Selina Gray’s Letter
We have few records directly written by a person enslaved at Arlington House. These records answer a few questions and pose many others. Though it was against Virginia law, the Lees and Custises taught many of the enslaved people at Arlington House how to read and write. The education of enslaved people on site furthered the Lee and Custis’s image; presenting the ideal of being a benevolent, Christian slaveholder in a slaveholding society. The purpose of this education was largely exploitative. There is no such thing as a “good master,” as there is no good aspect of owning people.
However, many of the things they wrote were often not kept. What has been lost? Would they often have had time to write? What can be recovered through oral histories saved by descendants? In the few words that have been preserved and found, what can we read between the lines?
Selina Gray exchanged letters with Mary Custis Lee after the Civil War in 1872. She was responding to Mary Lee’s request to find out what happened to many of the Washington heirlooms that were lost during the Civil War. Some of these letters were kept by the Lee family and recently found. Selina Gray is now understood as an historically important person in her own right, not only in her role as the woman who saved George Washington’s treasures. We do not know why Mrs. Gray saved the Washington treasures. Perhaps she wished to preserve the valuable items. Maybe she worried how the Lees would react if they returned. Examining her letter gives us another window into her life and the past.
What was Selina Gray thinking when she wrote the letter? Why did she choose to write? In some cases, such as when she talks about the land where she and her family live free and lists the wages her children are being paid she may be showing the person who previously enslaved her that she and her family are doing well in their new found freedom. In the same letter she also expresses concern and interest in members of the Lee family. The sentiments in this letter exhibit the incredibly complicated and nuanced relationships between the Custis and Lee family and the families of the formerly enslaved people at Arlington House.
While the histories of many of the enslaved people at Arlington were often only valued for their proximity to figures like George Washington, their personal stories provide great value to the landscape of American history but often leave us with more questions than answers. The National Park Service is constantly learning and discovering more. Do you have any information or family connections to help us understand the people of Arlington House? Please e-mail us and help us preserve a more complete history.
Last updated: June 8, 2021