James Parks (1843-1929)
The first graves at Arlington National Cemetery were dug by James Parks, who was born enslaved on the Custis-Lee plantation in 1843 and spent his entire life living and working on the Arlington property. He formally gained his freedom in 1862, under the terms of the will of his former owner, George Washington Parke Custis. As a freed person, he lived in Freedman's Village — an organized community for former slaves, created by the federal government near what is now Section 40 of the cemetery — until 1888.
In May 1861, when Robert E. Lee and Mary Custis Lee vacated their estate and federal troops occupied it, Parks began working for the Army, helping to build Fort McPherson and Fort Whipple. The Army authorized military burials on the Arlington property in May 1864, and subsequently Parks's duties turned from fort-building to gravedigging and cemetery maintenance.
Parks worked at Arlington National Cemetery until June 1925. That year, Congress approved the restoration of Arlington House to the way it had appeared when the Lees lived there. As restoration on the exterior began in 1928, Parks became a crucial source of information on the house and property. Although he was in his 80s, Parks's memory was, by all accounts, sharp and detailed. His recollections, recorded by journalists and military officials, have provided some of the most important firsthand accounts of the history of Arlington House and Arlington National Cemetery. His testimony also offered valuable insights into the Custis-Lee family, slavery at Arlington and life in Freedman's Village.
James Parks married twice and fathered 22 children, five of whom served in World War I. He died on August 21, 1929, at age 86. Prior to his death, the Secretary of War authorized for him to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery even though he was a civilian. On August 23, 1929, Parks's long service to Arlington, in both slavery and freedom, was honored with a full military honors funeral. He is the only person buried at the cemetery who was born on the property. The American Legion paid tribute to him with the plaque at his gravesite, pictured.
Section 15, Grave 2 (near Selfridge Gate)