Rare Photograph of Selina Gray

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.

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Last updated: November 22, 2016

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