Arlington House: Capital City Slavery Tour

Constructed between 1808 and 1818 through the use of enslaved labor, Arlington House was built for George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of George and Martha Washington. Originally named Mount Washington, Custis renamed the property Arlington after his family homestead in Virginia. Designed by architect George Hadfield, the Greek Revival style plantation home echoes structural elements of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. With large Doric columns, an imposing portico, and arched loggias, Custis wanted the home to be visible from the growing national capital and to serve as an exhibition space for artifacts inherited from George Washington.

Enslaved persons constructed the home with handmade bricks, covered them with “hydraulic cement” and paint, and scored the surface to give the appearance of sandstone and marble.[1] Living quarters for the enslaved formed a small court at the rear of the home, with additional outbuildings including an overseer’s cabin, an icehouse, and an outdoor privy. From 1818 until his death in the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, around 200 persons were enslaved at Arlington House by Custis and his descendants.

Arlington House functioned as a working plantation, private family residence, and a gathering space for D.C. socialites and politicians. Enslaved persons worked in agricultural pursuits, animal husbandry, domestic chores, food preparation, and in the fields. A prominent figure in the expanding Washington, Custis threw multiple parties, dinners, and events at Arlington House. Documentation demonstrates that his inheritance of enslaved persons from Mount Vernon, in addition to numerous items from George Washington (such as Washington’s military tent used during the American Revolution), contributed to his prominent social status. Some Arlington House visitors recognized the descendants of individuals George Washington enslaved and noted their resemblance to Washington’s “faithful servants.”[2]

Records indicate that G.W. Parke Custis fathered multiple children with enslaved women—likely without regard to their consent.[3] The most well-known individual associated with Custis is Maria Carter, his biological daughter whom he enslaved along with her mother, Arianna Carter. Born around 1803, she labored in the Custis household doing domestic chores. Custis demonstrated “paternal affection” for Maria by “allowing” her to get married in the Arlington House parlor to Charles Syphax.[4] Ten years after this event, Custis’s only “legitimate” child was married in the same spot to Robert E. Lee.

Following her marriage, Custis continued to enslave Maria and Charles Syphax in the household before selling Maria to a separate slaveholder. It is unclear how long she was enslaved before being emancipated and moving closer to Charles. The couple would have eight children—some of whom continue to be involved in remedying interpretation at Arlington House.[5] Slavery would be practiced at Arlington House until the Civil War and subsequent secession of Virginia from the Union. Robert E. Lee and Custis’s daughter, Mary Custis Lee, fled the home—ultimately, the property was seized by the Union Army for use during the war. It was subsequently incorporated into Arlington National Cemetery.

Historic Preservation Status: Today, Arlington House is listed as a “National Memorial to Robert E. Lee” and functions as a historic house museum owned and operated by the National Park Service. The surrounding property has been designated as a historic district. While the original documentation does not appear to mention enslavement, later documentation related to a boundary expansion for the Historic District provides detailed information about the role of slavery on the property.
National Register: October 15, 1966


[1]Architecture and Construction,” National Park Service, last updated July 23, 2021.
[2] See Cassandra Good’s “Washington Family Fortune: Lineage and Capital in Nineteenth-Century America.” Early American studies 18, no. 1 (2020): 90–133.
[3] Based upon the conditions of bondage and complete control of enslavers over the enslaved, enslaved women had no ability to consent. This is not to say that consensual sex did not occur among enslaved communities or that all interracial sex was nonconsensual—enslaved women had choices. However, it is necessary to note that these choices were not exempt from the conditions of enslavement, racism, and white control over an enslaved person’s physical body, which rendered consent mostly impossible.
[4] It is unclear if Maria desired this type of wedding, or if there was another, more private celebration apart from the ceremony presided over by slaveholders. Since we have very few (if any) records of the individuals enslaved by the Custis, Lee, and Washington families, it is impossible to tell what her feelings were about the matter.
[5]The Syphax Family,” National Park Service, last updated June 22, 2021. Also see Allison Keyes article: “How the African-American Syphax Family Traces Its Lineage to Martha Washington: Resources at the African American History Museum Deliver a Wealth of Opportunity for Genealogical Research,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 9, 2018.



Arlington National Cemetery, 321 Sherman Drive Fort Meyer VA 22211