Future Arlingtonians may look back on our times as the era of the pandemic. But it’s also the era of renamings.
Our signature “Arlington House — the Robert E. Lee Memorial,” so named by a 1972 act of Congress, has drawn fresh fire from a group of Syphax family members and allies, descendants of persons enslaved on that former Potomac-side plantation.
They’re circulating a model letter already sent to several members of Congress asking that the Confederate general’s name be dropped.
“Many of our family members plan to participate in several grand reopening ceremonies at the Arlington House,” it reads. “Updated interpretation of the site will include the stories of those who were enslaved by Mr. [George Washington Parke] Custis and the wife of Robert E. Lee that included Syphax family members. With the recent removal of statues and names of those participating in and perpetuating the slave trade, we are seeking to change the formal name” to, simply, Arlington House.
That campaign comes as leaders of the Arlington NAACP have written to the county board asking that the symbol of Arlington House be removed from the official emblem.
“Arlington County’s most prominent symbol is its logo and seal,” reads the July 27 letter from chapter president Julius Spain and member Carolynn Kane, along with former school board Chair Emma Violand-Sanchez. “A symbol that is everywhere…on government correspondence, uniforms, buildings, vehicles, websites. A symbol of a slave labor camp. A symbol of the southern plantation economy designed to ensure White privilege and Black subjugation.”
The local NAACP called the logo “a divisive and racist branding of our diverse, usually progressive community.”
Also gaining ground, I’m informed by Bill Ross, chair of the Park and Recreation Commission, is a movement to take Henry Clay’s name off a park under renovation in Lyon Park that bears the name of the Virginia-born slave owner and Kentucky senator who fought a duel in Arlington. And activists in the Douglas Park Civic Association are working with the county to add a second “S” to Douglas, to assert that it honors 19th-century orator and former slave Frederick Douglass.
Clay’s name, in the proposal sent July 5 by the Lyon Park Civic Association, would be replaced by that of Zitkala-Ša (“Red Bird” in Sioux), a notable Native American writer, social activist and Bureau of Indian Affairs employee and who lived in Lyon Park from 1925-38.
Resistance comes from civic activist Suzanne Smith Sundburg, who told me, “While I’m sure Lyon Park’s intentions are good, the suggested replacement could be viewed as insensitive or a slap in the face to descendants of the Native American tribes who actually lived here.”
The NAACP’s Spain said he realizes his branch “can’t change the logo overnight. There’s a place for Robert E. Lee, with the Park Service’s looking into its historical context,” Spain told me. But Arlington being a “a world-class, equitable community,” he hopes “the county will at least have a public discussion and think about doing something different.”
As for excising Lee’s name from Arlington House, National Park Service regional spokesman Aaron LaRocca confirms that it “would require an act of Congress. The National Park Service does not take positions on potential or pending legislation unless we are called to testify on it before Congress.”
The county, I’m told, plans to address renaming issues all together.
One peril of owning a modern photo processing store (putting aside current struggles during the pandemic) is dealing with unclaimed pictures. Tony Awad, operator of Photoscope on Lee Highway at N. Edison St., tells me that for 15 years he has been sitting on wedding pictures of a happy family he cannot identify, not to mention locate. The shots were left by the photographer who has disappeared, Awad says.
Not sure how much longer Photoscope can store objects that for some lost souls may be irreplaceable. Perhaps a crowd-sourcing contest?