History of Arlington House and its Plantation

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The Custis Years - History and Historic Preservation

Arlington HouseSurrounded by the white tombstones of Arlington National Cemetery and overlooking the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington House is steeped in history. The mansion was built between 1802 and 1818 by George Washington Parke Custis, step-grandson and adopted son of George Washington, to serve, in part, as a memorial to the nation's first president. In 1955, Congress designated Arlington House as the nation's memorial to Robert E. Lee1. The story of the mansion and the Lee Memorial encompasses not only George Washington Parke Custis, his daughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee and her husband, Robert E. Lee, but also those of the enslaved families who lived, labored and died there - Syphaxes, Parks, Binghams, Grays, Norrises and many others - whose history has remained largely untold to visitors to the site. 

George Washington Parke CustisGeorge Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857) was the grandson of Martha Washington and her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. After the death of his father, John Parke Custis, he was taken in by George and Martha Washington at the age of six months and raised by Washington as his only son. After the death of Martha Washington in 1802, Custis left Mt. Vernon for the 1100-acre tract on the Potomac River he inherited from his father which ultimately became Arlington Plantation, along with many of the Washington household furnishings and memorabilia (inherited and purchased) and  approximately 50 enslaved persons inherited from his mother. 

He called his new home Mount Washington and lived in a small pre-existing cabin at the river's edge with just enough space to store his Washington memorabilia. The enslaved families who came with him from Mt. Vernon erected make-shift log cabins for shelter, cleared the land, built roads and tended Custis's livestock2. In 1802, Custis retained the services of George Hadfield, an architect for the U.S. Capitol, to construct a magnificent two-story Neoclassical and Georgian home on the highest hill on the property with commanding views of the Potomac River and Washington City. 

Temple of HephaestusHadfield picked the Doric Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, Greece, as his model for the portico of the mansion. Hephaestus was the Greek God of blacksmiths, craftsmen and artisans. Hadfield's choice of the Hephaestus temple as the model may have been a nod to Washington's belief in the importance of crafts and industry in building the new nation. 

Custis, subsequently, ran into financial difficulties while trying to build the mansion to Hadfield's specifications. As a consequence, he built only as he could muster the resources, selling enslaved people and borrowing heavily to finance construction. As Custis was unable to afford the preferred sandstone necessary for building the walls, the house was made of red bricks which were fired on the property by enslaved workers. The entablature and roof structure were built of wood and painted to resemble marble. Both wings were completed by 1804, but the signature center block was not completed until 1818. Custis's cousin, David Meade Randolph3, had developed a type of hard stucco which he called "hydraulic cement" and convinced Custis to cover the bricks with his stucco which was then etched and faux painted to resemble sandstone. The stucco finish greatly enhanced the striking and iconic neoclassical image of Arlington House as applauded then and still appreciated today. 

Early on in the construction, Custis became dissatisfied with the name Mt. Washington as the first President's name had become commonplace throughout the new nation. Custis changed the name to Arlington, which was the name of ancestral Custis homes both in England and colonial Virginia. 

Molly CustisOn July 7, 1804, Custis married Mary Lee "Molly" Fitzhugh, a devout evangelical Christian from a prominent Virginia family with close ties to the Washingtons and Lees. She came to Arlington at the age of sixteen and gave birth to four children with only one, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, living to adulthood.  

The Arlington household was noted for its gracious hospitality made possible by the enslaved people who worked in the Mansion and labored in the fields. Custis had an artistic and literary bent and was a noted orator, playwright, painter and federalist political partisan. His collection of Washington relics was the largest in existence, and he welcomed all to come and view them. The great political and cultural figures of the age gathered at Arlington House. Washington Irving dined at the table, as did the painter Charles Wilson Peale. Sitting presidents came to call and gather inspiration from the Washington mementos. In 1825, Lafayette described the view from the portico as the finest he had seen in America. Custis and the Marquis spent many hours and days together, touring Revolutionary War sites and talking about important issues facing the nation. Slavery was one of those. Lafayette was an ardent abolitionist and he lectured Custis on the evils and economic inefficiency of slavery. Custis used his wealth of reminiscences to write his Conversations with Lafayette, which was published in a local newspaper in 1825. 

At Washington's side, Custis had learned the virtue and value of scientific farming and did everything he could to encourage efficient and sustainable agriculture. While his house was still under construction, he began an annual sheep shearing contest designed to influence breeders to focus more on developing a distinctly American breed of sheep and wool. He bred a particularly hardy fine-wooled sheep he dubbed "Arlington Improved" and offered one of his outlying properties for use as an experimental breeding station. 

Molly Custis's views on slavery would ultimately be a major influence on George Washington Parke Custis's decision to emancipate the enslaved that he owned. An early opponent of the institution of slavery, she started a school for the enslaved families at Arlington and began ministering to them in her Episcopalian faith. Having freed her inherited slaves, she was a major supporter of the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816, which focused on purchasing and freeing slaves, paying their passage to an enclave on the West Coast of Africa which ultimately became the colony of Liberia, and providing the resources to enable the former slaves to survive there. Many prominent Americans embraced the project as a solution to the nation's racial problems, including Bushrod Washington, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln who continued to support the plan to resettle free Blacks after he became president. The colonization project was opposed by abolitionists and most enslavers alike, and never came close to fulfilling the desires of its proponents. At most, only 12,000 former slaves were resettled in Africa, primarily in Liberia, and many died from disease, malnutrition and other causes after resettlement. George Washington Parke Custis enthusiastically promoted colonization as a way of dealing with America's racial problems, both in the present and in the future, by removing the problem. 

The Custis Descendants

Custis was the patriarch of two sets of families at Arlington House, one of mixed-race - the Syphaxes -- and the other  white - the Lees. Both families proudly trace their ancestry back to Martha Washington and Mt. Vernon.

Charles Syphax and Maria Carter

Maria SyphaxCharles Syphax holding grandson,<br>William SyphaxCustis is almost universally believed to have been the father of an enslaved woman, Maria Carter, whose mother, Arianna "Airy" Carter, was among the enslaved brought to Arlington Plantation from Mt. Vernon to work as a maid at the Arlington property. Charles Syphax, the son of an enslaved mother and a free Black man, was also among the enslaved that Custis brought with him from Mt. Vernon. Maria would have been in daily contact with Charles Syphax who rose to a position of prominence and responsibility by managing the dining room at the Mansion. Maria and Charles fell in love and were married in 1821 in the mansion's family parlor. Although there is no DNA evidence, the circumstantial evidence of Maria's parentage is overwhelming. Maria Carter was raised as the personal maid and servant-companion of Custis's daughter, Mary, the heir to Arlington and the future wife of Robert E. Lee. The marriage of Charles and Maria in the family parlor could be deemed evidence of paternal acknowledgement which was all but confirmed when Custis procured Maria's freedom five years later and gifted her with 17 acres of land and a cottage on the southern boundary of the plantation. 

In this cottage, Charles and Maria gave birth to eight of their 10 children. As a result, the descendants of Maria and Charles celebrate their direct descent from the first, First Lady, Martha Washington. Their children included leaders of the free African American communities in Virginia and Washington, DC. The Syphax descendants are today a large and thriving group who have long wanted to have their history reclaimed. 

Mary Custis and Robert E. Lee

Despite its important link to the Custis family and to George Washington, Arlington House is largely known today as the home of its next occupant, Robert E. Lee, husband of Mary Anna Randolph Custis. Mary Custis first encountered Robert E. Lee when the Lee family visited Arlington in 1811. His father, a political ally of George Washington Parke Custis, was the famous General Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, a brilliant officer in the Revolution and a Federalist political leader who had delivered a eulogy at Washington's funeral, proclaiming Washington "first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Although Lee's father  served as  governor of Virginia and a U.S. congressman, he fell upon hard times after the 1811 visit to Arlington House, spent a year in a debtor's prison and died a near-pauper on Cumberland Island, Georgia, in 1818.

Mary Custis LeeRobert E. LeeFamily tradition holds that Robert and Mary were childhood sweethearts, and that of all her playmates Robert was her favorite. Their wedding was held in the Family Parlor at Arlington House on June 30, 1831 where Mary Custis's enslaved half-sister, Maria Syphax, had been married ten years earlier. Like her mother, Mary Lee believed in gradual emancipation and resettlement of the enslaved in Liberia. She and her mother taught reading to the Lee family children at Arlington House, along with enslaved children, in violation of Virginia law. During her tenure at Arlington House, all enslaved families were offered the opportunity to be  emancipated and emigrate to Liberia. Molly and Mary made nosegays from flowers grown in the Lee Garden to sell in Washington to raise funds for the ACS. One emancipated Arlington House family, that of William and Rosabella Burke, emigrated to Liberia and thrived there. Rosabella Burke wrote to Mary Lee: "I love Africa and would not exchange it for America."

Robert E. Lee did not intend to make Arlington House his permanent home, as he was an ambitious young officer hoping to build a career and advance quickly in the Army which required him to serve in distant posts throughout the sprawling country. Although his military career kept him away for long periods of time, he returned regularly to Arlington which remained an anchor for Lee, his wife, and their seven children - six of whom were born at Arlington where his "affections and attachments were more strongly placed than at any other place in the world."  When Lee was at Arlington, the home was a lively place where the parlor was strewn with "paper babies" and where Lee, the indulgent parent, allowed his children to use him as "a horse, dog, ladder, & target for a cannon by the little Lees" while he struggled to write business letters. 

Death of George Washington Parke Custis 

In the Fall of 1857, Custis fell ill with pneumonia and passed away on October 10. His wife, Molly, had predeceased him in 1853. Influenced by George Washington's freeing of his slaves upon death, as well as by the anti-slavery views of his wife and daughter, Custis directed in his will that his slaves, 196 in all, be freed within five years. He further directed that no slaves be sold to pay his debts. Custis appointed his son-in-law, Robert E. Lee, as executor of his estate. Lee recoiled at a task which he viewed as an "unpleasant legacy" rife with potential conflict which, as we know now, would leave a lasting stain on his reputation. 

Robert E. Lee Becomes "Master" of Arlington 

Lee was in Texas serving with the U.S. Cavalry when Custis died. When he returned to Arlington House, he found that much had changed. Mary Lee's arthritis had progressed to the point she was almost unable to walk. Custis had been a poor manager of the plantation, letting many of the buildings fall into a dilapidated state and requiring little in the way of hard work from the enslaved living at Arlington. Upon arrival, Lee declared that "everything is in ruins and will have to be rebuilt". He took extended leave from the army in order to take on the management of the Custis properties and, as executor of the will, pay off Custis's debts, provide legacies for his four unmarried daughters (Custis's granddaughters) in the amount of $10,000 each and carry out the emancipation requirements of the will.

Custis's will provided that freedom for his enslaved could be delayed for up to five years so that their labor could be used to pay off the debts and bequests. Like a military taskmaster, Lee did not hesitate to put the enslaved to work to pay off the debts, separating them from their families and hiring them out to other plantations and employers. By 1860, all but one of the enslaved families had experienced some degree of separation from loved ones. 

The enslaved at Arlington interpreted Custis's will differently, believing it was Custis's intent to free them immediately, and that Lee was delaying emancipation in order to increase his wealth. This led to growing unrest at Arlington House which was doubtless fed by abolitionist agitation in the country. When three enslaved people, Wesley and Mary Norris and George Parks, attempted to flee to Pennsylvania and were captured in Maryland, Lee had them whipped as punishment upon their return. Newspapers in Boston and New York carried accounts of the whipping which caused Lee to grow more sympathetic with the complaints of enslavers who complained bitterly about northern interference in the constitutionally protected institution of slavery.

General Winfield ScottIn the midst of the increasing conflicts between Lee and the enslaved at Arlington House, the nation was jolted by an incident with far reaching consequences when the abolitionist John Brown led a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry in October, 1859, to obtain weaponry for a slave uprising in Virginia. Lee was sent by General Winfield Scott, Commander in Chief of the Army, to Harper's Ferry where he successfully suppressed the insurrection and captured Brown who was later sentenced to death and hanged. News of the John Brown raid and Lee's role in the storming of the arsenal and capturing Brown could have exacerbated the hard feelings of the enslaved towards Lee.

The unrest at Arlington House having largely subsided, Lee rejoined his regiment in Texas in February 1860, hopeful that the growing disagreements between North and South could be reconciled. But the lingering anger kindled by the John Brown raid and the election of Abraham Lincoln led to the secession of the deep south states, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, with Texas joining the Confederacy in February of 1861.

Lee was then ordered to report to Washington, arriving home at Arlington a month later. When Virginia seceded from the Union in April, 1861, the die was cast. Lee was offered command of the  primary field army of the United States on April 18, 1861, but turned it down, saying he would not take up arms against his native state. Upon learning of his decision, General Winfield Scott, also a Virginian, told Lee "You have made the greatest mistake of your life, and I feared it would be so."  

On Saturday, April 20, 1861, in his office on the first floor of Arlington House, Lee wrote his fateful letter of resignation from the army, avowing that he would never again draw his sword "except in defense of [his] native state" On April 22nd, he left Arlington House forever to       take command of Virginia's military, followed by his wife and family in May.  

There was still the unfinished business of the emancipation of the Arlington slaves, however. Because he had not yet paid off Custis's debts, Lee petitioned the Virginia state courts to waive the five-year limit imposed by the will. The courts refused. On December 29, 1862, Lee ultimately signed letters of emancipation for everyone enslaved by Custis including those at Arlington. This belated emancipation, has been seen by some as an empty gesture since Lee knew that Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation," announced on September 22, 1862, would go into effect on January 1, 1863. However, the manumission carried out by Lee guaranteed freedom no matter what the outcome of the war. 

Civil War - Home to Post to Cemetery

General Irvin McDowellElements of the secessionist  militia occupied Arlington early in May and reportedly fired cannons at U.S. Navy ships. The property's location made it a serious threat to the security of the nation's capital as a Confederate force could easily bombard the federal buildings in Washington, including the White House, from the Arlington high ground. Because of its strategic importance, General Winfield Scott ordered federal troops to seize Arlington and clear the area of all enemy forces. On May 24, immediately after Virginia ratified its ordinance of secession, General McDowell, who had accepted the command Lee had rejected, led Union forces in occupying the plantation without incident and made the house his headquarters. In response to a letter from Mrs. Lee requesting that her home not be desecrated by the occupying forces, he promised that he would do everything in his power to protect the house and possessions. 

Before leaving Arlington House, Mrs. Lee had entrusted the safekeeping of the house and its possessions to an enslaved maid, Selina Gray, with whom she had left the household keys. Selina Gray had married her husband, Thornton Gray, in the same Lee family parlor where Mary Custis and Robert E. Lee had been betrothed in a ceremony conducted by the same Episcopal minister. 

Selina GrayDespite General McDowell's commitment to Mrs. Lee, the occupying Union soldiers began looting the premises, stealing Washington's Mt. Vernon artifacts and defacing a number of the rooms. The trove of Arlington House memorabilia that we have today was largely due to the intervention of Selina Gray with General McDowell who, after their discussions, posted guards around the house and sent the remaining Washington relics to the Patent Office for safe keeping. Selina, Thornton Gray and their family, were freed by the will of George Washington Parke Custis in December, 1862 and continued to live on the property and in the area. Her children were instrumental in the restoration of Arlington House in the 1920s and 1930s.

Lee subsequently served the Confederacy as an advisor to President Jefferson Davis and was appointed Commanding General of the Army of Northern Virginia in June 1, 1862. In a stunning series of victories over Union forces in June, 1862, he saved the Confederate capital.  

Following the Union's defeat at the Second Battle of Manassas in August, 1862, the army constructed Fort Whipple on the Arlington grounds presently occupied by Fort Meyer. The fort was said to be one of the strongest fortifications for the defense of Washington during the civil war.

When it became clear that there would be no quick ending to the war, the government began making plans to confiscate Arlington, but these efforts were halted because of constitutional issues. Instead, the Congress passed a series of laws in 1862-1863 for the purpose of dispossessing landowners of their property in "insurrectionary districts" by levying a tax on the property and forcing the owners to pay in person. The "in person" requirement virtually guaranteed noncompliance if the owners, like the Lees, had fled the property. 

In 1863, the government levied a tax of $92.07 against the Arlington House Plantation, which could have been easily paid except that Mary Lee, the legal owner, was in Richmond and could not travel to the area to pay the tax. She attempted to have payment made by a relative, Phillip Fendall, former district attorney for the District of Columbia, but the tax collectors refused to accept payment from a third party, and Arlington was seized for nonpayment of taxes. In January, 1864, the property sold at public auction to the U.S. Army for $26,800. The confiscation also included the 17 acres given to Maria Syphax by her father, George Washington Parke Custis, as no deed had been conveyed with the gift.

Brigadier General Montgomery MeigsAt that time, the U.S. Government had no plan of any kind to convert the estate into a national cemetery, but the Union's spring campaign of 1864 would change that dramatically. President Lincoln had brought General Grant east and had put him in command of the entire U.S. Army in the winter of 1863-64. Grant saw as his primary mission the destruction of Robert E. Lee's army and launched a massive assault south of the Rappahannock River, the Battle of the Wilderness. That battle lasted over a month of continuous fighting and resulted in over 80,000 casualties on both sides. Hospitals in Washington and the surrounding areas were inundated with the dead and dying. Existing cemeteries, including two other national cemeteries, were reaching their limits. In May, 1864, Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster General of the U. S. Army, and a vocal critic of Lee, ordered the use of Arlington Plantation as a Union burial ground with the first burials taking place May 13, 1864. Meigs's unilateral action was formally confirmed by Secretary of War Stanton who officially proclaimed Arlington as a national military cemetery on June 15, 1864. General Meigs then ordered graves of fallen soldiers to be placed outside the front door of Arlington House and directed that 26 Union officers be buried along the boundary of Mrs. Lee's garden.  The transformation of plantation to cemetery has been interpreted as both an act of personal revenge on Lee and as assurance that the Lees and their descendants would never want to return to Arlington. 

Freedman's VillageBy the end of the war in 1865, approximately 8,000 combatants were buried at Arlington. Thousands more were buried there in the years immediately following. As a further affront to the Lees as well as a necessity of war, the federal government in 1863 also created a refuge called Freedman's Village for formerly enslaved people on part of the plantation. Although Freedman's Village was initially used by the government as a temporary measure to help the newly freed  transition to freedom, residents of the village fought to keep Freedman's Village open after the war as a sanctuary from post-Reconstruction Jim Crow Virginia politics. With the help of John B. Syphax, son of Maria and Charles Syphax, Freedman's Village remained in existence until 1900 as the home for thousands of formerly enslaved people including some from the Arlington plantation.    

Robert E. Lee's Influence Helps to Restore the Union after the War 

The Civil War ended with Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. In mid-September, 1865, the Lees moved to Lexington, Virginia, where Lee took up the post of President of Washington College. He wrote the trustees: "I think it the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony, and in no way to oppose the policy of the State or General government directed to that object. It is particularly incumbent upon those charged with the instruction of the young to set them an example of submission to authority..."  Even though Lee was stripped of his rights as a US citizen and his application for restoration rebuffed, he advised White southerners to bury their emotions from the war and do everything to heal the country. His influence was great, and he did much to bring about the true restoration of the Union, not by force, but by the stronger bonds of reconciliation and common loyalty. Lee objected to the idea of raising Confederate monuments, writing in 1869 that it would be wiser "not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife."  Still, he held a conservative view toward the racial politics of Reconstruction and publicly voiced his opinion that African Americans should not be made equal to whites and given the right to vote. 

The Heirs Vindicated:  William Syphax and Custis Lee

William SyphaxThe Syphax Properties. Maria Syphax's 17 acres was likewise confiscated by the government as Maria Syphax did not have legal title to the property when the government acquired Arlington House and the surrounding lands in 1864. This property, later referred to as Syphax Corner, was saved for the family by the intervention of William Syphax, Maria's oldest son, who used his influence with the government to get a bill introduced in Congress by Senator Harris of New York entitled "Bill for the Relief of Maria Syphax". The bill was passed by both Houses and signed into law by President Andrew Johnson. William Syphax went on to become the first Chairman of the D.C. Board of Trustees of Colored Public Schools and established Dunbar High School, the first Black high school in the then racially segregated District. In 1944, the Syphax property was taken by eminent domain and payment of "just compensation" by the U.S. government for the construction of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Racial segregation in the District was not officially abolished until 1955 by the Supreme Court's decision in Bolling v Sharp which was tardily rendered a year after the Court's historic Brown v Board desegregation decision.

The Custis-Lee Properties. For a time, General Lee hoped to regain possession of Arlington for his wife, but all of his legal advisors told him it was impossible. Mary Lee never got over losing Arlington House and spent much of the last years of her life writing to newspaper editors, friends and politicians complaining about the illegal seizure of her property. She returned to Arlington House only once in 1873, a few months prior to her death, but stayed for only a few hours unable to bear the changes that the war and Union occupation had wrought. 

George Washington Custis LeeAfter the death of his mother, George Washington Custis Lee ("Custis"), eldest son of Robert and Mary, and George Washington Parke Custis's legal heir, sought to recover the Arlington properties for the Lee family. After his petitions to Congress were rebuffed, he brought suit in Alexandria state court in 1877 seeking return of the 1,100-acre Arlington Plantation property on the ground that it had been unconstitutionally taken by the government without due process and payment of just compensation. The case was removed to the federal court in Alexandria where a jury rendered a verdict in 1879, concluding that the government's requirement of payment in person violated the due process clause of the Constitution. The government appealed to the United States Supreme Court which held in United States v Lee, 106 U.S. 196 (1882) that the government could not invoke sovereign immunity - the doctrine that "The King can do no wrong" - to defeat the Lee claim and that, as a consequence, the property had to be returned to the Lees. The Court stated in ringing language that to accept the government's position would be to sanction "a tyranny which has no existence in the monarchies of Europe, nor in any other government which has a just claim to well-regulated liberty and the protection of personal rights."  

Custis Lee had never intended to live at Arlington which was now host to thousands of war-time graves. His lawsuit was primarily about forcing the U.S. Government to pay him just compensation. After strenuous negotiations, Custis sold the property to the government for $150,000, granting the government legal title to mansion and the surrounding land. 

National Cemetery, National Park Service and Lee Memorial

James ParksAfter the resolution of the legal dispute with George Washington Custis Lee, the U.S. Army became the unquestioned owner of the former plantation. In the decades that followed, the landscape was greatly altered. Civil War Fort Whipple was expanded and renamed Fort Myer. Thousands of more graves were added and new sections were opened up, including one for Confederates, angering some Union veterans, especially African Americans who believed they were not given the same respect. James Parks, a teenager at the beginning of the Civil War, would become a lifelong employee of the national cemetery, garnering so much respect that when he died in 1929, he was buried at Arlington with full military honors. He is the only formerly enslaved person from the Arlington House plantation currently buried in a marked grave at Arlington.

With the establishment of the National Cemetery, Arlington House was primarily used as the headquarters and administrative office of the Cemetery, as well as living quarters for the Superintendent and family. Still, it was widely known as the former home of General Lee. Robert E. Lee's reputation recovered in the years following the war and he was lauded for promoting reunion and reconciliation between the north and south. Political leaders and the Press viewed his taking the path of reconciliation, rather than rejectionism, as important in cementing the bonds of union between north and south. In 1925, the United States Congress voted unanimously to fund the restoration of the mansion to honor him for his efforts to effect reconciliation. Congress authorized the building of Memorial Bridge in 1925 and the Bridge was opened in 1932 as a symbolic reunion of the nation, joining the memorials to President Lincoln and General Lee, with Memorial Avenue being the ceremonial entrance into the national cemetery. 

When the War Department began the restoration of Arlington House in 1925, the knowledge of the formerly enslaved Arlington community proved an invaluable resource. Of particular assistance were Emma Gray Syphax and Sarah Gray Wilson, the daughters of Selina and Thornton Gray who lived in quarters just behind the mansion. Both were teenagers by the time of the Civil War, worked in the house, and were well acquainted with the daily routine of the Lee household. In 1929, the women returned to Arlington at the request of the War Department architect in charge of the restoration. They provided detailed information on the use of the rooms, furniture arrangements, the wartime occupation, architectural features of the slave quarters, and biographical details about the individual enslaved people as well as members of the Lee family. Just as their mother had played an important role in preserving the nation's past in the midst of the Civil War, Selina Gray's daughters continued the family tradition seven decades later of preserving Arlington's history.

Arlington House was turned over to the National Park Service in 1933 and was made a national memorial by Congress to honor Robert E. Lee in 1955, the only U.S. memorial ever designated to honor a man who fought a war against the United States. Arlington National Cemetery has tripled in acreage and over 400,000 more American service members have been laid to rest in its hallowed ground. Today, Arlington House and Arlington National Cemetery are among the most visited sites in the national capital area.    

Lost in the effort to pay tribute to Lee as a way of achieving reconciliation between the White South and White North was any recognition that there had been no similar effort to achieve reconciliation with African Americans. Deep divisions over race shaped public perception over the memorial then, as well as now. While White Americans sang Lee's praises, African Americans who were still struggling through Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement viewed such actions as dismissive of their relegation to second-class citizenship. 

Over subsequent decades, the National Park Service, relying on limited Congressional funding, has struggled to keep up with the maintenance requirements of Arlington House as a historic property which receives hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.

In May 2009, Save Historic Arlington House (SHAH) was established as an auxiliary fundraising organization to help with the restoration, maintenance of the house and grounds, along with the preservation of historical memories of both the enslaved and free who lived there. The galvanizing force behind the creation of SHAH was Wayne Parks, the great-grandson of James Parks4, who partnered with Gene Cross, a civil war buff, published author5 and long-time volunteer interpreter at the House, to organize a Board of Trustees that included descendants of the Lees, a descendant of General Montgomery Meigs and Elizabeth Pryor, nuanced biographer of Robert E. Lee. In 2015, SHAH's name was changed to Arlington House Foundation (AHF). With the Foundation's support, NPS has been able to replace window treatments, restore frescoes and acquire artifacts for exhibit.

In 2014, philanthropist, David Rubenstein, donated $13.35 million for the restoration of Arlington House which was closed for renovation in 2018 and reopened in June, 2021. Along with material telling the stories of the Custises and Lees, there are new exhibits and information on those enslaved there, including the Norris, Gray and Syphax families. The rebirth of Arlington House with the generous contribution of David Rubenstein heralds a new commitment to opening the lens of its historical view, and ensuring, going forward, that all stories will be told and all voices will be heard.


The Arlington House Foundation needs your assistance in the ongoing efforts to provide basic maintenance, preserve this historic site and continue to tell the stories of all who lived, worked and died there, both free and enslaved. Please consider contributing to assist in our efforts to maintain this historic site which reflects the meaning of America in a way that no other place can equal.


1 Bicameral legislation was introduced in the Congress in July, 2022, by Rep. Don Beyer and Senator Tim Kaine to remove "Robert E. Lee Memorial" from the official name of Arlington House and rename the House as "The Arlington House National Historic Site". Congress adjourned in December, 2022, however, without bringing the bills to a vote.

2 For further information on the building of Arlington House, see https://www.jstor.org/stable/987521

3 David Meade Randolph's wife, Mary Randolph (1762-1828), was a noted author of one of the earliest American cookbooks, The Virginia Housewife, and is the first person recorded to have been buried in the Cemetery in 1828. She was a cousin to both George Washington Parke Custis and Molly Custis and was reportedly the godmother of Custis's daughter, Mary.

4 See pages 13, supra. James Parks is the only formerly enslaved person at Arlington House who is currently buried in a marked grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

5 Harlan Eugene Cross, "Letters Home: Three Years Under General Lee in the 6th Alabama" (2013: available on Amazon).

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