The Descendants of Robert E. Lee and the Workers He Enslaved Join Hands in Racial Reconciliation

The Confederate general’s Virginia home hosted families from all across the United States.

Looking over Washington
Descendants of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and descendants of slaves owned by Lee face Washington, DC, as they pose for a photo during a reunion at Lee's former plantation home, the Arlington House, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on April 22, 2023. (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

On a hill above Arlington National Cemetery on April 22, visitors from across the country gathered wearing light blue t-shirts that read, “Ask me about my family.” 

They had returned to the site, known as Arlington House, where their ancestors had once lived and worked, the site of the plantation once owned by Confederate general Robert E. Lee. And the families in question were not just descendants of the Lees but the Parks, the Grays, the Syphaxes, too—the enslaved people who managed and labored at the estate. 

Debbie Elliott of NPR reports that the attendees had been meeting virtually for the past two years to have conversations about racial reckoning, in a group known as the Family Circle. For many, the gathering last weekend represented the first time they met in person.

A photograph of Lee by Mathew B. Brady Metropolitan Museum of Art

“To have these families be apart and going their separate ways for 160 years, and then to be able to come back together to start a conversation about our lives and what we can do and accomplish together is extremely powerful,” Stephen Hammond, a docent and descendant of the enslaved Syphax family, tells NPR.

The roots of Arlington House go deep. George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington by her first marriage, built the house intending for it to serve as a memorial for his step-grandfather who raised him at Mount Vernon, according to the National Parks Service

His daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married a young West Point graduate named Robert Edward Lee, and the couple occupied the house from 1831 until 1861. The National Parks Service estimates that at least 100 enslaved people lived and worked there in the years before emancipation came at the end of the Civil War.

The Family Circle aims to recognize the intertwined historical narratives of the Lees and the enslaved families and reconcile them—a mission, members said, that seems especially crucial given the fierce debates taking place in the U.S. about history curricula in schools.

Carol Gleed Weaver, a descendant of enslaved workers from Arlington House, tells Joe Heim of the Washington Post, “We hope the rest of the country can come together as we have.”

Even with the National Parks Service's efforts in recent years to acknowledge the presence of enslaved labor at the historic site—a 2021 rehabilitation of the house highlights new scholarship of the lives of enslaved works—the group is asking for a name change. The official title is “Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.” The Family Circle proposes amending the name to simply Arlington House.

“I don't feel like we're taking the name away,” says Rob Lee, the general’s great-great-grandson, to NPR. “I think when you call it the Arlington House, you're just opening it up to more of the families who lived there, honestly. And I think it's just more appropriate.”

Congressmen Don Beyer and Tim Kaine have introduced legislation to change the name through an act of Congress.
House Exterior
A view of Arlington House from Section 32 of the cemetery (Public Domain)

Susan Glisson, a Mississippi historian, has played a substantial role in fostering the dialogue among Family Circle members. She tells NPR that “the past doesn't need to be an anchor. It should be a buoy.” 

By the end of the afternoon at Arlington House, tears and hugs were abundant in the outdoor courtyard, according to the Post. Cecilia Torres, a retired teacher from California and the great-great-granddaughter of Selina Gray and Thornton Gray, tells NPR that she felt a deep connection to her family heritage during the event.

“My great-great grandmother, she took care of this house and cleaned it for years, for like 30 years. So I feel like she's here, and she's glad I'm here too,” Torres says.

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