Selina Norris Gray was a slave and personal maid to Mrs. Robert E. Lee, nevertheless without her intervention during the Civil War occupation of the Arlington Estate, the country’s revolutionary era heritage would have been greatly diminished.

Selina Norris Gray, the daughter of Leonard and Sally Norris, was a second-generation Arlington slave. Selina Norris and Thornton Gray were married by an Episcopal clergyman in the same room of the house where Mary Custis had married Robert E. Lee in 1831. While the church recognized the marriage, the union of slaves was not legally binding. Slaves, as property, could not enter into legally binding contracts. Selina and Thornton would have eight children and raised their family in a single room in the South Slave Quarters.

Selina was the personal maid of Mrs. Robert E. Lee and the two enjoyed a very close relationship. In 1861, under the threat of union occupation, the Lee family evacuated Arlington and Mrs. Lee left the household keys, symbolizing authority, responsibility and her trust to Selina Gray. Locked away inside Arlington House were many of the “Washington Treasures.” These pieces were cherished family heirlooms that had once belonged to Mrs. Lee’s great-grandmother, Martha Custis Washington, and President George Washington.

The United States Army assumed control of the Arlington Estate on May 24,1861. Later, U.S. Army officers occupied the house. When Mrs. Gray discovered some of the treasures had been stolen, she confronted the soldiers and ordered them “not to touch any of Mrs. Lee’s things.” Gray alerted General Irvin McDowell, commander of the United States troops, to the importance of the Washington heirlooms. The remaining pieces were sent to the Patent Office for safekeeping. Through Selina Gray’s efforts, many of the Washington pieces were saved for posterity.

(These articles were published by the National Park Service, Arlington House)

Civil War Era Stereogram photo of Selina Gray and two of her daughters
Civil War era stereogram believed to be enslaved housekeeper Selina Gray and two of her daughters.

NPS image

In 2014, the National Park Service acquired a rare and previously unknown Civil War era stereo view photograph of enslaved housekeeper Selina Gray and two of her daughters. This extraordinary find was made by National Park Service Volunteer Dean DeRosa while perusing the online auction website, eBay. The seller, based in England, had found the photograph in a box of “unwanted” photographs at a “boot fair” in Kent, England. The Arlington House friends group, Save Historic Arlington House, Inc., jumped into action to bid on the item and, against stiff competition, won the auction. The photograph itself is priceless and will be an invaluable addition to the park’s museum collection, as identifiable period images of enslaved people are extremely rare. Only one other Civil War period photograph taken on site at Arlington House of an enslaved person owned by the Custis and Lee family has ever been known to exist prior to this discovery and that person is unidentified.

Selina Gray was a woman of great importance to the history of Arlington House. A house maid from her youth, she developed a close relationship with Mary Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee’s wife. She was married in the same parlor as the Lee’s and she and her husband, Thornton, raised seven children in the small quarters behind Arlington House. When the Civil War began and the Lee family left Arlington, Mary Lee entrusted care and protection of the home and many valuables to Selina Gray. When Mrs. Gray learned of Union soldiers breaking into the mansion and stealing precious Washington family heirlooms she confronted their commander, General McDowell who removed the items for safekeeping. Selina and her family were freed by the will of George Washington Parke Custis in December, 1862, but continued to live on the estate for several years. Their descendents are numerous and some still live in the area. Her children were instrumental in the restoration of Arlington House in the 1920s and ’30s.