Interpreting Slavery at Arlington House
Last week I finally got to see the National Park Service’s new exhibit on the life of the enslaved at Arlington House, which still retains the designation, “The Robert E. Lee Memorial.” This may change in the near future. Arlington House has undergone a major restoration and the north and south slave quarters, located behind the home, are now fully interpreted. Some of you may remember that the site’s bookstore was once located in the slave quarters.
My expectations were high going into this visit and I was not disappointed.
There are a number of challenges associated with interpreting slavery at Arlington House. The first is apparent to anyone who visits. The plantation home is surrounded by the beautifully manicured and hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery. The landscape on which the enslaved work as well as the Freedman’s Village, which housed hundreds of former slaves for decades after the Civil War are difficult, if not impossible, to imagine.
The other problem is Robert E. Lee himself. The history and memory of Lee has long been central to how the NPS interpreted the site and how the general public perceived the home. Even a cursory examination of the history of the property, however, suggests how minor a figure Lee was to the home. Lee spent relatively little time at Arlington before the war. Yes, he was married at Arlington and made the decision to resign his commission in the United States Army there, but he overshadows George Washington Parke Custis, who built and managed the property and the lives of the enslaved themselves. He also overshadows the use of the home by the federal government both during and after the war.
The October 1992 issue of Southern Living magazine offered the following description of Arlington House:
Imagination can make the difference between-ho-hum-visiting another historical home really understanding why Gen. Robert E. Lee described Arlington House as the place to which his ‘affections and attachments are more strongly placed than anywhere else in the world.’
How difficult it must have been, then, to leave this home for the uncertainty of war against a country he loved. As you stand in Lee’s upstairs bedroom, picture a rather drawn, exhausted husband and father bent over the desk in the corner, writing a letter of resignation from the Army he’d served for 32 years.
You would think from reading the article that Lee built the home with his two hands and that he lived in the home only with his wife and children.
I couldn’t be more pleased to see that the NPS is finally placing the lives of the enslaved front and center for its visitors. Visitors will notice the new exhibits behind the house, but the staff has also made changes to the very language they use to discuss the enslaved and their relationship to the Lee-Custis family. [This is all laid out in a document that will soon be made available on the park’s website.]
“The National Park Service is committed to telling the stories of all the enslaved people,” visitors are told, “who are known to have lived and labored on the estate.” The staff at Arlington have embraced a set of values that include: Honesty, Holistic, Dialogue, Honor, and Accountability.
A list of bullet points or “non-negotiables” now frames the overall interpretation:
Slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War.
The reason why the Confederacy went to war was the preservation of the institution of chattel slavery. This may differ from the individual reason why some men enlisted to fight for the Confederacy.
Based on the Syphax family history and documentation, including Maria Syphax’s emancipation and the land gifted to her by George Washington Parke Custis, we believe that Maria Syphax was the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis and an enslaved woman named Arianna Carter. The nature of their relationship is unknown, however the power dynamics of enslavement negate the idea of consent.
Enslaved people exercised agency in various ways within the institution of enslavement.
There is no such thing as a “good master” as there is not good aspect of owning people.
The term “loyal slave” is irrelevant because enslaved people did not have a choice.
Race was used as a justification for chattel slavery in the United States.
Visitors will be heard but Confederate-supporting ideas (e.g. the myth of the Lost Cause) won’t be validated because they contradict the ideals of this site.
Here are a couple example of the shift in language that has been implemented and reasoning behind it:
From Owner/Master to Slaveholder: Slaveholder refers to a person who held others in bondage. “Slaveholder” best describes the non-regional character of North American slavery. Too often, “slaveholder” is used synonymously with the term “Southerner.” Certainly, slavery was widespread throughout the American South, more so than any other part of the United States.
From Discipline to Torture: Violence enacted against those who resisted enslavement in large and small ways was retribution for their acts of resistance. The physical, mental, and emotional violence of those acts of retribution are torture. These included beating, threats and/or enactment of selling family members apart, sexual assault, bodily mutilation, and other acts of brutality were carried out publicly designed to destroy the will to pursue freedom at any cost.
From Runaway, Escapee, Fugitive to Freedom Seeker: “Freedom seeker refers to an enslaved person who risked everything to seek their liberty. some of these brave freedom seekers returned, risking everything again to help free others still in bondage. This term refers to their courage and determination.
Trading & Middle Passage to Kidnapping/Human trafficking: The events of the trans-Atlantic slave trade were human trafficking, in which people were kidnapped and sold. To call it a less offensive name is historically inaccurate and perpetuates historical whitewashing.
The new exhibits were a mixed bag for me. I thoroughly enjoyed the short video, which features descendants of Arlington’s enslaved and their thoughts on the meaning that the site holds for their respective families. There is plenty of information about life on the plantation, but the spaces are interpreted to give the visitor a sense of life for the enslaved, who worked mainly in the house and closely with the Custis-Lee families.
My concern, which I expressed to our guide, is that it leaves visitors with a distorted understanding of what life was like for the hundreds of enslaved who, at one time, lived on the Custis-Lee plantation. The items contained in the above image may be historically correct for these particular families, but it runs the risk of undercutting the emphasis on violence that the NPS hopes to highlight in their shifts in language. I can easily imagine people walking away thinking that slavery wasn’t so bad, which would underct everything the staff is hoping to achieve. Perhaps at some point a cabin can be constructed on site that is more reflective of the reality of domestic life for the enslaved.
I also suggested that an exhibit is needed to interpret the torture of Wesley and Mary Norris and George Parks in 1859. The NPS acknowledges this incident on its website and many historians acknowledge the veracity of the story. It’s another way to challenge the Lost Cause image of Lee, but it also speaks to the reality that so many enslaved men and women were forced to endure.
Again, interpreting this particular site is extremely difficult for the reasons I suggested above. Our guide asked us for feedback on the exhibits and added that everything is still a work in progress. Everyone I talked to on the NPS staff at Arlington is extremely excited about the changes that have been made. This is also reflected in the fact that no one currently on site has been there longer than about a year, which means that they are not wedded to previous interpretive frameworks.
I highly recommend checking out the new exhibits next time you are in D.C. It’s always encouraging to see popular historic sites, like Arlington House, taking steps to ensure that their visitors are introduced to an inclusive, complex, and challenging interpretation.
Thanks for reading Civil War Memory! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.