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 by enslaved people more than 200 years ago. It sits high on a Virginia bluff across the river from Washington, D.C., overlooking the Lincoln Memorial. Located within Arlington National Cemetery, it’s surrounded by the graves of, among others, Union soldiers.
It’s an embattled site for a home with a difficult past and a complicated present.
Since 1983, Arlington House has served as the official symbol of Arlington, Va. Its image adorns the county’s seal, flag, website and stationery. It’s on police cars and government mail. Now, after a year of racial reckoning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the county is in the process of redesigning its logo to remove the mansion’s image.
Julius Spain, president of the Arlington Branch of the NAACP, is one of the leaders of the effort to remove the image of the home from official community materials. He says the memorial represents “a very dark time in our history.”
“It’s a slave labor camp where people were raped and killed. We have to preserve our past, not glorify it,” Spain says.
Showing the “ugly parts” of the mansion’s history
A nuanced presentation was part of the goal of the restoration, according to the NPS’s Charles Cuvelier, superintendent of the office that administers Arlington House. He showed NPR around the house and grounds with some of his colleagues.
“What we’ve tried to do is create windows into the past, even the ugly parts.” Cuvelier points to places in the restoration efforts — a portion of a wall showing each layer of paint and plaster, revealing the structure beneath, and how it’s changed over the years. He says the philosophy goes deeper — he wants to expose how ideas and thinking have evolved as well.
Finding a way to memorialize Robert E. Lee while acknowledging his role in leading the Confederacy and upholding slavery is not an easy line to walk.
Beyond the main house and the adjacent quarters for enslaved people, there is a space dedicated to the complexity of Lee as a person. The small room includes descriptive panels that prod visitors to think deeply about the wisdom and culture of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, accounting for the accolades Lee received, and also the criticism.
Ida Jones, a historian and archivist at Morgan State University who studies African American history in the Washington, D.C., area, says Americans “need to see and acknowledge what happened at Arlington House.”
“These national parks, these historic homes, these historic personalities need to be understood and viewed not as celebrity, but as filters through which we look at our past,” she says. “Arlington House honors Lee, but it also includes nuanced conversation about Lee and the context in the times in which he lived and the decisions that drove his choices.”
Those choices are part of institutionalized racism that has impacts to this day. Some of the original housing for enslaved people, for example, once served as a gift shop, and much of the information about their lives has been lost because no one cared to preserve or remember it.
Researchers worked to remember those enslaved there
Archivists were able to trace some of the enslaved inhabitants, and their names are written on plastic sheets preserving the walls. Some people are known only by the work they performed, such as “Gardener,” or by their relation to another, such as “Mary’s Child.” Many names have been lost forever.
During this renovation, the National Park Service worked to uncover and restore as much information as possible about those enslaved at the site. But it stands in stark contrast to the main house, where Lee’s accounts and possessions were meticulously preserved over the more than 150 years since his death.
Charles Syphax was an enslaved resident of one of the cramped living areas prior to the Civil War. He oversaw the dining room at Arlington House and married Maria Carter, an enslaved woman whose mother was raped by George Washington Parke Custis, the original owner of the home who was the step-grandson of George Washington. Charles married Maria in the mansion’s parlor, in the same spot where Maria’s half-sister, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, would marry Robert E. Lee a decade later.
Stephen Hammond is Charles Syphax’s great-great-great-nephew and a family historian. He thinks the memorial is reopening at the right time. “This is an incredibly important time in the history of our country. We are evaluating the long-term legacies of that time and this house.”
He believes the restored mansion is now a place where people can talk about those legacies.
“We recognize that in this particular space, there are going to be people who disagree with how this new presentation of history is being told. And so we need to recognize that it’s about the whole history.”
Despite all the work that’s been done to add nuance and complexity to the history of Arlington House, it remains an official memorial to Robert E. Lee, who remains a controversial figure in the national conversation about how to preserve history without lionizing its darkest chapter.
That’s a task both historians and National Park Service officials seem to agree should be at the heart of the next steps for the property.