Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, Reckons With Its History Of Slavery

Jun 8, 2021
Originally published on June 10, 2021 8:00 pm

After seven years of planning and $12.5 million in restoration work, the National Park Service reopened the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Tuesday. The mansion — officially called the Robert E. Lee Memorial — was built by enslaved people more than 200 years ago. It sits high on a Virginia bluff across the river from Washington, D.C., overlooking the Lincoln Memorial. Located within Arlington National Cemetery, it's surrounded by the graves of, among others, Union soldiers.

It's an embattled site for a home with a difficult past and a complicated present.

Since 1983, Arlington House has served as the official symbol of Arlington, Va. Its image adorns the county's seal, flag, website and stationery. It's on police cars and government mail. Now, after a year of racial reckoning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the county is in the process of redesigning its logo to remove the mansion's image.

Julius Spain, president of the Arlington Branch of the NAACP, is one of the leaders of the effort to remove the image of the home from official community materials. He says the memorial represents "a very dark time in our history."

"It's a slave labor camp where people were raped and killed. We have to preserve our past, not glorify it," Spain says.

Showing the "ugly parts" of the mansion's history

A nuanced presentation was part of the goal of the restoration, according to the NPS's Charles Cuvelier, superintendent of the office that administers Arlington House. He showed NPR around the house and grounds with some of his colleagues.

Robert E. Lee's plantation office at Arlington House.
Andrew Harnik / AP

"What we've tried to do is create windows into the past, even the ugly parts." Cuvelier points to places in the restoration efforts — a portion of a wall showing each layer of paint and plaster, revealing the structure beneath, and how it's changed over the years. He says the philosophy goes deeper — he wants to expose how ideas and thinking have evolved as well.

Finding a way to memorialize Robert E. Lee while acknowledging his role in leading the Confederacy and upholding slavery is not an easy line to walk.

Beyond the main house and the adjacent quarters for enslaved people, there is a space dedicated to the complexity of Lee as a person. The small room includes descriptive panels that prod visitors to think deeply about the wisdom and culture of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, accounting for the accolades Lee received, and also the criticism.

Ida Jones, a historian and archivist at Morgan State University who studies African American history in the Washington, D.C., area, says Americans "need to see and acknowledge what happened at Arlington House."

"These national parks, these historic homes, these historic personalities need to be understood and viewed not as celebrity, but as filters through which we look at our past," she says. "Arlington House honors Lee, but it also includes nuanced conversation about Lee and the context in the times in which he lived and the decisions that drove his choices."

A room in the South Slave Quarters building at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, which reopened to the public for the first time since 2018.
Andrew Harnik / AP

Those choices are part of institutionalized racism that has impacts to this day. Some of the original housing for enslaved people, for example, once served as a gift shop, and much of the information about their lives has been lost because no one cared to preserve or remember it.

Researchers worked to remember those enslaved there

Archivists were able to trace some of the enslaved inhabitants, and their names are written on plastic sheets preserving the walls. Some people are known only by the work they performed, such as "Gardener," or by their relation to another, such as "Mary's Child." Many names have been lost forever.

During this renovation, the National Park Service worked to uncover and restore as much information as possible about those enslaved at the site. But it stands in stark contrast to the main house, where Lee's accounts and possessions were meticulously preserved over the more than 150 years since his death.

Charles Syphax (1791-1869) holds his grandson, William B. Syphax.

Charles Syphax was an enslaved resident of one of the cramped living areas prior to the Civil War. He oversaw the dining room at Arlington House and married Maria Carter, an enslaved woman whose mother was raped by George Washington Parke Custis, the original owner of the home who was the step-grandson of George Washington. Charles married Maria in the mansion's parlor, in the same spot where Maria's half-sister, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, would marry Robert E. Lee a decade later.

Stephen Hammond is Charles Syphax's great-great-great-nephew and a family historian. He thinks the memorial is reopening at the right time. "This is an incredibly important time in the history of our country. We are evaluating the long-term legacies of that time and this house."

A room in the North Slave Quarters building at Arlington House.
Andrew Harnik / AP

He believes the restored mansion is now a place where people can talk about those legacies.

"We recognize that in this particular space, there are going to be people who disagree with how this new presentation of history is being told. And so we need to recognize that it's about the whole history."

Despite all the work that's been done to add nuance and complexity to the history of Arlington House, it remains an official memorial to Robert E. Lee, who remains a controversial figure in the national conversation about how to preserve history without lionizing its darkest chapter.

That's a task both historians and National Park Service officials seem to agree should be at the heart of the next steps for the property.

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The Robert E. Lee Memorial at Arlington House in Virginia reopened this week after a $12.5 milion renovation. The National Park Service restored peeling paint and broken windows. They also included the story of the enslaved people who built the house. All this comes as many Americans are questioning whether Confederate figures should be memorialized at all. NPR's Catherine Whelan reports.

CATHERINE WHELAN, BYLINE: Arlington House sits high on a hilltop overlooking Washington, D.C. It was built by enslaved people who were owned by George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington's step grandson. In 1831, future Confederate General Robert E. Lee married Mariana Custis, and the house became his home. During the Civil War, the Lees abandoned the property, and the United States Army used the estate to defend the capital. Then, in 1864, the grounds became a graveyard for union soldiers, now known as Arlington National Cemetery.

STEPHANIE POWELL: So there has been a battle to interpret Arlington House and how we want to remember Arlington and how we want to remember Robert E. Lee's legacy since the very beginning.

WHALEN: That's Stephanie Powell (ph). She's one of the park rangers showing me around. The controversy about the House continues to this day.

JULIUS SPAIN: In so many words, it was an enslaved labor camp. I'm not here to lift up Arlington House in any way, shape or form, because I don't think anything positive came out of that.

WHALEN: Julius Spain is the president of the Arlington branch of the NAACP. He made the case in 2020 that the House is a representation of slavery and ongoing institutional racism, and it should no longer be the official image of the government there. Arlington County is now in the process of choosing a new symbol to represent its community. And the U.S. Congress is considering a bill to rename the home. But what about the house itself?

CHARLES CUVELIER: And what we were trying to do in the new visitor experience is to tell some critical stories about the people that were here and how their lives were being affected.

WHALEN: This is Charles Cuvelier. He's the superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. He takes me to a small building close by the main house. It used to be a gift shop. Before that, it housed some of the enslaved workers. Now the housing is restored to the way it would have looked, with as many artifacts as possible. I asked Stephanie to tell me some of the names of the people who lived there.

POWELL: Gideon Lancaster (ph), Mary Norris (ph), Sarah Grey (ph), nurse Rosa Bella Burke (ph), Billy Taylor (ph).

WHALEN: There's many more names. One of them is Syphax. Charles Syphax was an enslaved butler, married to Mrs. Lee's biological sister and enslaved servant, Mariah Carter. Stephen Hammond is Charles Syphax's great-great-great nephew. He says the house is emotionally complex for him.

STEPHEN HAMMOND: As I think about the work that Charles did in the house and the fact that Mariah helped to raise her half-sister, there's a pride that exists in terms of people who actually were resilient and resistant and hopeful at the same time.

WHALEN: Ida Jones is an archivist at Morgan State University. She wasn't affiliated with the restoration, but she agrees with the approach.

IDA JONES: I don't celebrate Robert E. Lee, but I think he's a very good lens through which we can view how certain people thought about other persons and how those realities can be very hard to understand. We saw it happen again in January 6 of this year. These ideas and beliefs are not dead. They need to be understood and contextualized.

WHALEN: That's what the National Park Service is hoping this restoration will help do. Catherine Whelan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.