With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

A Painful Shared Bond: Their Ancestors were Enslaved by Robert E. Lee

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.

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.

"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.


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.

Read entire article at NPR