Freedman's Village in Arlington, once a refuge to more than 1,000 former slaves and their families after the Civil War, received its due yesterday: a metal marker to commemorate its importance in the nation's history.

The village, which opened in 1863 on part of what is now Arlington National Cemetery, was one of the largest temporary settlements for freed slaves in the country -- and one of the most famous because of its proximity to Washington.

"It means a lot to us blacks," said Evelyn Bolding, 69, of Washington, one of two dozen people at yesterday's ceremony. "They will recognize and remember {that} blacks did live in this part of the country as free persons. It's part of our heritage."

The marker, installed by Arlington's Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board, sits in Foxcroft Heights Park at Southgate Road and Oak Street near Fort Myer's Henderson Hall entrance. It has a 24-line inscription describing why the village was established, how many former slaves lived there and when it was torn down.

The federal government opened Freedman's Village for former slaves with nowhere to go. Many were sharecroppers who owned no land and who had lived in a tent city in Washington, at what is now the location of the Supreme Court.

The families in Freedman's Village lived in 100 wooden duplex homes, neatly lined in the shape of a horseshoe, with as many as 20 people sharing one house. Orator Frederick Douglass, abolitionist Harriet Tubman and writer Sojourner Truth at one time visited or taught at the village, historians said.

The village was self-sustaining, with two churches, a hospital, a meeting hall, a nursing home and a school, as well as acres of land for planting crops. Men and women were taught carpentry, sewing, blacksmithing and other trades so they could leave the village to establish their own homes.

"It was never meant to be a permanent facility, having been built hastily, without adequate plumbing or similar type of amenities," said Sherman Pratt, president of the Arlington Historical Society.

But the village became increasingly crowded, and contagious diseases such as dysentery and tuberculosis were common, killing an average of two people a day. The village closed in the early 1890s, with many residents moving to the Nauck, Green Valley and Arlington View areas in Arlington and Baileys Crossroads in Fairfax County.

It became part of the Arlington Experimental Farm in 1899 to carry on plant testing and is now the site of Henderson Hall, the southernmost part of Arlington National Cemetery and a portion of the Pentagon's southern parking lot.

From the village came many of Arlington's most prominent leaders, including H.L. Holmes, who served as revenue commissioner for almost 30 years until 1903, and John B. Syphax, a county supervisor who in 1873 went on to become the first black delegate to the General Assembly. He later served as Arlington's justice of the peace in 1879.

Community leaders hope the marker will spur interest in opening an African American heritage museum in Arlington, to be similar in scope and size to the civil rights museums in Tennessee and Alabama.

"Freedman's Village was a fantastic concept," said County Board member Benjamin H. Winslow Jr. (R), who helped establish a black heritage museum committee. "It became almost like an Ellis Island for the free slaves."

County Board Chairman Albert C. Eisenberg (D) said the marker will symbolize the journey that many took from slavery to freedom. "It's more than just to remember what happened here," he said.

Evelyn Reid Syphax, a longtime Arlington resident whose ancestors oversaw the village, has donated $25,000 through the nonprofit Arlington Community Foundation as seed money for the museum.

"It's my greatest, greatest desire to see the museum here in Arlington and have it represent historical events from all over the U.S.," said Syphax, whose husband is a grand-nephew of John Syphax. "But I would like a replica of Freedman's Village in it."

The installation of the marker is long overdue, she said. "I think it's wonderful. The importance of Freedman's Village on our list should have been {acknowledged} many years ago." CAPTION: Evelyn Reid Syphax, whose ancestors oversaw the village, hopes the marker will lead to a museum.