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Digging Up Dirt

Excavations at Arlington House, once home to Robert E. Lee, may show how to tell the story of Arlington slaves.

There were holes in the floor of the house last Thursday, holes that left visitors choosing their steps carefully. Two centuries ago, the small dwelling behind the mansion known as Arlington House was a home for slaves.

Today, that house and its twin across the mansion’s rear yard are the site of an archeological dig, exploring the history of slaves owned by the family of Robert E. Lee, the original owners of Arlington House. Those excavations have been going on since Nov. 10, but on Thursday, Nov. 20, board members of the Arlington Black Heritage Museum got their first look at the progress.

Excavations have uncovered shards of ceramic pottery, children’s marbles, bullets, smoke and cooking grease, as well as evidence of the day-to-day lives of slaves at the mansion.

It’s evidence of a story that was ignored in the past, said said Talmadge Williams, chairman of the museum board and president of the Arlington branch of the NAACP. Slavery was often left out of the history of Arlington — and with the descendants of Lee family slaves still living in the area, the story of Arlington House’s slaves is one of the most relevant parts of the mansion’s history.

“The story of Arlington House was told, but we were left out of it,” said Williams. “If we can get that information, we can pass it on to the youth. … They can go up there and see we made a contribution. But first we have to uncover it.”

But the excavations are really just the beginning of the process, said Kendall Thompson, National Park Service site manager at Arlington House. “We’ve got to make a lot of decisions before we finish this project,” he said.

IN A TRENCH behind Arlington House, archeologists are looking through earth undisturbed since the mansion was built in 1802. Artifacts like ceramic shards have been found in the trenchm artifacts that may have belonged to Arlington slaves, said Patrick O’Neill, lead archeologist on the project from archeological firm Louis Berger & Associates.

The trench marks the spot where foundation work would have been taken place during construction of the house. It was built for the family of George Washington Parke Custis, stepson of George Washington and father-in-law to Robert E. Lee.

While Custis oversaw design and construction of the house, the actual labor was most likely done by his slaves, say park personnel. So the ceramic shards and other artifacts found in the trench could tell part of the story of Arlington House’s slaves.

But other ceramic shards found in the slave quarters behind the mansion are definitely artifacts of the mansion’s slave population, say archeologists. From atop a hill in the center of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington House looks out over the Potomac at the Lincoln and Washington Memorials.

The two slave houses, or dependencies, do not command quite as impressive a view. Walking out the back door of Arlington House, the dependencies sit at the north and south ends of the rear yard. Both included dwelling quarters for the slaves who worked in the House, as servants and cooks – in addition, the building to the north housed Arlington House’s summer kitchen, and the south dependency included a smokehouse and store room.

FLOOR BOARDS IN the north dependency were gone, leaving museum board members to tread carefully around a central hole in the floor.

Excavations over the last week and research over the past year have revealed the real design of the summer kitchen in the house, said Chuck Fischer, a historian with the Park Service.

A basement covered by the current floor actually served as the kitchen, accessible from the front door. Overhead, quarters for Arlington House cook George Clark, a slave, made up a now non-existent second floor. “We pulled up the brick in the kitchen floor, and have found evidence that was dirt,” said O’Neill.

Such discoveries are key to telling an accurate story of how Arlington’s slaves lived, said Thompson. “We weren’t telling the story of the enslaved people because we didn’t know what it was,” he said. “We’re finding out now.”

Earlier renovations of Arlington House made some efforts to tell the stories of the slave families that lived there. In the 1930s, The U.S. Army carried out renovations based in part on recollections of former slaves who lived there before emancipation.

“Unfortunately, they didn’t all agree,” said Thompson. In the 1960s, the Park Service tried to make the slave dependencies more accurate to their original structures, but current renovations show the Army renovations “were about 90 percent right,” Thompson said.

AT THE SOUTH dependency, the Park Service opened an exhibit about the family of Selina Gray, the housemaid for Mary Custis Lee. Archeologists digging in that room have uncovered shards of ceramics and children’s toys — some of which may have originally furnished rooms for residents of the Mount Vernon mansion of George Washington.

“As things were chipped or broken, they were given to the enslaved people,” said Thompson. “A lot of stuff still in the house came from Mount Vernon, so it could have ended up out here.”

EXCAVATIONS IN the dependencies are valuable, said Talmadge Williams, because they uncover untold stories. But it’s still not the whole story.

“What they’re doing is going to give us information on the slaves who worked in the house,” he said, while digs in the woods behind Arlington House could uncover artifacts of the slaves who worked in the mansion’s fields.

More research is going to take more money, and the Park Service faces a looming deadline, said Thompson. The current excavations are funded by a $150,000 grant that requires the parks to find matching private donations. So far, only $30,000 in private donations has been collected, and access to the remaining $120,000 in grant money runs out at the end of 2003.

Arlington’s Black Heritage Museum and NAACP branch will push for donations to a fund for research at Arlington House, said Williams. “We’re encouraging people to send donations. We will stress the need to contribute.”

If that money comes, said Thompson, future visitors to Arlington House could see more accurate examples of how the mansion’s African slaves lived.

“Restoration is funded only as far as the work you see,” he said. “If everything moved apace, we could be finished by 2007. But we don’t have everything in place for that right now.”