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NEWS | April 3, 2006

Even in death, segregation is part of our history

By Lt. Col. Gus Schalkham JTF-CS, Director of Public Affairs

Arlington Cemetery is rich in our country’s history and famous for being the most recognizable resting place for the men and women of the Armed Forces. Unfortunately, this shrine also houses another part of our nation’s history.

Visiting the cemetery gives guests a view of the present and the past -- a time in our nation’s history where a wedge was driven through segregation. And yes, segregation could be found in the nation’s most visited cemetery. Looking at row upon row of white marble tombstones, a visitor would not be aware that even in death there could be segregation.

But eventually, you would come upon sections 23 and 27 bearing headstones engraved with the initials U.S.C.T. This stood for United States Colored Troops.

USCT was the designation used for the graves occupied by African-Americans who fought side by side with other Americans, but could not be buried beside them. Originally, the USCT was assigned to those black soldiers who fought in the Civil War.

This segregated section later was expanded to include the internment of black military veterans from other wars and black civilians as well. You can still visit the site of these brave American in sections 23 and 27. The civilian graves are marked with the words “citizen or civilian.”

Why were black civilians buried at Arlington? This is because a part of history was lost when the cemetery was expanded.

During the Civil War several thousand contrabands (slaves who had either escaped from Maryland or Virginia slave owners or had been freed as the Union forces defeated Confederate forces) came north to the nation’s capital. Finally the U.S. government established a place for them to live called Freedman’s Village in 1863.

Freedman’s Village grew from tents to wooden and finally brick buildings. It included a school, a training center, a hospital, several churches and farms.

The training center, known as the Industrial School, provided training for blacksmiths, wheelwrights, carpenters, shoemakers and tailors. As time went on, residents and new generations assumed this village would be a permanent fixture.

Sadly, after the Civil War many northerners started losing interest in supporting the village. They wanted the residents to take over many of the expenses. This was hard on the residents, but the final eviction notice came when Gen. Robert E. Lee’s children sued to regain their land. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Lee’s family accepted a sum of money instead of having the remains of thousands removed from their property.

The land was then purchased as a military reservation, but civilians could not live on federal property. The residents had 90 days to leave Freedman Village. This tragic turn of events took place in 1882.

Today, no village buildings remain: instead the land has become the southeast section of Arlington cemetery.

The segregation of the cemetery and the military continued until a presidential proclamation by President Harry S. Truman in 1948, ordering the Armed Forces to begin integration of the military forces. This took several years to accomplish within the military, but the national cemeteries began to implement the policy within the first year of inception.

Since that time, Americans of all colors, creeds or nationalities have been buried side by side and no section is isolated by race. If you visit the cemetery, you find this out quickly, especially when you come down the hill from Lee’s home on the grounds. In the quiet of the cemetery, not far from President John F. Kennedy’s grave site, is the grave of Air Force Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James. He was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. He came from humble beginnings and rose to the rank of general, a first for any black person in any branch of the Armed Forces. A poor heart condition forced him to retire early in 1978, and a month later he died of a heart attack. He was only 58 years old.

There is a “Who’s Who” of black Americans enshrined at Arlington, including 15 Medal of Honor winners.