Recently, Congressman Don Beyer asked the Arlington Historical Society for historical perspective on Arlington House. Here is the full statement that AHS provided:
Arlington House, a distinctive landmark, is owned by the federal government and located in Arlington, Virginia. The estate was built in the early 1800’s, by George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington and adopted son of U.S. President George Washington. The name of the estate is derived from the name of a Custis plantation on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. However, some historians also link the name to an ancestral family home in Gloucester, England. It is noted that Custis originally planned to name the estate in honor of George Washington but was dissuaded by family members.
Over the years, the estate has been historically significant. Key periods of this significance include:
- The Custis family as occupants of the house: When the Custis family occupied the house, it was also considered a monument to the first president of the United States. Custis had on display many of the items owned by George Washington prior to his death. In addition to the Custis family, there were approximately sixty slaves, many who played significant roles in the history of the estate.
- The Lee family as occupants of the house: Robert E. Lee married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, daughter of G.W. P. Custis and Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis in 1831 and he and his wife raised their family at the estate. After the death of G.W.P. Custis in 1857, Robert E. Lee was named the executor of his will and managed the estate for several years.
- The estate as the military headquarters for the Union: When Robert E. Lee resigned his U.S. Army commission to serve with Virginia, he departed from the estate. Early in the war, General McDowell used the estate and headquarters for his staff. Other Union generals who had headquarters at the estate included General Heintzelman and General Whipple.
- The estate as the site of Freedman’s Village: In 1863, the grounds of the estate were selected to build a Freedman’s Village to house the formerly enslaved. The village which lasted until it was closed by 1900 was designed to be a model community and historians believe Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass were visitors during its existence.
- The estate as the site of a national cemetery: Originally designated as a cemetery for military dead, it is now the final resting place for some of the most prominent people in the United States, including presidents, Supreme Court justices, and other dignitaries.
The Arlington Historical Society recognizes the historical significance of this estate and the recent efforts to share a history of the estate that encompasses all the eras described above. We are especially interested in the residents of the Freedman’s Village as many of those residents resettled in communities throughout our county and became some of our early leaders. We support any future efforts to share a more complete and inclusive history of the estate.
The Board of the Arlington Historical Society does not believe AHS should take a position on any future name change of the government owned estate. The emphasis of the site including its name has changed repeatedly over the past century, reflecting the mores of the time. It has never had just one, unchanging identity. Therefore, we believe our role is to provide historical context that will allow the people authorizing a name change to make an informed decision.
Representative Beyer has since issued the following statement to the press:
Beyer, Local Delegation Introduce Legislation To End Arlington House’s Designation As A “Robert E. Lee. Memorial”
December 15, 2020 (Washington, D.C.) – Rep. Don Beyer today introduced federal legislation to remove the designation of Arlington House as a memorial to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The legislation, which was partially inspired by the request of descendants of people who were enslaved at Arlington House, was cosponsored by Virginia Representatives Gerry Connolly and Jennifer Wexton, and by D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.
“We are presently engaged in a long-overdue reckoning with the history of racism and slavery in America and in our own community, which has appropriately included a reexamination of public symbols. I absolutely support that process, including actions that make it clear we do not revere Confederate leaders or condone the enslavement of human beings,” said Beyer. “Robert E. Lee himself opposed erecting Confederate monuments, and the site was chosen to punish his insurrection against the lawful government of the United States. Arlington House has a larger history which deserves memorialization and reflection, and it is therefore fitting and just that Congress remove the designation of Arlington House as a Memorial to Robert E. Lee.”
Beyer consulted with local officials and interested parties while working on the legislation, including the Arlington Historical Society, which wrote:
“The Arlington Historical Society recognizes the historical significance of this estate and the recent efforts to share a history of the estate that encompasses all the eras [through which it has been a distinctive landmark]. We are especially interested in the residents of the Freedman’s Village as many of those residents resettled in communities throughout our county and became some of our early leaders. We support any future efforts to share a more complete and inclusive history of the estate.”
The mansion, which sits on federal land within Arlington National Cemetery and is administered by the National Park Service, overlooks the Potomac River and the nation’s capital. The house was built by Martha Custis Washington’s son, George Washington Parke Custis, as the nation’s first memorial to George Washington. Later, his daughter married Robert E. Lee and lived in the home until the Civil War, during which the site was chosen to serve as a national military cemetery in part to prevent Lee from returning. Congress passed legislation in 1955 designating the house the “Custis-Lee Mansion” to memorialize Lee, and subsequently amended the official title to “Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.”
Beyer’s legislation would remove the latter part of that designation and return the house to its original name “Arlington House.” He introduced the bill a week after both chambers of Congress voted with overwhelming support for the National Defense Authorization Act, which included measures renaming military bases previously named after Confederate generals.