Arlington House: Telling a Wider Story at a Historic Site

Freedmans Village, a temporary community of formerly enslaved people, was established in 1863.

In 2017, more than 30 cities across the United States removed or began the process of removing Confederate monuments. Similar symbolic changes were considered for the names of schools and highways.

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.
(Left) A Robert E. Lee statue, removed from a New Orleans public space, was among many Confederate statues taken down across the country in recent years. (Right) A seated portrait of General Lee, taken sometime between 1860-1865.

Amid this national dialogue, interpreters from around the country grappled with how to tell stories rooted in the heart of the controversy itself.

Beginning in 2016, 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?

George Washington Park Custis’ enslaved workers built Arlington House between 1802 and 1818. It was home to generations of the Lee and Custis families until 1861.

Balancing Complexity

During site trips, we assess what stories are visible on the landscape—and more importantly, which stories are missing. As LaTanya Autry, one of the organizers behind the recent #museumsarenotneutral campaign reminds us, historic sites are about power.

How we interpret the story of Robert E. Lee is a reflection of those historically and currently with power, as well as those without.
We began our assessment of potential themes for Arlington House with the highly visible: The public reverence for Robert E. Lee as a peaceful unifier of the nation he fought against grew after the Civil War. This led the idea of southern “reconciliation” to overshadow the vision laid out by abolitionists before and during the war. As James C. Cobb notes, “White Americans’ overwhelmingly uncritical embrace of Lee actually was central to the story of how, in historian David W. Blight’s terms, the campaign for national ‘reconciliation’ thoroughly trumped the old ‘emancipationist’ vision of the abolitionists…”

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.

Jim Parks was born enslaved at the Arlington House plantation and was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Oral histories with Parks, a superintendent of the grounds, provide detailed accounts of life at Arlington.
Portraits of enslaved people are rare in the historical record. The National Park Service acquired this Civil War photograph thought to be Selina Gray and her daughters from an online auction in 2014.

Worlds Apart, Lives Intertwined

An interpretive panel introduces the story of Selina Gray and her life as a mother, a wife, and a maid for the Lee family.

Every aspect of Thomas Jefferson’s life—from economics to philosophy to power to family—was influenced by slavery and the same can be said for the Lee and Custis families at Arlington House. When interpreting life at Arlington House, we framed the lived experiences in relation to everyone on the plantation, rather than isolating the stories.

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.

When interpreting life at Arlington House, we framed the lived experiences in relation to everyone on the plantation, rather than isolating the stories.
An interpretive panel describes the labor of enslaved people who grew and harvested food for all who lived at Arlington House.
With Washington DC cemeteries at full capacity, Civil War burials began at Arlington House in 1864. Arlington National Cemetery is now the sacred resting place for over 400,000 women and men.

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.
106 Group’s Regine Kennedy led the onsite analysis and wayside exhibit planning for Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial. This project was administered by the National Park Service.
By intertwining the stories of enslaved people and the Lee and Custis families, we conveyed a more complex view of life at Arlington House. In doing so, the stories of slavery became humanized and personal. Their importance is emphasized alongside the history of General Lee and the American Civil War, not portrayed as an afterthought of anonymous labor in the background.

A big round of thanks goes out to all involved in this major project. We would like to thank the National Park Service at Harper's Ferry Center, George Washington Memorial Parkway, and Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial. Without the continued support of this diverse cast, this project couldn't have happened.

Cover photograph of Freedmans Village and aerial photographs of Arlington House and National Cemetery by National Parks Service. Photo of General Lee statue removal courtesy of Infrogmation of New Orleans on Flickr. Portrait of General Lee provided by Library of Congress. Photos of Jim Parks and Selina Gray courtesy of Arlington House Collection. Park panels by 106 Group/Arlington House.

Regine Kennedy

Regine Kennedy leads community and stakeholder engagement efforts that guide planning processes and empower clients and their stakeholders to create meaningful and effective solutions to their distinctive issues. Her multidisciplinary background enables her to communicate effectively with a broad range of stakeholders, professionals, and people from other cultures. In her free time, you can find her hiking or biking along the Mississippi River.