Visitor Expectations and Language Resource

Language Resource to Support Dialogue at Arlington House

Talking about the history and ongoing effects of the institution of racialized slavery in America is difficult. The impacts are personal, cultural, and run deep. They connect to our families, our shared history, and our lived experiences. Having hard conversations is a critical way to digest suppressed truths and is necessary for true reconciliation of American society. To facilitate having these conversations, some shared language is necessary. We all know how good it feels when someone is “speaking our language;” we feel safe and included. By using supporting, shared language to talk about enslavement and chattel slavery, we empower ourselves and each other to create brave, curious and empathic spaces for conversation.  

The Power of Listening

We all bring our own context and histories to Arlington House. Until we can see a space through someone else’s eyes, our vision of a place will be incomplete. We invite you to try to share the point of view of each person, past and present, in this place. What will you feel? What might you learn?

The Power of Growth

All history is “hard history.” The question is “hard for who?” Talking about history can be difficult not only because of the emotional work required but because of the uncertainty we may feel. Constructive dialogue is not about knowing the right thing to say. The process of dialogue is about exploring, engaging, learning, listening, and sharing perspectives to connect, empathize, and heal..It’s important to share what we’ve learned, be open to continuing to grow in knowledge and empathy, and be willing to learn from each other.

Key Messages at Arlington House

Making space for dialogue 

Telling the story of Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, is not easy, but it is important. The National Park Service preserves places that share our nation’s history. We’re committed to telling these difficult stories and helping one another come to a deeper understanding of the American experience.

Understanding American history helps us understand the present 

Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, is perhaps the most complex and controversial national memorial in the country. The public will see Arlington House as it was in 1861. This historic place, the only national memorial to someone who fought against the US, was originally constructed to memorialize George Washington. Arlington House tells America’s story from its founding, including the story of slavery, the Civil War, Freedman’s Village and the establishment of Arlington National Cemetery. Today, Arlington House exists as a place for brave dialogue and healing.

Building visibility of people who were enslaved at Arlington is essential to the story of Arlington House

The National Park Service is committed to telling the stories of the all the enslaved people who are known to have lived and labored on the plantation. Visitors to Arlington House will learn about the experience of enslaved people and view restored slave quarters and new exhibits. The National Park Service consulted with the living descendants of the Parks, Syphax, Branham, and Gray families as well as other subject matter experts to tell this more inclusive story.

Changing land use by changing groups of people created layers of meaning at Arlington House 

Arlington House connects to many important figures, issues, and events in American history. Built between 1802 and 1818 by enslaved people on land that had been used by American Indians for more than 10,000 years, the house and grounds have served many purposes over the last 200 years: a memorial honoring George Washington, a family home for the Lee and Custis families, a plantation estate and home to the people who were enslaved at Arlington House, a military headquarters for US Army troops, a community for emancipated enslaved people and a national cemetery.

Values of Arlington House

Honesty. We will speak openly, using relevant facts and always testing our assumptions about the history, ourselves, our colleagues, and our visitors.  

Holistic. We will tell the whole story of the lives of enslaved people and the institution of slavery at Arlington House, recognizing that speaking openly about this history might engender discomfort in ourselves, our colleagues, and our visitors. The story will be inclusive of multiple historical perspectives and will be grounded in current research.  

Dialogue. We will welcome the sharing of multiple perspectives from our colleagues, our collaborators, and our visitors, and will provide physical and rhetorical space for the airing of those perspectives.   

Honor. We will acknowledge and recognize the lives of those enslaved at Arlington House, with respect, humanity, empathy, and agency. We will engage with each other, our visitors, and the history in a manner that is authentic and demonstrates these core values. 

Accountability. We are committed to supporting each other in delivering this new holistic visitor experience with the necessary training, historical research, and emotional care. 

Key Truths of Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial 

Non-negotiables (forensic truths) are our trademark in the National Park Service. People who come to national parks expect our presentations or interactions to be based in sound scholarship, as this is a tenet of interpretation. Each park is encouraged to come up with their own set of non-negotiables specific to their park’s themes. The key truths of Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial are:

  • Slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War. 

  • The reason why the Confederacy went to war was the preservation of the institution of chattel slavery. This may differ from the individual reasons why some men enlisted to fight for the Confederacy. 

  • Enslaved people exercised agency in various ways within the institution of enslavement. 

  • There is no such thing as a “good master” as there is no good aspect of owning people.  Coercion, torture, and sexual violence were pervasive at Arlington House and across the system of chattel slavery.

  • The term “loyal slave” is irrelevant because enslaved people did not have a choice. 

  • Race was used as a justification for chattel slavery in the United States. 

  • Systematic oppression includes the over-policing of Black people, the prison industrial complex, inequitable application of laws in housing, health care, criminal justice, education, and other social programs, and more. It also includes the subsequent historic denial of access and opportunity to benefit and prosper from these same aspects of American society. We trace the roots of today’s still unremediated systematic oppression to the system of race-based chattel slavery and legacy of enslavement established in this country.
  • The Custises and Lees were enslavers. While not every family member directly enslaved others, all benefited from the wealth the family accumulated from enslavement.
  • Based on the Syphax family history and documentation including Maria Syphax’s emancipation and the land gifted to her by George Washington Parke Custis, we believe that Maria Syphax was the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis and an enslaved woman named Arianna Carter. The nature of their relationship is unknown, however the power dynamics of enslavement negate the idea of consent.
  • Robert E. Lee was indicted for treason. Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution states that "Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort."
  • The U.S. Congress established this memorial because they believed that Robert E. Lee was an advocate for peace and reunification after the War. 

  • We value the voices of enslaved people and their descendants to help illuminate the lives and experiences of those bound to Custis and Lee. 

  • Visitors will be heard but confederate-supporting ideas (e.g. the myth of the lost cause) won’t be validated because they contradict the ideals of this site.


Language Reference for Supporting Dialogue at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial

The following examples contrast the difference between words commonly used in slaveholding society, versus the language used by the National Park Service and its partners. The National Park Service uses these terms to create a brave, curious and empathic place for dialogue at Arlington House.


Language of National Park Service

Language inconsistent with the language of the National Park Service

Honorifics (Mr., Mrs., or other title), First Name, Last Name or [Last name/Surname not recorded] 

Begin with respect. Enslaved people were usually referred to by only their first names. Often, only a first name was recorded. Often as well, these names were chosen by the slaveholder. Slaveholders were referred to with honorifics, titles, and full names. Accord the respect each person deserves when writing about them, particularly those who were not accorded respect during their lifetime. 

At Arlington, some of the enslaved people were able to keep their last names and name their own children.

Referring to enslaved people by first name only

In many cases the last names of enslaved people were not recorded. In this case, they should still be accorded an honorific (e.g. Mr./Mrs.) and it should be noted that their surname was not recorded as [First Name] [Surname not recorded]. Refer to the fact that surnames of enslaved people were often not recorded, as this was not seen as important information.

“Selina was a personal maid enslaved by Mrs. Lee.”  

This sentence should include an honorific for Mrs. Gray, and refer to her as a person first, and record her role if it’s relevant to the sentence. For example, it should read “Mrs. Selina Gray was an enslaved woman who was the personal maid to Mrs. Lee.”

Enslaved person

“Enslaved person” refers to the person as a person. Enslaved is an adjective in this case and refers to the condition in which they were held without basic human rights. Even in this use, avoid “othering.” For example, be aware of finding names where possible, and avoid referring to slaveholders by their first names and “the enslaved” as a blanket term for the “others” present. 


“Slave” is a noun and describes a person by their condition as a victim of human trafficking. The NPS does not describe a person by their condition because it lessens the humanity of enslaved individuals.

Slaveholder, Enslaver

Slaveholder refers to a person who held others in bondage.  

“Slaveholder” best describes the non-regional character of North American Slavery. Too often, “slaveholder” is used synonymously with the term “Southerner.” Certainly, slavery was widespread throughout the American South, more so than any other part of the United States.

People adjacent to enslavers also benefited from the system of chattel slavery. Depending on context, enslaver may literally and directly refer to someone who held legal rights over another person or more generally to those in the enslaver class–meaning those on the same side of the power dynamic as the enslavers.

Owner; Master

“Owner” is a modern acceptable term for owning an object (e.g. “car owner”). Using this term for owning people confers tacit acceptance and removes the humanity from enslaved individual


Violence enacted against those who resisted enslavement in large and small ways was retribution for their acts of resistance. The physical, mental, and emotional violence of those acts of retribution are torture. These included beating, threats and/or enactment of selling family members apart, sexual assault, bodily mutilation, muder, and other acts of brutality. These crimes were carried out publicly designed to destroy the will to pursue freedom at any cost. 


Throughout history certain words have been use to soften the reality of slavery. Words such as discipline, do not appropriately describe the

full horrors encountered by those surviving under the system of slavery in this country.

Freedom Seeker 

“Freedom seeker” refers to an enslaved person who risked everything to seek their liberty. Some of these brave freedom seekers returned, risking everything again to help free others still held in bondage. This term refers to their courage and self-determination.  

Runaway, escapee, fugitive 

“Runaway, escapee, or fugitive” are terms which invoke unintended social connotations. For example, an escaped criminal may be a fugitive from the law. The Fugitive Slave Laws were one of the ways the legal system was used to criminalize freedom seekers.   

Kidnapping/ Human trafficking  

The events of the trans-Atlantic slave trade were human trafficking, in which people were kidnapped and sold. To call it a less offensive name is historically inaccurate and perpetuates historical whitewashing. 

Trading & Middle Passage 

Throughout history terms have been use to soften the reality of slavery. Words such as trading and Middle Passage, do not appropriately describe the

full horrors encountered by those surviving under the system of slavery in this country.


Overseers were the brutal enforcers employed by the slaveholders to keep the status quo of antebellum plantation life. They were mainly employed to drive and monitor the forced labor of enslaved people, enact brutal public punishments upon men women and children, and recapture those who ran to freedom. 


“Oversight” or to “oversee” a project is a modern acceptable use of this term.  

Chattel Slavery 

This is the type of slavery that was instituted in the antebellum United States. The system was race based and equated a human being with personal property, to be included on the same registers as furniture and livestock. Insurance, loans, and mortgages were actually some of the biggest businesses derived from the practice. Individuals enslaved in the Chattel slavery system were legally sold and passed as inheritance. Much of the wealth of America today is built on hundreds of years of the lives and labor of unpaid enslaved people. 


Historically there have been many types of slavery and forced servitude. These systems operated under a variety of conditions and terms. The United States’ system of racialized slavery treated enslaved people as chattel, or property.

Avoiding use of the possessive 

Avoid use of the possessive when referring to enslaved people. These sentences can be framed any number of ways. For example, “G.W.P. Custis’ enslaved laborer James Parks...” should be rewritten as “James Parks, a laborer enslaved by G.W.P. Custis...”  

“Custis’ enslaved laborer…” or “His enslaved laborer…” 

“His/her [any word for enslaved person]” invokes use of the possessive. Like “owner,” this can be used appropriately with material property (e.g. her shoes or Lees’ shoes). Invoking the possessive grammar when speaking about ownership of enslaved people tacitly confers linguistic acceptance of the practice.  


“Child” unambiguously refers to a young person  


“Boy” was used to refer to adult African-American men as a way of stripping power and reinforcing social caste systems. This term should be avoided outside of the context of a direct print quote at this site and never spoken. If quoted (in text), along with any other specific problematic language, it should be noted as language of oppression and discussed as such.   

For use only with discussion – “Aunt” or “Uncle” 

“Aunt” or “Uncle” are terms that should not be used. While they are often present in the records of this time, the way in which these familial terms were used was  an appropriation to address or refer to older African Americans without use of an honorific (Mr. or Mrs.) as a way of withholding respect.  

“Aunt” or “Uncle” 

Use of the term “Aunt” or “Uncle” to indicate a familial comfort between enslaved people and slave holding families was used to whitewash close, involuntary, and deeply unjust relationships. After the Civil War, the figure of the self-effacing happy domestic servant was one of several widespread caricatures that was used to perpetuate racial oppression.  

For use only in the case of a free, paid worker: servant 

There are many ways to reword these sentences with accuracy and avoid whitewashing the truth of histories.  


“Servant” refers to a job. This was the preferred term of slaveholders; in the antebellum south, preservation of genteel optics was socially valued. These optics were designed to hide the cruelties of slavery. It is important we do not perpetuate these myths. 

There is no supporting alternative language. This is a myth which must be redressed wherever it is found. 

Loyal Slave 

The myth of the loyal slave was crucial to the social justification of the system of enslavement. By disregarding the agency of enslaved people, slaveholders could support an argument that enslaved people would not be capable of living in freedom. This sentiment was prevalent in the conversation of the day and in popular culture, including “Gone With the Wind.”  

Plantation House

Plantation House should be used instead of “the house” or “the mansion” as there is no separation between plantation and chattel slavery. Using the terms “the house” and “the mansion” avoids characterizing the place for what it was. (i.e. “The White House” or “The Executive Mansion” is used and people do not associate it as being a plantation house built by enslaved labor, cared for and serviced in all accordance with antebellum status quo.)

Mansion, Estate

These words were used for centuries to evoke the image of the affluent, genteel society of landed slaveholders. The social connotation is loaded, creating disparate meanings. It is essential to contextualize this word so that visitors have a shared understanding of plantations existing on the basis of human trafficking.   

Accurately, honestly portraying history  

Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial

Arlington House

Confederate Memorial 

By lauding the Confederacy, we perpetuate the myth of the Lost Cause and make unsafe spaces for those whose lives and safety are directly threatened by the illusion of white supremacy.

United States Army or US Army

This use recognizes the continuity of the Army throughout the history of this nation. Federal Army or Federals is also acceptable.

Union Army

The exclusive or extensive use of the term Union Army can contribute to a Lost Cause argument that secession meant that the United States ceased to exist. The Civil War was an insurrection against the United States. The United States and the United States Army did not stop existing from 1861-1865.

North & South – to be used for geographic purposes only 

Confederacy – to refer to the 4 years of the confederate states only  

Southerners implying slaveholders; South as equivalent to the Confederacy 

The United States as a nation was complicit in the nation-wide economic and social system of legalized, racialized, chattel slavery. Northern states, individuals, and businesses purchased goods from slaveholding people and states, fully knowing the system that was in place. Many laws in many northern states and western territories required the return of captured freedom seekers to the slaveholder who laid claim, usually via a slavecatcher who made a claim that the Black person was someone else’s property. There were abolitionists and Underground Railroad stations in the north and south; slaveholders in the north and south. Many freed formerly enslaved people lived in the American South before, during, and after the Civil War.  

The Confederacy was specifically and explicitly in the articles of their Constitution incorporated to defend the institution of slavery and to ensure no rights would be accorded to enslaved people. The distinction between the Confederacy – which existed for four years of war expressly to defend slavery – and the American South is critical to make.  

Contraband – to be used with historical context 

During the Civil War, freedom seekers who escaped across US Army lines were declared “contraband of war” as a legal defense for not returning them under property laws to slaveholders. Once declared “contraband” the freedom seekers were declared free. Many people who were declared “contraband” were set to work for the US Army, and frequently taken advantage of and substantially underpaid for their labor. The term should only be used when it occurs in discussion of the implications of being legally declared property twice. 


Contraband refers to goods which have been illegally imported or exported and should not be used to refer to people. This should only be used within specific historical context when clearly explained. 

Victim of sexual assault; victim of a non-consenting relationship 

The institution of slavery does not permit for discussions of consent. Enslaved adults and children were completely unprotected by any legal means. The only law that could be invoked was if a white man who was not the slaveholder assaulted them; in which case the slaveholder could legally charge the other white man with trespassing on his property, with legal reparations to be paid to the slaveholder himself. This is the extent to which enslaved people were unprotected from sexual assault. This practice also demonstrates the way in which antebellum chattel slavery is very closely linked to modern day human trafficking. 

Concubine/ Breeder / Sired 

All three of these words refer to the victim of sexual assault as property or in an animalistic light; this is exactly as slaveholders intended. It is critical we redress these crimes in our discussion of them. The institution of slavery does not permit for discussions of consent. Enslaved people were completely unprotected by any legal means. The only law that could be invoked was if a white man who was not the slaveholder perpetrated the assault; in which case the slaveholder could legally charge the other white man with trespassing on his property, with legal reparations to be paid to the slaveholder himself. This is the extent to which enslaved people were unprotected. 

There are no “right ways” to talk about “ratios” of heredity in human beings. Attempts to do so are a social repression mechanism that must be identified and redressed wherever found. 

Bi-racial, mulatto, octoroon, high yellow, and other words that refer to skin color 

Distinctions of skin color was a way to reinforce and create social caste systems. This is a racist notion used to divide and further disenfranchise people based on appearance and heritage.  

African-American; Black – use with preference if known  

Not all Black people in the United States have African heritage. However, in the system of antebellum chattel slavery, many Black people in the United States had been kidnapped from Africa as victims of the international slave trade or were direct descendants from kidnapped and sold people. American Indians were enslaved in America first (Christopher Columbus specifically started this trend in the Caribbean). Many were killed and died from the conditions, and that's when Africans were brought in whom also then began mixing with the American Indian enslaved people. The first African human trafficking victim was sold in Virginia in 1619. 

Free blacks; the blacks

Respect is key! There has been change over time and between people in preferred language. However, references to a person or group of people by any identity marker – including race - is always cause for caution, and proceeding with respectful language. 

Age of an Enslaved Person 

Birth dates of enslaved people were often not recorded; this was not viewed as important information. References to vague or unknown ages should include discussion of why the information is missing. 

Last updated: June 10, 2024

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Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial
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