Former Virginia Mansion of Robert E. Lee Reopens With a Focus on the Enslaved Lives Who Once Lived There

When the historic Washington D.C. landmark Arlington House closed in 2018 for refurbishment, no one could have guessed it would be three full years before it welcomed its next group of visitors. When the National Park Service finally reopened those doors to the public on Tuesday, June 8, it wasn’t just Arlington House that was different — the entire country had changed as well.

Matthew Barakat of The Associated Press reported on the $12-million renovation project on the historic site where Confederate General Robert E. Lee lived. Officials began to take note of the increasing demand for social justice and reform that was occurring within the public at large, and those ideas became even more prominent during the summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd. 

Paired with logistical delays caused as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Barakat said officials working at the location had the opportunity they needed to not only rehabilitate Arlington House but also reinterpret what it stands for: raising Black voices that helped bring light to the stories of the former slaves who had also once lived at the site.

According to Barakat, the Virginia mansion, which overlooks Arlington National Cemetery and “commands an unrivaled view of the nation’s capital and the Potomac River, is best known as the home of the Confederate general leading up to the Civil War. But its history [also] goes well beyond Lee.”

George Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, allegedly built the mansion as a memorial for his father. When General Lee married Custis’ daughter, he moved into the house as well. Throughout this entire period, Arlington House was also home to a large number of enslaved men and women.

Charles Cuvelier, the superintendent of the Arlington House, now wants to highlight and bring a focus to the stories of these individuals whose lives weren’t always recorded by history.

“Our efforts are to illuminate those layers of history to the best of our ability,” Cuvelier told the AP.

To that end, the site now includes a number of new exhibits and materials, including some specifically highlighting the enslaved Syphax and Norris families. 

According to Barakat, “descendants of Charles and Maria Syphax can trace their lineage back to Parke Custis, who fathered children with Maria’s mother, Arianna Carter, also a slave.” 

“The Norris family included Wesley Norris, who according to some accounts escaped from Arlington House in 1859 when Lee was managing the estate,” Barakat reported. “When Norris was captured, Lee insisted that Norris be whipped 50 times and that the wounds be washed with brine, according to newspaper accounts, including one given by Norris directly to an anti-slavery newspaper.”

These stories are especially important to Steve Hammond, a descendant of the Syphax family and also a trustee of the Arlington House Foundation. Hammond said it’s his sole mission to continue promoting the diverse stories that took place at Arlington House — and remember the lives of all those who once spent time there.

“It’s going to be much more focused on everyone who has lived on that historic piece of property,” Hammond told Barakat.

While he doesn’t expect the effort to be easy — and he knows there will be plenty who complain about the change — he is eager for those discussions to begin, and he looks forward to the changes they might help bring about.

“We’re trying to create space for these difficult conversations,” Hammond said.

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