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They're strangers with a painful shared bond: Robert E. Lee enslaved their ancestors

Descendants of the enslavers and the enslaved unite for a family portrait at the Arlington House, the former plantation once owned by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Custis Lee.
Dee Dwyer for NPR
Descendants of the enslavers and the enslaved unite for a family portrait at the Arlington House, the former plantation once owned by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Custis Lee.

ARLINGTON, Va. — There was a one-of-a-kind reunion over the weekend at Arlington House, the national memorial to Robert E. Lee that sits atop a hill in Arlington National Cemetery. Descendants of the Confederate general gathered with the descendants of the people the Lee family once enslaved on the property in Virginia.

Many of them are seeing one another in person for the first time after meeting virtually for the last two years in pursuit of racial understanding in what's known as the Family Circle.

"I'm on this committee, the Family Circle, to bring back the memories of our ancestors, as well as reconcile with the family that enslaved them," says Cecilia Torres, a retired teacher from California. She's the great-great-granddaughter of Selina Gray and Thornton Gray.

Selina Gray was the personal house servant to Robert E. Lee's wife, Mary Custis Lee, at Arlington House. To show how deep the roots are here — Mrs. Lee inherited the plantation home, surrounding land, and the enslaved African Americans working there from her father George Washington Parke Custis. He was Martha Washington's grandson.

Cecelia Torres' great-great grandmother was the personal house servant to Robert E. Lee's wife at Arlington House. Torres is part of the group working to bring back memories of her ancestors, as well as reconcile with the family that enslaved them.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
Cecilia Torres' great-great-grandmother was the personal house servant to Robert E. Lee's wife at Arlington House. Torres is part of the group working to bring back memories of her ancestors, as well as reconcile with the family that enslaved them.

This is the first time Torres has been back to Arlington House since she was a child. Back then, she says, she got a sanitized take on the family history.

She wouldn't say "a slave"

"My grandmother kept trying to push it on us when she would bring us up here — 'That's your great-great-grandmother's house. She was kind of like a maid to Mrs. Lee,'" Torres recalls. "She wouldn't say a slave."

For decades, there was little public acknowledgment of the enslaved people who cared for Arlington House, but in the last few years the National Park Service has created a more inclusive experience, like restoring the cramped slave quarters where Selina and Thornton Gray lived with their eight children.

Torres walks inside and asks, "What? How are 10 people going to sleep in here?"

Torres says being here to see this and unite with the Family Circle gives her chills.

"It's spooky in a way, but it's also reassuring," she says. "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."

An informational sign about the Gray family at Arlington House.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
An informational sign about the Gray family at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.
On Saturday April 22, 2023 at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial during the Finding Our Voice public program by descendant families of Arlington House Plantation.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
About 100 people gathered Saturday at Arlington House, the national memorial to Gen. Robert E. Lee, in Virginia.

The celebration on the grounds of Arlington House on Saturday was called "Finding Our Voice" and drew about a hundred people.

"We are at the first ever reunion of descendants of this space," said emcee Stephen Hammond, a docent, who is a descendant of the enslaved Syphax family.

"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," Hammond says.

Finding Our Voice organizer Steven Hammond was among the participants at Saturday's Arlington House reunion. "So much of the time, we're talking past each other. We're not talking to each other."
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
Finding Our Voice organizer Stephen Hammond was among the participants at Saturday's Arlington House reunion. "So much of the time, we're talking past each other. We're not talking to each other."

Honoring the legacy of the families of the enslaved

He's been working with the National Park Service to honor the legacy of the families enslaved at Arlington House, because he says the house would not have existed without slave labor.

"They built the plantation house. They took care of the fields. ... They took care of the livestock. And they took care of the people," he says. "So their stories are just as important as those stories of the people who enslaved them."

During renovations two years ago the park service helped start the Family Circle dialogue, bringing together descendants of everyone who had a role here.

Among them is Rob Lee.

"I am Gen. Lee's great-great-grandson, and I am Robert E. Lee the Fifth," he says.

Lee and his sister, Tracy Lee Crittenberger, say they were surprised at first that the descendants of the enslaved families wanted to get to know them, but they've found the conversations fruitful.

Tracy Lee Crittenberg (L) with her daughter Lee at Arlington House. "I think where people would like to paint us as a certain way being General Lee's grandchildren ... But that's not how at all we were raised to be."
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
Tracy Lee Crittenberger (left) with her daughter Lee at Arlington House. "I think where people would like to paint us as a certain way being Gen. Lee's grandchildren. ... But that's not how at all we were raised to be."

"Everybody was so gracious and everyone really just looked at, who are you right now? Who is sitting zoom across from me? And we started from there," says Crittenberger. "And then your story is your story. But what your ancestors did doesn't have to necessarily impact who you are."

That's not how we were raised to be

"I think where people would like to paint us as a certain way being General Lee's grandchildren," Lee says. "But that's not how at all we were raised to be."

The siblings are eager to see what comes from the Family Circle process.

"If this conversation can become a blueprint for other people, that would be a whole separate victory," says Crittenberger.

The work is being guided by Susan Glisson, a Mississippi historian who has worked for years to help disparate groups reckon with the country's fraught racial history.

It's happening as some conservative politicians are pushing laws that would restrict frank discussions of race.

Historian Susan Glisson helps people reckon with the country's fraught racial history. "The past doesn't need to be an anchor. It should be a buoy. The past is a navigational tool to point us into a better way to be."
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
Historian Susan Glisson helps people reckon with the country's fraught racial history. "The past doesn't need to be an anchor. It should be a buoy. The past is a navigational tool to point us into a better way to be."

"The past doesn't need to be an anchor. It should be a buoy. And that's how the circle sees this," Glisson says. "The past is a navigational tool to point us into a better way to be."

Glisson says it's significant that Robert E. Lee, the Confederate figure so revered by some and loathed by others can be the catalyst for this work.

"These families refuse to allow him to be a figure of division and instead take the opportunity to come together and grapple with hard history and find the family tie that exists," she says.

It's about building relationships says Cecilia Torres.

"At the end of the day, we're all friends, we're all able to talk about things that are difficult without fighting or being in our feelings or angry," Torres says.

Some of the newfound relationships have been transforming.

On Saturday April 22, 2023 about a hundred people came to the Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial. They gathered for the Finding Our Voice program by descendant families of Arlington House Plantation.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
On Saturday, about 100 people came to the Arlington House for the Finding Our Voice program.
On Saturday April 22, 2023 at Arlington House families hold hands during a healing circle at the Finding Our Voice program.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
Families hold hands during a healing circle at the Finding Our Voice program Saturday.

"The generosity coming from the descendants of people who my ancestors hurt so horribly, it feels like an incredible gift," says Sarah Fleming. Her fourth great-grandfather was Robert E. Lee's uncle.

"We all grew up being very excited that we were connected to the Lees," she says. "We also grew up knowing slavery was horrible, but the family didn't talk about the space in between, that the Lees were enslavers."

Providing a forum to explore that space holds promise, says Stephen Hammond, among the organizers of the Family Circle.

"I think this opportunity is presented that allows our country to repair itself and to heal over some of the division that we've had for so long," Hammond says. "So much of the time, we're talking past each other. We're not talking to each other."

The group is pushing to change the official designation of Arlington House to drop Robert E. Lee's name and make it a national historic site that embraces the full history here. It will take an act of Congress.

Sarah Fleming a descendant of the Lee family at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial during the Finding Our Voice public program by descendant families of Arlington House Plantation.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
Sarah Fleming, a descendant of the Lee family, at Arlington House during the Finding Our Voice program.

Lee's direct descendants support the name change.

"I don't feel like we're taking the name away," says Rob Lee. "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."

Organizers say they want to see this historic descendant reunion become a yearly celebration.

The gathering held special significance for Leah Coleman, an African American park ranger at Arlington House. She came to tears taking in all in.

"Just seeing all of these people come together in this moment, at this site, it just symbolizes hope for me — hope for our country, because if they can do it, we all can do it," she says.

"It means the world to me."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The descendants of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and those of the people the Lee family enslaved came together for the first time at Arlington House, the national memorial to Lee in Virginia on Saturday, April 22, 2023.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
The descendants of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and those of the people the Lee family enslaved came together for the first time at Arlington House on Saturday.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.