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 Mistakes
Talking about hard history is difficult not only because of the emotional work required but because of the uncertainty you may feel. Successful, positive dialogue is not about knowing the right thing to say. The process of dialogue is about exploring, engaging, learning, listening, and sharing your point of view to discover meaning, and learning positive words. As long as we are all operating from a place of respect, it’s okay to make mistakes! 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.
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.
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 estate. 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 Union 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.
Non-Negotiable Statements: 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.
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.
Last updated: June 27, 2022