Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


Arlington’s namesake home is planning a small makeover.

At an Arlington Cemetery auditorium last month I was privileged to sit in on a National Park Service historians roundtable discussing how the well-visited Arlington House–the Robert E. Lee Memorial might modernize its portrayal of blacks, women and plantation domestic life.

Park Service regional historian Dean Herrin expressed gratitude to Washington philanthropist David Rubenstein for last year’s $12.5 million gift to the National Park Foundation that will be used to upgrade exhibits.

Then the highly civil discussion turned to more delicate topics…such as racial bias and 19th-century sex between masters and slaves.

Dana Shoaf, editor of Civil War Times, presented a slide show of selected covers of his magazine since 1962. He dramatized the dozens of times Lee was showcased, but noted when the occasional African American or women were featured, newsstand sales were not high.

Michael Twitty, an engaging chef and African-American history blogger who tours former plantations, offered a fascinating link between the cuisine that originated with clans in West Africa and dishes that survive in Virginia, the Carolinas and Maryland. He criticized the docents at some former plantations who tell tourists more about the opulent furnishings than the harsh realities of slavery. He spoke of the “whistling walk,” the pathway between the kitchen and the main house on which enslaved servers had to whistle to demonstrate to the master they were not sampling food.

Perhaps the hardest-hitting talk was delivered by Stephen Hammond, a retired U.S. Geological Survey professional who now does historical research as a seventh-generation member of the Syphax family.

The Syphaxes were among the key slave families at Arlington House–Charles Syphax oversaw the dining room and was the enslaved community’s unofficial leader.

Hammond suggested that the stucco slave quarters outside the mansion may not have been typical given the makeshift huts in lowland woods where the enslaved more likely lodged. He hopes the Park Service conducts more research on the 57 slaves George Washington Parke Custis inherited from Mount Vernon.

Most intriguingly, he proposed a clearer declaration of the not-dwelled-upon relationship between the master Custis and the enslaved Arianna Carter. In 1803 it produced a mixed-race child, Maria Carter, who would go on to marry a Syphax and raise 10 children on the plantation. Though handed down through lore, the story Hammond envisions is that Custis, on inheriting land and human property after Martha Washington’s death in 1802, felt “he could do what he wants.”

The Park Service website makes no secret of the relationship, adding a statement that Custis in 1826 acknowledged paternity, freed Maria Carter and gave her 15 acres. “She’s a sister-in-law of Robert E. Lee—there’s a direct relationship,” Hammond says.

Mary Thompson, research historian at Mount Vernon, told me that information on the former Mount Vernon slaves is limited. But the Custis paternity story “seems pretty well documented” and others thought to be his children were freed, she said.

“The purpose of the outside historians is to give the park and exhibit designers a better understanding of modern scholarship and perspectives on important aspects of history that might have been otherwise overlooked,” Part Ranger Matt Penrod said afterward. “The ultimate goal is to make the new exhibits more comprehensive in scope, from multiple perspectives, in order to tell the story of Arlington House more thoroughly.”

* * *

If you grew up in Arlington, you may recall the time you got your driver’s license and eventually ventured over to Speed Hill.

It’s still there, hidden off Nellie Custis Drive and hugging the Potomac along the 2700 block of North Quebec Street. Many a rookie driver as far back as the 1960s tested his (parents’) vehicle speedometer on what was reputed to be the steepest hill in Arlington. I recall at one point worried authorities made it one-way—going up.

Today it’s two-way street, lined by beautiful upscale homes, inhabitants of which, I was recently told, call it Death Hill. May all who experience it drive safely.