The Many Voices of Arlington Plantation
The memorial wall in this room contains the names of the indentured, enslaved, and free laborers who built and contributed to the Arlington House plantation. Inventories, manumission instruments, family letters, diaries, and recollections have helped us identify the names you see. The wall remains a work in progress as many individuals—their names unknown—also lived, worked, and died on the plantation.
The Longest Wait
On his deathbed, George Washington Parke Custis called some of the enslaved into his room and told them they would be freed. But with the plantation in debt, under Virginia law the estate’s executor Robert E. Lee could not immediately fulfill Custis’ promise. Some northern newspapers took up the story because Lee delayed in freeing the enslaved. Lee was legally required to manumit them in 1862 because of Custis’ will. Lee legally freed the 196 people enslaved by Custis in December 1862.
"They of the Arlington House, say that they were called into the room, and stood by the deathbed of their master, and that after having taken leave of each of them personally, he told them that he had left them, and all his servants, their freedom."-—New York Times, December 30, 1857
“The said slaves to be emancipated by my executors in such manner as to my executors may seem most expedient and proper, the said emancipation to be accomplished in not exceeding five years from the time of my decease.” –Will of George Washington Parke Custis, 1855
The Roads to Freedom
Freedom was not some remote dream to the men and women of Arlington’s enslaved community. They lived alongside free African Americans, sometimes in the same household. They worked just across the river from Washington, DC, home of a thriving free black community and a strong abolitionist movement. Many of the enslaved men and women resisted the institution of slavery. Some ran away, while others waited for the estate’s owner to die, hoping his will would free them. Some refused to work and others committed acts of quiet resistance.
“We Considered Ourselves Free”
When George Washington Parke Custis died in 1857, the plantation was in deep financial trouble. To pay off the estate’s debts, Robert E. Lee forced the enslaved to grow additional crops. Lee also hired out Wesley Norris and other enslaved individuals to other plantations. In 1859 Norris, his sister Mary Norris, and his cousin George Parks fled north, as others on the plantation had done before. They were captured in Maryland. As punishment, Lee ordered a sheriff to whip them and wash their wounds with saltwater.
“We were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free.”–Wesley Norris, 1866
“The ingratitude & bad conduct of these slaves…has wounded me sorely, some of them now whom I least expected such conduct have done worst of all.”–Mary Lee, May 1, 1858
“The Shores of Africa”
In 1853 some members of the Burke family — once enslaved at Arlington Plantation—set sail for Liberia and a new life. The Burkes traveled with help from the American Colonization Society, founded to remove and resettle former slaves in Africa. George Washington Parke Custis supported the society and envisioned a “flourishing Republic [rising] on the shores of Africa.” Although the Burkes prospered in Liberia, many colonists fell ill and died shortly after arrival.
“I love Africa and would not exchange it for America.”–Rosabella Burke, letter to Mary Custis Lee
A settlement south of Monrovia, Liberia. After more than 50 days at sea, six members of the Burke family arrived in Monrovia. They built a farm in the countryside, dubbed “Mount Rest” by William Burke.
To resist slavery, enslaved men and women broke tools or worked slower. At Arlington, they also took small items from the mansion. When the Arlington woods caught on fire, Perry Parks ignored Custis’ orders more than once before acting. The enslaved community protected its members. With quiet resistance, they proved that the system of slavery could not break them down.
“They are only one more item to the number that have disappeared. Perhaps taken off by Spirits, I know not where.” –Robert E. Lee, on the disappearance of his new trousers, 1860
An act of defiance or children playing? An enslaved child put a dab of red paint on a soldier’s nose in George Washington Parke Custis’ The Battle of Trenton. The painting is on display in the mansion, although the red dot has been removed.
A Split-Level Space
Historically, this space was split into two rooms, one above the other. Through the glass floor, you can see the lower room. Eleanor Harris, the housekeeper, lived on the upper level of this space. “Old Daniel” Dotson, a butler and coachman, lived in the lower level. He also picked up the mail in Washington, DC, where he likely interacted with the city’s free African American community.
“Tell Elinor [Eleanor Harris] to fix up the house and have something over from a market for me to eat.” –George Washington Parke Custis
“Daniel was sent to town today. When he came in I felt there was a letter for me, but Grandpa put the bag down and went on with his dinner, Grandma insisted on having it opened.” –Agnes Lee, daughter of Robert E. Lee