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Telling the Whole Story

Exhibits tell the story of forgotten slaves at Arlington House.

<i>Note: Over the course of February, in observance of Black History Month, the Arlington Connection has profiled some of the historical sites featured in the Black Heritage Museum’s new brochure, “African American History in Arlington,” concluding this week with a look at the black history inherent in Arlington’s namesake.</i>

In a crowd of people moving past the front porch of Arlington House Monday, one tourist looked out over the Potomac River and said, “I wonder what Robert E. Lee saw when he looked out there.”

Questions about the great Confederate general have dominated discussion from most tourists for years, say representatives from the U.S. Park Service, who manage the property.

But thanks to new efforts by the Park Service and the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington, remembering the most famous resident of the mansion doesn’t mean ignoring those who built and maintained the lush estate with backbreaking forced labor.

Until recently, “there wouldn’t have been any mention of black history associated with the house,” said Joe Wurzer, a Park Service representative and tour guide at Arlington House.

But the Black Heritage Museum included the site in its brochure “African American History in Arlington, Virginia,” and staff members have begun giving daily tours of permanent exhibits of local black history.

Now, those who work at the site are seeing a rising interest from tourists and local residents alike. “It’s been quite a wonderful experience to bring forth such a buried story,” said Joy Kinard, who often conducts the tours.

Kinard, who is black, says that awareness of black history is important in and of itself. But the most impressive feature of the Arlington House exhibit, she said, is that the emphasis is on black people as part of the larger American history.

Matt Penrod, a Park Service ranger who works at Arlington House, agreed that tours and exhibits “integrate the story into the overall story.”

Black history’s exclusion from the story of Arlington House for so long makes no sense, he said. “Arlington wouldn’t have existed the way it did without slaves.”

SLAVES OF George Washington Parke Custis, adopted grandson of George Washington, began construction of the mansion in 1802 and completed it in 1818. Slaves maintained the house, along with the 1,100 acres of land around it, for decades.

The estate was run as an “experimental plantation,” meaning that black slaves were responsible for implementing unconventional farming techniques, in some cases advanced for the time.

Evidence suggests that the Custis-Lee family treated their slaves well, developing close relationships with some. In fact, when Mary Anne Randolph Custis Lee, Gen. Lee’s wife, was forced to abandon the property in 1861, she trusted slave Selina Gray with keys to the estate.

Union troops occupied the house soon afterwards and began looting some of the heirlooms of the Lee, Custis and Washington families. Gray dared to confront the soldiers, warning them “never to touch any of Miss Mary’s things.”

Eventually she persuaded commanding Gen. Irvin McDowell to send the heirlooms to the U.S. Patent Office for safekeeping, thus saving many of the nation’s prized historical relics, which had been used by George Washington himself.

PHYSICAL REMAINS of two slave quarters heighten the appeal of Arlington House for studying black history. The two buildings were constructed of brick and stucco, rather than the typical wooden shanties that made up most slave quarters of the time.

Some experts believe the two slave quarters were designed by the same architect who planned the mansion, as elements of Classical architectural style are evident in all three buildings. In all three buildings, recessed panels in the walls above windows show faded artwork probably painted by George Washington Parke Custis.

Despite the architectural adornment, the cramped quarters that often housed entire families serve as a reminder of the conditions that many blacks endured in 19th century America.

TELLING THE HISTORY of slaves can be a source of pride and inspiration rather than shame, said Talmadge Williams, president of the Arlington NAACP.

Older generations of Arlingtonians learned the history of the Washington, Custis and Lee families without hearing any mention of the black slaves who also lived and worked on the property.

That’s part of the reason black students have lagged behind other students in history classes, Williams said. If their ancestors are excluded from the story, black children don’t feel they have a stake in American history.

By uncovering the story of black Arlingtonians throughout history, the Black Heritage Museum and the National Park Service let visitors to Arlington House know not just what Robert E. Lee might have seen looking over the Potomac.

They can also find out what he would have seen looking out his back window.