The First Caretaker at Arlington

James Parks and his service to Arlington

  • Much of the early history of the cemetery can be told through one man’s story. James Parks was an Arlington Estate slave born in the mid-1800s. He was and is the only person born on the grounds and buried on grounds. In 1929, he passed away at age 93. He was buried with full military honors although he never served. It is very rare to be buried at a national cemetery without military service but Park’s served as a care taker for over sixty years.

    At its peak, the Arlington Estate, owned by George Washington Parke Custis, had approximately 60 slaves. Parke Custis’ will stated the slaves should be free within five years of his death. Robert E. Lee abided by the terms of the will after the Estate was in good standing. The Lee’s left the estate in 1861 due to the outbreak of the Civil War, but many of the Arlington estates slaves remained on the grounds. Within six hours of the state of Virginia seceding to the Confederacy, Union troops took over the Arlington grounds. They used the House as a camp and headquarters.

    After the House was taken over, Parks remained on the grounds and preformed various jobs for the United States Army. He helped build Fort McPherson and Fort Whipple, today known as Joint Base Myer- Henderson Hall. In 1864, the cemeteries in the District came to full capacity. It was decided that the Arlington grounds would become a cemetery. Parks dug many of the very first graves, essentially becoming the first caretaker on grounds. While working as the caretaker Parks lived on the Freedman’s Village which was established by the federal government to assist slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. He married twice and fathered 22 children.

    James Parks prepared the grave for Quarter Master General Montgomery Meigs, who was instrumental in establishing the grounds as a cemetery. He lived through the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and WWI. He watched a couple of his sons enlist in the service during the First World War. He provided much of the information that is known about how the grounds and Arlington House looked when the Custis- Lee family lived there.

    Parks’ story is only one of over 400,000 at Arlington National Cemetery. Each headstones at Arlington tells a story of an individual who made sacrifices for their country. Combined the individual stories tell the history of this Nation. Take the live narrated tram tour through the Cemetery to learn more stories and see history as it unfolds.

    Amanda Varnam
    Arlington National Cemetery
    Narrator, driver, trainer and dispatcher.

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