In May 1863, the U.S. government established the Freedman's Village across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., to help address the needs of the growing number of individuals who had escaped slavery in the south during the Civil War. These free men and women — often referred to as "contrabands" by the government — had all traveled north from Virginia, the Carolinas and other regions of the south in hope of finding work and opportunity. Under the direction of the government and the American Missionary Association, the Freedman's Village was intended to house, train and educate freedmen, women, and their children. The village, originally located in what is today Arlington Cemetery, was run by the Freedman's Bureau during most of its existence. Homes in the village were made of wood and housed two to four families each. As the community grew, the village provided housing, education, training for employment skills, church services, medical care and food for the former slaves.
The first school, which opened shortly after the camp dedication, began with 150 students and peaked at 900 students. Adults, as well as children, could be counted among the student population.
Although the camp was established to provide temporary refuge for freed slaves, the shelter lasted for more than 30 years. In 1882, the United States Supreme Court closed Freedman's Village. The land was rededicated to the military, and civilians living in the Freedman's Village were forced to evacuate. On December 7, 1887, the residents of the village were given 90 days to leave the area.
Freedman's Village was constructed in 1863 on the grounds of the Custis and Lee estates, today the Arlington National Cemetery. The village included 50 one-and-a-half story houses, each of which was divided in half to accommodate two families. The grounds included an industrial school, several schools for children, a hospital, a home for the aged, and churches.
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Originally located on the grounds of the Custis and Lee estates, today Arlington National Cemetery, the Pentagon and the Navy Annex building