Arlington’s Oldest Families

Their ancestors came here centuries ago, some by choice and others by force.

Parks, the Gravedigger

Tamara Moore with a bust of James Parks at Arlington’s FOHTA Gallery (not a permanent exhibit). Photo by Michael Ventura

In Arlington National Cemetery, up a small hill in a grove of tall oak trees, is a grave marker dedicated to James Parks. The epitaph plainly describes the tomb’s occupant as a slave and an “interesting, respectful, kindly old Negro.” But Nauck resident Tamara Moore has come to discover there’s more to her great-grandfather’s legacy than those few words. “You get to a place in life and something is awakened in you,” says Moore, who began researching her family’s past in 2011. “So, you pursue it.”

According to Moore’s research, James Parks entered the world on March 19, 1843, one of 11 children born to Lawrence and Patsy Clark Parks as slaves on the Custis-Lee Plantation (the main residence, Arlington House, is now a historic site on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery). At the time, the property was owned by Martha Washington’s grandson (and George Washington’s adopted son) George Washington Parke Custis.

As a field slave, Parks rarely saw the insides of the mansion, but he would often see Custis emerge to play his fiddle for dances down by the river. When Custis died in 1857 (Parks was then 14), his will declared that all of his slaves should be freed, provided his estate was in good financial standing. But it wasn’t. Parks remained a slave for another five years under Custis’ son-in-law, Robert E. Lee.

Parks was freed in 1862, but would remain at Arlington House for the rest of his life. After Lee joined the Confederacy, the Union Army annexed the plantation, converting 200 acres of it into a military cemetery in 1864. At that point, Parks was hired to become the first gravedigger at Arlington National Cemetery. As an employee of the War Department, he dug graves, performed maintenance work and helped to construct nearby Forts McPherson and Whipple (which later became Fort Myer).

James Parks. Photo courtesy of National Park Service

In 1928, Congress authorized a memorial to Gen. Lee, and restoration work began on Arlington House. By then, Parks was 85, had married twice and reportedly fathered 22 children. He became the leading expert on the restoration, providing accounts as to the original location of wells, slave quarters, the dance pavilion, old roads and the slave cemetery. A Marine Corps officer described him as “the one infallible authority on everything connected with the history of the estate.”
Later that year, journalist Enoch Chase began a letter-writing campaign to convince the secretary of war to allow Parks, upon his death, to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. In a note to Parks, whom Chase referred to as “Uncle Jim,” Chase wrote that the U.S. government “has seen fit to honor you in a way that no other man outside of the forces of the Army and Navy may claim to be honored in this day and generation…When the Lord and Master of us all sees fit to call you home, you shall lie down and rest in the place where you were born…”

James Parks died a few months later and was laid to rest in section 15E, grave 2, with full military honors—a ritual extremely rare for a non-service member.

Meanwhile, his lineage prospered in Arlington. One of his sons, Robert E. Parks, moved to the corner of Columbia Pike and South Rolfe Street, where he ran three businesses—a restaurant, a beauty salon and a barbershop.

“That barbershop was a staple of the community,” says Moore, now 67, who spent Saturdays there, working her grandfather’s cash register, before taking a job with the Department of the Army. (She later retired from the Pentagon after 34 years.) Her mother, Jestine, 89, James Parks’ only living granddaughter, is also a former government employee and still lives in Arlington.

Moore says her research has given her a whole new perspective. “[James Parks] was more than just a slave and more than just a gravedigger,” she says. “He was my great-grandfather.”

Categories: Local History