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.
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, 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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.