TELLING A WIDER STORY AT A HISTORIC SITE
As civic workers loosened the bolts beneath pedestals of historical figures, sometimes under the cover of darkness, public conversations grew around the role of memorials in society.
Beginning in 2016, the 106 Group began confronting that question after joining the interpretive team at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, a National Park Service site. This project to develop 17 interpretive wayside exhibits around the property began with a thorough discussion of themes and topics as the team surveyed the site. How would Arlington House, originally the home of George Washington Parke Custis and later the Robert E. Lee family, as well as dozens of enslaved people who labored at the estate, tell its Civil War story in a 21st century context? And how will Arlington National Cemetery’s million yearly visitors understand the layers of complexity housed in the story of Lee’s life at his Virginia plantation?
This sentiment is still held by some, including some of Lee’s own descendents. How could the post-war narrative of peace and unity coexist with interpretation of slavery and freedom, if at all?
For our team, this meant actively shifting toward a more comprehensive story of life at Arlington House. Our interpretation explores how the institution of slavery enabled the existence of Arlington House before, during, and after the Civil War. To set the expectations for the visitor experience, we utilized the largest orientation panels to address the complexity of the site. The visitor experience also introduces multiple entry points into the story: through the origin story of Arlington National Cemetery, and through the experiences of people who lived at the mansion and its surrounding fields over generations, including enslaved workers and the Lee and Custis families.
Worlds Apart, Lives Intertwined
How did the intertwined stories play out? Our panels explore how Custis visualized Arlington House as a memorial to the values of his step-grandfather, George Washington, yet it was enslaved workers who carried and stacked the bricks. The kitchen garden interpretation shows not only what the Lee and Custis families ate for evening meals, but the people who weeded, picked, and cooked the food. The Lee women each had a favorite flower in their elaborate rose gardens, but it was the enslaved workers who pruned and planted each shrub. Enslaved people such as Selina Gray were there as Union forces advanced and the Lee family fled. Selina, an enslaved maid who worked in the Lee household and raised her own family in a cramped room on the plantation, was one of our main interpretive stories. Yet her life is often framed in terms of a “friendship” with Mrs. Lee or as the protector of the Lee family heirlooms. Without the necessary space to explore their relationship through the lens of hierarchy and power, we chose to focus the story on Selina’s life as a woman, a wife, and a mother. Because of how difficult it can be to trace African American lineage, it was also important and powerful to include Selina’s family’s names on the panel, including her parents and all eight children.
Much of this work was possible through recent research at Arlington House. An extensive cultural landscape report, oral history interview transcripts with Jim Parks (a former enslaved worker who became the Superintendent of Burials), as well as archaeological surveys, all shed light on lives of enslaved people at Arlington House.
Looking to the Future
Robert E. Lee’s post-war reputation of peace and unity may still remain at Arlington House, but this narrative is now embedded with additional layers of truth—not just a story told through the lens of its most famous occupant.
Cultural shifts like this can happen at historic sites both large and small. Interpreting controversy during times of social unrest can be challenging, and even daunting. But it is an interpreter’s responsibility to reveal the truths of the past, especially through the stories we tell. The stories and words we choose can make a difference. With each project, we want visitors to think about the ways in which our past informs life today. At Arlington House and beyond, a more fully considered truth can offer invaluable lessons about how we move forward together.