially during the current pandemic while the cemetery remains closed to visitors and many people are staying at home and participating in virtual schooling, we encourage you to use them wherever you reside. When the cemetery does open to the public in the future, the materials can also be used before, during, and after a visit.

The African American Experience at Arlington National Cemetery module can be accessed here, along with the other Education Program modules.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the feedback phase. Your valuable advice strengthened the materials, and we hope you will utilize them in the coming years!

Members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion take part in a parade ceremony in honor of Joan d'Arc at the marketplace where she was burned at the stake, May 27, 1945. (National Archives)