Historic slave quarters being restored

The history of slaves at Arlington House – a story untold for generations – might soon be revealed as archaeologists uncover artifacts at slave quarters surrounding the historic mansion.

A dig launched November 10, 2003, will examine the two remaining slave quarters next to Arlington House in Arlington National Cemetery.

The mansion was built by George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of George Washington and was last inhabited by Custis' daughter Mary and her husband, Army Colonel Robert E. Lee.

When Lee cast his lot with the South at the start of the Civil War, the federal government confiscated the estate. The house now serves as a museum and tourist attraction, and the grounds have been turned into Arlington National Cemetery.

While the history of the mansion and its owners is well documented, the stories of slaves who lived and worked there has been neglected until now.

“We have a huge story to tell here, and this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Talmadge Williams, chairman of the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington, which is partnering with the National Park Service to lead the slave quarters' restoration project.

The National Park Service last year received a $150,000 federal Save America's Treasures grant to help pay for the restoration. The Park Service is raising additional funds for the project, which needs an extra $120,000.

The ultimate goal is to find artifacts that tell the slaves' story and eventually to restore the structures to their original appearance.

One of the brick houses served as the home to the slave cook and included a kitchen and sleeping quarters. The building is believed to have housed only the cook, which shows the prominence of the position, according to archaeologists at the site.

The other brick house included three rooms on the first floor and a cellar; the number of inhabitants has not been determined. The original brick of both houses has been covered with several layers of plaster on the inside and concrete on the outside.

The archaeological dig is scheduled to end in the next few weeks, said Kendell Thompson, site manager of Arlington House and the nearby Robert E. Lee Memorial. The planning and design phase of the restoration then will begin. The restoration project will remove all additions to the house that are historically inaccurate. All work could be finished by 2007, when the slave quarters would open to the public.

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