Descendants from two different histories of slavery came together in Virginia over the weekend to celebrate their ancestors and continue their transparent discussions of race and collaboration.
Finding Our Voice is a first-of-its-kind event. It was hosted by family members of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general during the American Civil War, along with the offspring of the enslaved who served the Lee family.
The gathering of nearly 100 people was held at the Arlington National Cemetary on the hill where the commander’s historic family residence, the Arlington House, is. The celebration was the first time the group of descendants, known as the Family Circle, met in person since they’ve been communicating virtually using Zoom for the past two years, according to NPR.
“Everybody was so gracious and everyone really just looked at, who are you right now? Who is sitting zoom across from me? And we started from there,” Tracy Lee Crittenberger, Lee’s great-great-granddaughter, said, according to NPR. “And then your story is your story. But what your ancestors did doesn’t have to necessarily impact who you are.”
The new event, which they hope becomes an annual meetup, was a collaborative effort of Lee’s grandchildren and the Family Circle committee. Cecilia Torres, the great-great-granddaughter of Selina Gray, a servant to Lee’s wife, Mary Custis Lee, when the couple lived in the Arlington House, is happy to see people from two different sides of the spectrum unite.
“I’m on this committee, the Family Circle, to bring back the memories of our ancestors, as well as reconcile with the family that enslaved them,” Torres told NPR.
“It’s spooky in a way, but it’s also reassuring. My great-great grandmother, she took care of this house and cleaned it for years, for like 30 years. So I feel like she’s here, and she’s glad I’m here too,” she added.
The weekend was about the work the family, the committee and the National Park Service have been doing to honor everyone that played a role in the Lee family’s history.
“They built the plantation house. They took care of the fields. … They took care of the livestock. And they took care of the people,” Finding Our Voice organizer Stephen Hammond said, according to NPR. “So their stories are just as important as those stories of the people who enslaved them,” Hammond, a member of the enslaved Syphax family, added.
They’re also aiming to create a more inclusive experience for visitors planning to visit the historic site by renovating the homes of house aide Selina Gray and her husband, Thorton Gray.
The Lee family hopes this shows they’re a product of their environment, not their history tree.
“I think where people would like to paint us as a certain way being General Lee’s grandchildren,” Robert E. Lee the Fifth said, NPR reported. “But that’s not how at all we were raised to be.”