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Former Robert E. Lee home reopens: Confederate general’s mansion overhauled

The historic Arlington House mansion is seen at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., in July 2014. The historic house and plantation originally built as a monument to George Washington overlooking the nation’s capital that later was home to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and 63 slaves is being restored to its historical appearance. (AP photo/Cliff Owen)

FALLS CHURCH, Va.

— The Virginia mansion where Robert E. Lee once lived that now overlooks Arlington National Cemetery is open to the public again, after a $12 million rehabilitation and reinterpretation that includes an increased emphasis on those who were enslaved there.

The National Park Service opened Arlington House to the public on June 8 for the first time since 2018. The mansion and surrounding grounds had been expected to reopen in 2019, but delays and the coronavirus pandemic extended the closure.

The rehabilitation was funded by philanthropist David Rubenstein, who has also donated millions for the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and other historical sites around the D.C. region.

The mansion, which commands an unrivaled view of the nation’s capital and the Potomac River, is best known as the home of the Confederate general leading up to the Civil War. But its history goes beyond Lee.

George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of George Washington, built the mansion as a memorial of sorts to the country’s first president. Robert E. Lee came to Arlington House after he married Custis’ daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis.

Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, formerly named the Custis-Lee Mansion, reopens to the public for the first time since 2018 at Arlington National Cemetery on June 8 in Arlington, Va. The Virginia mansion where Robert E. Lee once lived that now overlooks Arlington National Cemetery is open to the public again, after a $12 million rehabilitation and reinterpretation that includes an increased emphasis on those who were enslaved there. (AP photo)

In telling the stories of the people who were enslaved there, historians must contend with the fact that oftentimes little is written about enslaved populations. While Arlington House has extensive records in a few cases, the problem exists there just as it does elsewhere, said Charles Cuvelier, superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the National Park Service unit that manages Arlington House.

“Our efforts are to illuminate those layers of history to the best of our ability,” he said.

New exhibits and materials at Arlington House include the enslaved Syphax and Norris families. Descendants of Charles and Maria Syphax can trace their lineage back to Parke Custis, who fathered children with Maria’s mother, Arianna Carter, also a slave.

The Norris family included Wesley Norris, who according to some accounts escaped from Arlington House in 1859 when Lee was managing the estate. When Norris was captured, Lee insisted that Norris be whipped 50 times and that the wounds be washed with brine, according to newspaper accounts, including one given by Norris directly to an anti-slavery newspaper.

Steve Hammond, a descendant of the Syphax family who is now a trustee of the Arlington House Foundation, said he believes the new interpretive materials do a better job of telling the site’s full history.

“It’s going to be much more focused on everyone who has lived on that historic piece of property,” he said.

Hammond has led efforts to remove Lee’s name from Arlington House, whose formal name is “Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.” Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., introduced congressional legislation to change the name in the last session and plans to try again this session.

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