Robert E. Lee Memorial Arlington House Updated To Include More Information On Slaves Who Lived There

 Arlington House, the mansion in Virginia that once belonged to Confederate General Robert E. Lee, is reopening after a $12 million revamping effort aimed at contextualizing Lee’s legacy.

After the rehabilitation, the mansion that overlooks Arlington National Cemetery will include more information about people who were enslaved on the property, as reported by The Associated Press. 

For the first time since 2018, the National Park Service opened Arlington House to the general population on Tuesday. The coronavirus pandemic and setbacks resulted in a longer closure than originally planned as the mansion and grounds were anticipated to open in 2019.

“The rehabilitation was funded by philanthropist David Rubenstein, who has also donated millions for the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and other historical sites around the D.C. region,” per the AP. 

Arlington House has a vast trove of records related to its history but is still impacted by the fact that there is often not much recorded documentation about people who were enslaved, noted Charles Cuvelier, superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the National Park Service unit that manages Arlington House.

“Our efforts are to illuminate those layers of history to the best of our ability,” he said.

The Arlington House website explained: “Today, the National Park Service tells the whole story of slavery at Arlington House, recognizing that speaking openly about this history might engender discomfort in ourselves, our colleagues, and our visitors, because it helps us to understand the complete story of our collective history and acknowledge those who have been too long ignored by the dominate narrative. The National Park Service acknowledges and recognizes the lives of those enslaved at Arlington House with respect, humanity, empathy, and agency.”

“Visitors to Arlington House can learn about enslaved people who worked at the estate, such as the Syphax, Burke, Parks, and Gray families, including learning stories about their daily life on the plantation and their families’ legacies,” it said.

The “newly restored outbuildings” that operated as working and living quarters for slaves are also open to the public.

“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,” per the AP. 

The outlet reported: 

The Norris family included Wesley Norris, who according to some accounts escaped from Arlington House in 1859 when Lee was managing the estate. 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.

Steve Hammond, a descendant of the Syphax family who is now a trustee of the Arlington House Foundation, said he thinks the new items do a better job of sharing the entire history of the location. 

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

Hammond has also pushed to take out Lee’s name from the site, which bears the formal name of “Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.” Representative Don Beyer (D-VA) proposed legislation to change the name last year and is reportedly planning to do so again. 

Hammond said that he anticipates the updates — and the possible change in name — will be difficult for some people who preferred when Lee was the main focus of the house, but he is hopeful that the site can now encourage more extensive conversations about all of the house’s previous residents. 

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

The reopening comes as conversations surrounding the existence of confederate statues and the re-naming of schools become more prominent. 

A school district in Jacksonville, Florida, recently announced that it will be changing the names of six schools that have ties to figures from the confederacy, as reported by The Grio.

“At this point in time it’s important to start thinking about who we want to be,” said Duval County public schools board chair Elizabeth Andersen. “As a board, we were listening to our community members and wanting to move forward so that every student that walks in our building understands that they are respected, that they are capable of achieving their highest potential, and that all of their lives matter.” 

The six schools set to be renamed in Jacksonville are Kirby-Smith Middle School, Joseph Finegan Elementary Schoo, Stonewall Jackson Elementary Schoo, Jefferson Davis Middle School, J.E.B. Stuart Middle School, and Robert E. Lee High School. 

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