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Healing and Repair: Dialogues with Descendants of Enslaved Communities at Historic Washington/Custis Sites

Roundtable Discussion

Abstract

As the work of public historians becomes increasingly rooted in working with and in communities, staff at sites of enslavement are focusing their attention on descendants of enslaved people. However, as in any partnership, building trust after years of whitewashed historical interpretation on plantations can be challenging. There is a real need for healing and connection at a personal level before these partnerships can move on to repair, truth-telling, and collaboration. Few public historians have the training or background to engage in this work.

The participants on this panel were part of an innovative process commissioned by the staff at Arlington House, a National Park Service site that was once home to Martha Washington’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis and later his son-in-law Robert E. Lee. The research by descendants of those enslaved by Custis, spearheaded by Stephen Hammond, spurred Arlington House’s staff to consider how to build and grow relationships with the enslaved community as well as the interpretation of slavery at the site. After the murder of George Floyd in Summer 2020, descendants requested reconciliation conversations with staff.

Arlington House hired Susan Glisson, a scholar with expertise in racial reconciliation, to convene dialogue groups of descendants of those enslaved on the site and the staff of Arlington House and its institutional partners. Park staff from Arlington House, including supervisor of interpretation Cassie Anderson, were the key participants. But rather than working with a narrowly selected group of descendants and staff, the project’s expansive reach sparked conversation and collaboration that has extended far beyond Arlington House. Staff from Mount Vernon, where George Washington Parke Custis was raised, also participated, including associate curator Jessie MacLeod and Director of Learning Tramia Jackson. Historian and author Cassandra Good, who worked with descendants and Arlington House to research a book on the Custis family and serves as convener of this panel, also participated.

This roundtable aims to describe the larger racial reconciliation process and lessons learned, as well as reflecting on how this experience is changing the work of all of those involved moving forward. We are also interested in bringing the audience into this discussion about how similar work has been or might be undertaken at other sites of enslavement.

Public History and Memory Race Local and Community History 19th Century

Session Participants

Dr. Cassandra Good, Marymount University

Chair; Panelist

Cassandra Good serves as an Associate Professor of History at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. She received her PhD in history from the University of Pennsylvania. Her area of expertise is late eighteenth through nineteenth century America with particular focus on politics, gender and cultural history. She also has experience in museums, new media, and public history through her work at the Smithsonian Institution and as a consultant to museums and historic sites. Her book on George Washington's family is First Family: George Washington's Heirs and the Making of America (Harper Collins, June 2023).

Cassie Anderson

Panelist

Mr. Stephen Hammond

Panelist

Steve is a 7th generation member of the Syphax family of Washington, DC: a line that moved by force to New Orleans and then by choice to Denver. He has participated in a variety of National Park Service programs at the Arlington House – the Robert E. Lee Memorial to highlight the lives of his Syphax ancestors and other enslaved Americans on the estate. He has spoken at the African American Civil War Museum and the historic Decatur House on Lafayette Square both in Washington, DC and has contributed to exhibits at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. His goals are to educate and inspire others to research and document their own family history.

Ms. Tramia Jackson

Panelist

Tramia is the Director of Learning at George Washington’s Mount Vernon where she oversees teacher professional development including the George Washington Teacher Institute as well as student learning and family engagement programming at Mount Vernon. Prior to joining the team at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Tramia served as the Senior Coordinator for the Science Research Mentoring Consortium at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The Consortium is made up of 23 institutions across New York City --zoos, museums, universities -- dedicated to providing mentored science research opportunities for high school students throughout NYC. Tramia joined AMNH from the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience where she managed From Brown v. Board to Ferguson, an innovative three-year program linking eleven museums and community partners to create dialogue-based public programs and train youth in activism around issues of race, mass incarceration and education equity in the context of civil rights. Tramia also served as the North American Network liaison, and provided direct services to over 100 museums, historic sites and archives. Before joining the Coalition, Tramia served as the Director of Education at the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She completed her MA in History Museum Studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program at SUNY Oneonta and received her BA in History from The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Jessie MacLeod

Panelist

Jessie MacLeod is an Associate Curator at Mount Vernon, where she has worked since 2012. She has curated numerous exhibitions including the award-winning Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington's Mount Vernon (2016-2021). She received a B.A. in history from Yale University and an M.A. in public history from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.