After seven years of planning and $12.5 million in restoration work, the National Park Service reopened the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Tuesday. The mansion — officially called the Robert E. Lee Memorial — was built over 200 years ago by enslaved people. It sits high on a Virginia bluff across the river from Washington, DC, overlooking the Lincoln Memorial. It is located in Arlington National Cemetery and is surrounded by the graves of Union soldiers, among others.
It is a controversial place for a house with a difficult past and a complicated present.
Since 1983, Arlington House has been the official landmark of Arlington, Virginia. The image adorns the seal, flag, website and stationery of the province. It’s on police cars and government mail. Now, after a year of racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the county is redesigning its logo to remove the mansion’s image.
Julius Spain, chairman of the NAACP’s Arlington branch, is one of the leaders in efforts to remove the image of the house from official community material. He says the monument represents “a very dark time in our history”.
“It is a labor camp where people have been raped and murdered. We must preserve our past, not glorify it,” says Spain.
Shows the “ugly parts” of the mansion’s history
A nuanced presentation was part of the goal of the restoration, said Charles Cuvelier of the NPS, superintendent of the office that manages Arlington House. He showed NPR around the house and grounds with some of his colleagues.
“What we’ve tried to do is create windows to the past, even the ugly parts.” Cuvelier points to places in the restoration effort—a section of a wall with every coat of paint and plaster, revealing the structure beneath and how it has changed over the years. He says philosophy goes deeper – he wants to expose how ideas and thinking have evolved as well.
Finding a way to commemorate Robert E. Lee while recognizing his role in leading the Confederacy and enforcing slavery is not an easy road.
In addition to the main house and adjacent quarters for enslaved people, there is a space dedicated to the complexity of Lee as a person. The small room contains descriptive panels that encourage visitors to think deeply about the wisdom and culture of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, accounting for the accolades Lee received, as well as the criticism.
Ida Jones, a historian and archivist at Morgan State University who studies African American history in the Washington, DC area, says Americans should “see and recognize what happened at Arlington House.”
“These national parks, these historic homes, these historic personalities should not be understood and seen as celebrities, but as filters through which we look at our past,” she says. “Arlington House honors Lee, but it also includes a nuanced conversation about Lee and the context in the time in which he lived and the decisions that drove his choices.”
Those choices are part of institutionalized racism that has an impact to this day. Some of the original homes for enslaved people, for example, once served as gift shops, and much of the information about their lives has been lost because no one wanted to keep or remember it.
Researchers worked to remember the slaves
Archivists were able to trace some of the enslaved residents and their names are written on plastic sheets protecting the walls. Some people are known only by the work they have performed, such as ‘Gardener’, or by their relationship to another, such as ‘Mary’s Child’. Many names have been lost forever.
During this renovation, the National Park Service worked to uncover and recover as much information as possible about the slaves at the site. But it’s in stark contrast to the main house, where Lee’s bills and belongings have been meticulously kept for the more than 150 years since his death.
Charles Syphax was an enslaved resident of one of the cramped residential areas prior to the Civil War. He oversaw the dining room of Arlington House and married Maria Carter, an enslaved woman whose mother was raped by George Washington Parke Custis, the home’s original owner who was George Washington’s step-grandson. Charles married Mary in the parlor of the mansion, the same spot where Mary’s half-sister, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, would marry Robert E. Lee ten years later.
Stephen Hammond is the great-great-great-nephew of Charles Syphax and a family historian. He thinks the monument will reopen at the right time. “This is an incredibly important time in our country’s history. We are evaluating the long-term legacies of that time and this house.”
He believes the restored mansion is now a place for people to talk about those legacies.
“We recognize that in this particular space there will be people who will disagree with how this new presentation of history is being told. And so we have to recognize that it’s about all of history.”
Despite all the work that has been done to add nuance and complexity to Arlington House’s history, it remains an official memorial to Robert E. Lee, who remains a controversial figure in the national conversation about how to preserve history without the darkest chapter. to glorify.
That’s a task that historians and National Park Service officials alike seem to agree should be at the heart of the property’s next steps.