Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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The reinterpretation of our county’s most famous landmark continues apace.

At Arlington House on June 25, I was pleased to be a face in the crowd for the National Park Service reenactment of the 1821 wedding of two of the plantation’s enslaved persons.

The notion that this under-publicized historical anomaly would be officially commemorated in 2016 would have been inconceivable to Virginians just a few decades ago—let alone the 19th-century participants.

The recreated ceremony marrying Maria Carter and Charles Syphax was billed as “Reconstructing the Legacy of The First ‘First Family.’ ” The prelude to the event was a moving performance of Negro spirituals under the Arlington House portico for the tourist crowd by the Washington Revels Jubilee Voices.

But you needed a special ticket to pack the small parlor for the ceremony—the same room where Robert E. Lee married Mary Custis in 1831. (Selina Gray, Arlington House’s best known enslaved person, is also said to have been permitted to marry Thornton Gray there.)

This Syphax wedding was unusual at the time because the bride Maria was likely the unacknowledged daughter of Mount Vernon slave Arianna Carter and George Washington Parke Custis—before his 1804 marriage to Mary Lee Fitzhugh. Maria Syphax, though working as a slave, was emancipated well before the Civil War and favored in other ways by Custis. (She inherited 17 acres near what today is the Sheraton Hotel, but heirs had to fight for them.) “How much Mary and Maria may have known about each other, we do not know,” the Park Service writes, “but they grew up sharing the same spaces and possibly the same father.”

George Washington Parke Custis’s paternity case was first mentioned in an exhibit 15 years ago, but “it is now being pushed to the forefront,” said Ranger Matt Penrod, who is helping with renovations at Arlington House that will close it down in November. “We try to give all individuals their own identities. Selina Gray was known for loyalty in preserving Mrs. Lee’s belongings, but she was her own agent too.”

Arlington House will “cast a light on history that often gets overlooked because it doesn’t meet the criteria of what most Americans recognize,” Penrod told the gathered passionately. There will be “no more pushing this history aside.” While the house “may be recognized as the Robert E. Lee Memorial, it is much more. It is not a Confederate monument to preserve a special interpretation of history. History is here to tell the truth, whichever it may lead to.”

Slave weddings were not recognized in civil law, explained photographer Dean DeRosa, who played the Episcopal officiant. The bride in a period gown was played by Donna Kunkel, a fifth-generation Syphax who came all the way from California, I was told by Syphax family historian Steve Hammond. The spiffy groom was Arlington black heritage stalwart Craig Syphax, a fourth-generation descendant.

Arlington House is revamping its exhibits thanks to the donation from billionaire David Rubenstein, and it will coordinate with the soon-to-open National Museum of African American History.

The effort to spotlight Robert E. Lee’s handling of slavery on his property is a direct challenge to “the lost cause” myth that emerged in the South in the 1870s to minimize the peculiar institution, an approach the Park Service calls a “genteel and decontaminated narrative.”

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It appears no one can save the two-century-old Minor’s Hill house to which Dolley Madison fled the British in 1814, across the Arlington border in McLean.

My talks with neighbors revealed that the home—with wooden beams built by patriarch George Minor–has been a neighborhood conversation piece (there’s talk of a ghost). Neighbor Mike Ryan, a descendant of the Crimmins family that farmed Minor’s Hill after the Civil War, displays an 1899 photo of his ancestors at a nearby home under construction.

But the wrecking ball is coming. Wally Sansone, president of the Franklin Area Citizens Association, told me, “Many of us are sad to see this historic property developed.” But builders and the county say the demolition plan will “meet all applicable zoning laws and regulations.” An official historic marker is being considered.