Arlington House

Former Virginia Mansion of Robert E. Lee Reopens With a Focus on the Enslaved Lives Who Once Lived There

When the historic Washington D.C. landmark Arlington House closed in 2018 for refurbishment, no one could have guessed it would be three full years before it welcomed its next group of visitors. When the National Park Service finally reopened those doors to the public on Tuesday, June 8, it wasn’t just Arlington House that was different — the entire country had changed as well.

Matthew Barakat of The Associated Press reported on the $12-million renovation project on the historic site where Confederate General Robert E. Lee lived. Officials began to take note of the increasing demand for social justice and reform that was occurring within the public at large, and those ideas became even more prominent during the summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd. 

Paired with logistical delays caused as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Barakat said officials working at the location had the opportunity they needed to not only rehabilitate Arlington House but also reinterpret what it stands for: raising Black voices that helped bring light to the stories of the former slaves who had also once lived at the site.

According to Barakat, the Virginia mansion, which overlooks Arlington National Cemetery and “commands an unrivaled view of the nation’s capital and the Potomac River, is best known as the home of the Confederate general leading up to the Civil War. But its history [also] goes well beyond Lee.”

George Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, allegedly built the mansion as a memorial for his father. When General Lee married Custis’ daughter, he moved into the house as well. Throughout this entire period, Arlington House was also home to a large number of enslaved men and women.

Charles Cuvelier, the superintendent of the Arlington House, now wants to highlight and bring a focus to the stories of these individuals whose lives weren’t always recorded by history.

“Our efforts are to illuminate those layers of history to the best of our ability,” Cuvelier told the AP.

To that end, the site now includes a number of new exhibits and materials, including some specifically highlighting the enslaved Syphax and Norris families. 

According to Barakat, “descendants of Charles and Maria Syphax can trace their lineage back to Parke Custis, who fathered children with Maria’s mother, Arianna Carter, also a slave.” 

“The Norris family included Wesley Norris, who according to some accounts escaped from Arlington House in 1859 when Lee was managing the estate,” Barakat reported. “When Norris was captured, Lee insisted that Norris be whipped 50 times and that the wounds be washed with brine, according to newspaper accounts, including one given by Norris directly to an anti-slavery newspaper.”

These stories are especially important to Steve Hammond, a descendant of the Syphax family and also a trustee of the Arlington House Foundation. Hammond said it’s his sole mission to continue promoting the diverse stories that took place at Arlington House — and remember the lives of all those who once spent time there.

“It’s going to be much more focused on everyone who has lived on that historic piece of property,” Hammond told Barakat.

While he doesn’t expect the effort to be easy — and he knows there will be plenty who complain about the change — he is eager for those discussions to begin, and he looks forward to the changes they might help bring about.

“We’re trying to create space for these difficult conversations,” Hammond said.

Related: For more recent diversity and inclusion news, click here.


Latest News

LGBTQ protection in schools

US Education Department Issues Statement Confirming Title IX Protects LGBTQ Students Against Discrimination

Following an executive order from President Joe Biden directing federal agencies to defend LGBTQ students against discrimination, the Education Department has issued an official statement saying that Title IX does indeed ensure equal protection for LGBTQ students under federal law. Jo Yurcaba of NBC News reported that the Department of…

Texas Governor Greg Abbott

Texas Governor Approves Bill Banning Discussions of Race and Racism Within State’s Schools

Texas lawmakers continue to astound with the number of racist, transphobic laws they are willing to try to write into law.  In the last few months alone, we’ve seen Texas lawmakers draft legislation that would penalize parents who support and help their transgender children access gender-affirming care with jail time…

Georgia Power, Georgia Power Foundation Invested More Than $20 Million To Help Meet Community Challenges in 2020

Originally published at Southern Company ranked No. 20 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.   Georgia Power and the Georgia Power Foundation today released their annual Citizenship Report highlighting how the company, its employees and retirees gave back to Georgia communities last year, helping to build…

Toyota Financial Services Issues New Asset-Backed Green Bond, Highlighting Toyota’s Ongoing Commitment to Sustainability

Originally published at Toyota Motor North America ranked No. 7 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.   Toyota Financial Services (TFS) issued its latest Asset-Backed Green Bond, reinforcing the company’s longstanding commitment to the sale of environmentally friendly vehicles. Net proceeds from the $1.6…

ADP Recognized as a Customers’ Choice in 2021 Gartner Peer Insights ‘Voice of the Customer’

Originally published at ADP ranked No. 8 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.   Industry analyst firm Gartner recognized ADP as a Customers’ Choice with category distinctions in Midsize Enterprises and North America in its 2021 Gartner Peer Insights ‘Voice of the Customer’: Cloud HCM Suites…

Cigna building

Cigna and New York Life Expand Eligibility for ‘Brave of Heart Fund’ Grants Supporting Families of Healthcare Workers Who Lost Their Lives in the Fight Against COVID-19

Originally published at Cigna ranked No. 33 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.   On June 17, the foundations of New York Life and Cigna announced that the Brave of Heart Fund, which provides monetary grants to the families of heroic health care workers…