The Wash
arlington house

Changes coming to Lee Memorial to include the stories of the formerly enslaved

The National Park Service is in the process of adding more information about the lives of enslaved people to the museum panels at Arlington House, following discussion among descendants.

The National Park Service this past month rolled out new temporary signs at Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, another step in NPS’s effort to tell the stories of the enslaved people who lived there.

These signs are part of a larger effort to change the way the history of the house is presented, including seeking congressional approval to change the name of the former planation house so it is no longer memorializing Lee.

These changes are driven in part by Lee’s descendants as well as those who were enslaved by his family.

“It’s been my desire to pull together as much of our history as we can and to share that with the public,” said Stephen Hammond, a descendant of one of the enslaved families.

Arlington House sits on top of a hill in the middle of Arlington National Cemetery. Robert E. Lee and his wife lived in the house before the Civil War. While walking through the Arlington House, visitors might not realize that hundreds of slaves also worked and lived there. 

The house was built by George Washington Parke Custis, who was Martha Washington’s grandson and George Washington’s step-grandson. The couple raised Custis after his father died; he inherited the land that Arlington House sits on from Martha Washington’s family. Custis owned nearly 200 slaves, 63 of whom worked at Arlington House.

When Custis died, he left the mansion to his daughter, who was married to Lee. The property came with the enslaved people, who Lee forced to work for five years to pay off the Custis family debt. 

After Lee joined the rebellion against the United States, the U.S. army seized the property. The land around the Arlington House eventually became a military cemetery. The federal government purchased the house from the Lee family and made it a memorial for Lee in the 1950s. 

James “Ty” Seidule, author of “Robert E. Lee and Me” and professor emeritus of history at West Point, said he believes Lee “chose treason to preserve slavery.”

“I don’t think there’s another enemy general in American history that killed more Union army soldiers than Lee,” Seidule said.

Seidule also said that Lee was seen as a “cruel enslaver.”

“Lee whipped enslaved people,” Seidule said. “He broke apart all slave families but one.”

Currently, the historical plaques in the house, such as in the parlors and Lee’s office, only display the Lee family perspectives of what life was like at the house. The plaques leave out important slave experiences.

“They’ve done an amazing job with the talk of the lives of the enslaved where the slave quarters were, but in the big house, it’s almost like it’s still about the white family, even when there were so many enslaved people in there all the time,” Seidule said.

arlington house plaque
Arlington House Spiritual Center plaque highlights the history that occurred in the room. The family prayed and held weddings in this room. (Lauren Spiers/ The Wash).

Now, the National Park Service has taped laminated signs in the upper left hand corner of these plaques indicating that the plaques are “missing important information.”

Stephen Hammond is a descendant of the Syphax family, who were enslaved at the house. He said his branch of the family was enslaved at the Decatur House near the White House, but the two branches of the family kept in touch.

Hammond was visiting another NPS historical site when he noticed small laminated signs notifying the public of “missing information.” He said he thought this would be a good way of telling the public that changes were happening at Arlington House, so he notified Arlington House staff.

“I don’t want to take full credit for it,” Hammond said. “They hadn’t done it before I suggested it. I’ll just say maybe I was a catalyst.”

little sign
The small laminated signs are taped in the top left corner of historical plaques throughout the house. (Lauren Spiers/ The Wash).

The signs read, “This panel is missing important information. Truthfully telling this history requires multiple perspectives. We are working on updating this sign in partnership with living descendants of the Branham, Custis, Gray, Henry, Lee, Parks and Syphax families.”

Hammond said he and some of the Lee descendants feel it’s time the story of Arlington is more inclusive.

“My goal is to share the full Syphax story at Arlington House with the public. It’s kind of been overshadowed by the Robert E. Lee story, as have all the other descendants’,” Hammond said.

These racial inclusivity changes were facilitated prior to each family signing a contract that binds them to reshape how their family histories at Arlington House are presented to the public.

Each family has a connection to the Arlington House, whether that be through ancestors who were enslaved there, or who are descendants of Lee. 

The enslaved families’ descendants and Robert E. Lee’s descendants signed this contract in April, but NPS was brainstorming changes before then. (Lauren Spiers/ The Wash).

The binding part of the contract reads that Arlington House will collaborate with the families to change how “descendant family histories and legacies are presented to the public, how the national significance of Arlington House has changed and continues to change over time, and how management of Arlington House will be more accurate, inclusive, and holistic.”

John W. McCaskill, a park ranger who works at the site, said when he first started working at Arlington House 17 months ago, he was asked to read all the historical plaques in the house and thought everything looked fine. Looking back at it, he said he realized “not everything was fine.”

“We were wrong, and we realized we were wrong,” McCaskill said. “But we’re going to make it right.” 

“What we at Arlington House are deciding to do is to put the enslaved community up first,” Hill said. “Without the slave community, you don’t have the Lees and Custis’ being able to do the things that they did.”

Scott Hill, who is another park ranger at Arlington House, said the historical priorities of the house were out of order for years.

“The primary focus at Arlington House had been to talk about first off, Robert E. Lee, and secondarily the Custis’ and Lees who owned the property for 59 years,” Hill said. “And then as a tertiary it was to talk about the enslaved community and that group of individuals.”

Hill said changing the order of these priorities is how the NPS is moving toward a more inclusive way of interpreting the historic stories they are protecting throughout the US.

Glenda Mackulin, who was visiting Arlington National Cemetery from California, said she is glad the Arlington House is making these changes.

“I feel like all history needs to be recorded,” Arlington House visitor Mackulin said. “We might not agree with it, but it needs to be a dialogue.”

Emily Rich, another visitor, said she felt the signs gave her a mission to educate herself more on enslaved people held at Arlington House.

“I think it’s important because we don’t know a whole lot about it,” Rich said. “It makes me want to go read more when I walk out.”

Hill said the community at Arlington House wants to make sure every visitor sees themselves as “part of the history.”

“We didn’t receive a lot of people of color visiting Arlington House because they never saw themselves as part of the story,” Hill said. “Well now they see themselves as part of the story.”

McCaskill and Hill said not all visitors are happy to hear about these changes.

“Not everyone is going to agree with what we’re talking about,” McCaskill said. “The park service is trying to tell a more complete story. Some people just walk off.”

McCaskill gives his presentation on the history of the house. (Lauren Spiers/ The Wash).

McCaskill said there are over 100 inconsistencies that need to be addressed, which NPS is trying to do through the temporary laminated signs, and eventually, install permanent signs. 

“I hope it really brings to light that American history has left out significant portions of its stories in our telling before,” Hill said. “We have focused primarily on white, male, power individuals. We have left the people of color out.”

Hill even said that his own perspective on racial inclusivity has changed.

“I grew up in a southern family in which the lost cause was very prevalent,” Hill said. “It took me to get away from that area and away from that learning that I had been instilled with and learn different aspects of that conflict that I hadn’t known in the past.”

“What’s put in the books is not the whole story,” McCaskill said. 

“It is our history, and it is our truth,” Mackulin said. “Understand, learn and move forward.”

Hammond said these changes to the information in the Arlington House is part of a bigger movement to change the name of the Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial to Arlington House: National Historic Site.

“Don Beyer has introduced a House joint resolution and Tim Kaine has introduced a Senate joint resolution to modify or redesignate Arlington House,” Hammond said. 

Hammond added that he and some other descendants have started a petition on that allows the public to state their support for the name redesignation.

“People outside of Virginia care about this,” Hammond said. “This is not just a local issue.”

The petition already has about 3,100 signatures out of a 5,000 goal. There are signatures from all 50 states and from 9 or 10 other countries.

Lauren Spiers

Before pursuing my master’s in journalism from AU, I interned at WTVR-CBS 6 where I wrote scripts and worked on the assignment desk. I developed TV news packages as a broadcast reporter at VCU. My articles were published in the blog and magazine at non-profit The Borgen Project.

1 comment

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