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Robert E. Lee’s former Virginia mansion reopens to the public with an enlightening focus on the enslaved

Arlington House, where wealthy white privilege contrasts with bondage and suffering, has undergone a $12.3m rehabilitation and reinterpretation

Arlington House in Falls Church, Virginia, which reopened on Tuesday National Park Service

Arlington House, the Virginia mansion best known as the onetime home of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, has reopened to the public after a $12.3m restoration and the introduction of a new narrative that illuminates the lives of the enslaved people who lived there.

“Visitors are encouraged to come to the space and challenge what you to know to be true” about the nation’s painful history, says Aaron LaRocca, a park ranger who is chief of staff for the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the National Park Service (NPS) unit that manages the house. “The hope is that you’ll have discussions around the dinner table about what you have learned.”

In one of the largest curatorial projects ever overseen by the park service, he says, the NPS has purchased 1,300 objects for display, many of which relate to the experiences of roughly 100 slaves who lived at Arlington House over the decades in addition to around a dozen white people. LaRocca says the NPS has a relationship with some of the descendants of those Black individuals, which opened the way for acquisitions as well as loans. He says that around 1,000 objects have also been conserved.

The house, which overlooks Arlington National Cemetery, was built from 1802 to 1818 by slaves and hired craftsmen on a 1,100-acre plantation owned by George Washington Parke Custis. His father was the stepson of George Washington, and Custis intended the mansion to be a tribute of sorts to the first president. Lee came to own the house after marrying Custis’s daughter Mary Anna in 1831, three decades before he would resign from the US Army in response to his native Virginia’s secession from the United States.

Arlington National Cemetery, created on a site formerly belonging to the Lee and Custis families in Virginia National Park Service

Lee departed from the house that year, 1861, to serve as a Confederate general and would never return. (The site’s formal name is the Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, and critics have proposed that Lee’s name be expunged in view of his history as a Confederate general and slaveholder.)

A statue of Robert E. Lee, leader of Confederate forces, at Arlington House National Park Service

In 1933 the NPS became the steward of the house as well as the grounds, two remaining former slave quarters and a former potting shed where an exhibition displays now detail Lee’s military career.

Built of hand-made brick covered by hydraulic cement, the Greek Revival house’s exterior was scored and painted to look like marble and sandstone and boasts a monumental columned portico. The NPS has revetted the exterior’s faux finish and relaid brick pavers on the portico, installed a glass entry system conducive to managing the interior climate, repaired windows, shutters, masonry, fireplaces and floors, rewired, installed security and climate control systems and new lighting, restored a garden and made the grounds accessible. The three-year rehabilitation was funded by the philanthropist David Rubenstein, who has donated millions for the preservation of other sites in the Washington, DC area.

The interior of the main house is intended to approximate how it appeared in 1861, the year that Lee departed, with contemporaneous china and silver on the dining room table. Curios, other objects and photographs document the histories of the Custis and Lee families, while others attest to the overlapping lives of the slaves who cooked, washed, cleaned, cared for children and otherwise tended to those families and their property.

LaRocca points to a borrowed bust of James Parks (1843-1929), an enslaved man born on the plantation who toiled there as a field worker until 1861. Parks then began working for the US Army, helping to build Fort McPherson and Fort Whipple, and eventually turned to gravedigging and maintenance for the Army on the property for the future Arlington National Cemetery. Today he is the only person buried at the military cemetery who was born on the property.

The quarters housing slaves working in the plantation’s fields, which were of flimsier construction than the stone and brick slave quarters near the mansion, have not survived.

Other exhibits, including autographed books, family photographs, letters and other materials, relate to enslaved families like the Syphaxes and Norrises. Descendants of Charles and Maria Carter Syphax can trace their lineage back to Custis, who fathered children with Maria’s Syphax’s mother, Arianna Carter, also a slave.

A display in one of the slave quarters at Arlington House National Park Service

Visitors also learn about three other enslaved people, Wesley Norris, Mary Norris and George Parks, who ran away in 1859 to the free state of Pennsylvania. According to the NPS, they believed that they were freed as a result of a provision in Custis’s will. They were captured in Maryland, near the Pennsylvania border, and returned to Lee at Arlington House. Accounts in abolitionist newspapers at the time say that under his direction, they were severely whipped and that the resulting wounds were doused with brine as further punishment.

In late 1862 Lee executed a deed of manumission freeing all of those enslaved at Arlington, including the Norrises, the NPS says, but most had already been absorbed behind the lines of Union troops. The Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves was issued by President Abraham Lincoln a few days afterward.

One of the more intriguing finds spotlighted at the site are four bottles found in a pit that was dug below a dirt floor in slave quarters inhabited by Selina Norris Gray, a maid servant to Lee’s wife. LaRocca describes them as “conjure bottles” that bore a religious significance influenced by a culture originating in West Africa and encapsulating hopes and dreams. “This substorage pit connects us to the enslaved in a way we had not been before,” he says. “It speaks to religion, tradition, the uncertainty of their time,” as well as a desire for deliverance.

A ritual object used in African American folk magic during the slavery era, conjure bottles have been found at other sites where enslaved people dwelled and may also relate to an English witch bottle tradition. Their origins are still being explored. The slave quarters also delve into details about descendants, who have inherited stories about a wrenching past.

Gray would go on to try to protect the Lees’ possessions, including cherished heirlooms, from occupying Union forces on the estate and wrote to Lee’s wife after the war. That letter is also on view.

A display at Arlington House featuring an image of descendants of some of the enslaved people who lived there. They had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the photograph. National Park Service

Interactive displays prompt visitors to register their reactions to “sticky questions”, as LaRocca put it, such as what they would find important in setting up a new community after emancipation. Parks, for example, resettled in Freedman’s Village, a community of freed slaves and runaways established by the Union Army in 1863 on Lee’s property within what became Arlington National Cemetery.

“We’re trying to create a place for engagement and reflection on our shared history,” says LaRocca, “a place to understand how people lived.”

“I hope many people get to visit, and believe that Arlington House’s rich and complicated history will add to the necessary and important discussion in our country about racial justice,” says Rubenstein, co-chairman of the equity investment company the Carlyle Group, who financed the rehabilitation of the site.

Visitors to the mansion will require timed tickets, but the slave quarters and grounds can be explored without reservations.