Skip to content

Life of Gray Family

Selina Norris Gray was born and raised a slave at Arlington House, the Virginia plantation of George Washington Parke Custis. Custis, the adopted son of George Washington, also owned her parents, Leonard and Sally, along with X other individuals. He had inherited many of his slaves when Washington died in 1799, and set them to work in 1802 building his new home, which he intended to store and display a variety of objects associated with the nation’s first president. When Custis died in 1858, the Washington treasury passed to his only child, Mary, the wife of Robert E. Lee. Selina became very familiar with these artifacts because she served for many years as Mary Lee’s personal maid, a position that required her to tend Lee’s growing household. Selina also married and raised a family of her own at Arlington.

While Selina worked in the main house, her husband, Thornton Gray, labored as both stable-hand and handyman. How Thornton came to be a slave on the Arlington estate is unclear; his mother, a woman of African and Native American parentage, was a slave at Mount Vernon, and several documents suggest that George Washington himself manumitted Thornton years earlier (Gillem, NPS Interview). Some historians have speculated that Thornton went as a slave to Arlington House so that he could stay with his family in Virginia, where the opportunities available to free blacks were limited, at best. This conjecture seems unlikely, as it suggests a conscious decision on Thornton’s part to remain enslaved. (African American Story) Regardless of how and why he came to be there, it seems likely that his feelings for Selina Norris motivated him to stay.

Though married, Selina and Thornton Gray faced the harsh reality that Virginia law declared “slave unions” not legally binding; although some religious denominations recognized marriages between slaves, finding an ordained minister who would perform the ceremony was difficult. (African American Story) Mary Custis Lee, as a symbol of her affection for her maid, made the arrangements for Selina and Thornton’s wedding, which took place at Arlington House in the same room where she had married Robert E. Lee in 1831. According to Emma Syphax and Sarah Wilson, two of Selina and Thornton Gray’s daughters, their parents were married “by an Episcopal clergyman from Alexandria, whom Mrs. Lee had come over to perform the ceremony.” (Syphax and Wilson) Following their marriage, the Grays had eight children at Arlington House: Emma, Annice, Florence, Sarah, Ada, Selina, John, and Harry. All eight were also slaves. In Virginia, as in most southern states, a child’s status reflected the condition of the mother. Thus the entire Gray family appeared in the “Inventory of the Personal Estate of Major George W.P. Custis,” recorded at the Alexandria County Court House on September 11, 1858. (Inventory) Listed along with the mules, cattle, ploughs, wagons and carts, the Grays were classified in the same category as livestock and farming equipment–property–and were subject to the same treatment, good or bad, at the complete discretion of their owner. Many masters sold children away from their parents, for example. Fortunately, Selina and Thorton were allowed to keep their children and lived with them on the estate.

The Grays occupied two rooms in a substantial brick building located immediately south of the main house and to one side of a large courtyard. These betterthan average accommodations were assigned to them because Selina was Mary Lee’s personal maid and housekeeper, a position of high status on the plantation. In addition, it was necessary that Selina be available on short notice should Lee need her, and close proximity made Selina’s walk much shorter. The building the Gray’s occupied even came to be called “Selina’s House.” They lived in the west end of that structure. The middle part was the smokehouse, and the east end, the one nearest the main house, contained the meat house and a storeroom. A similar building stood on the north side of the courtyard and accommodated the kitchen and additional slave quarters.

Because of their architecture and high quality materials, these were extraordinary buildings for slaves to live in. Overall, the buildings had a classical Greek theme that complemented the main house. The rear facade of the south building included Greek pilasters with small rounded arches. (Arlington House: Official National Park Handbook, 45) On the front, small panels above the doors featured paintings – purportedly crafted by George Washington Parke Custis – of American Eagles and George Washington’s warhorse. After the war, the Gray family took over the entire south building and cut doors between the three portions. At the turn of century, the south building was returned to its original design; however, during another attempt to restore Arlington House in the 1930s, National Park Service historians endeavored to include the post-war changes made by the Gray family.

While the slave quarters underwent restoration, many of Selina and Thornton’s children were interviewed to insure authenticity. Two of them, Emma Gray Syphax and Sarah Gray Wilson, supplied important information, including the tiniest of details, such as the placement of their parents’ bed, which was located to the right of their front door. Mrs. Syphax and Mrs. Wilson stated that the children slept in a loft that had such a low ceiling that they could not stand up in it. They also carefully noted that the steps to the loft were placed in front of the window nearest the fireplace. (Syphax and Wilson) Much in the tradition of their mother, the Gray children had preserved their family’s treasured memoirs.

The daughters also shared memories about growing up as slaves of the Lee family. According to Mrs. Syphax and Mrs. Wilson, the Gray children were the only slave children allowed near the main house; the field slaves were not welcome there and rarely came around. They recalled that Mrs. Lee always treated their mother especially well and said that the Lees were good to them, too. Mrs. Syphax remembered that one of the Lee daughters, Miss Mildred, who was the same age as she, taught her the “ABC’s.” (Syphax and Wilson) The Gray children studied everything from grammar to religion with the Lee children. In addition, they engaged in less serious childhood pastimes.

Annie Gray Baker and Ada Gray Thompson, two of Selina’s and Thornton’s other daughters, recalled much laughter and silliness inside Arlington House. For example, Miss Annie Lee, a very religious woman, read the Gray children bible verses, but afterwards she taught them many children’s songs like “Let Dogs Delight to Bark and Bite,” “Little Drops of Water, Little Grains of Sand,” and “Far, Far away.” (Baker and Thompson) Mrs. Baker conveyed the sense of ease that she and her siblings felt among the Lees. She noted that, “in the old days” she would freely mimic Miss Martha Williams, Robert E. Lee’s cousin and “a very pretty and attractive girl.” According to Mrs. Baker, Miss Martha would come down the stairs “in her large billowing dress” and say, “Good morning, Cousin Robbie” while “rolling her eyes” at him. Later, when the adults were no longer around, the Lee boys would beg Baker to imitate Williams’ simpering manner towards their father. (Baker and Thompson) Such comraderie suggests that the Lee children had perhaps a better relationship with the Grays than they did with some of their own relatives. The closeness that existed between the Gray and Lee children may have reflected the bond shared by their mothers. Karen Byrne of the National Park Service suggests that, despite the inequities of their relationship, as the lives of Selina Gray and Mary Custis Lee became intertwined, the two women became good friends. Both had big families and thus both experienced “the joys and frustrations of motherhood.” In addition, their temperaments seemed complementary. Lee was very untidy, never on time, and a poor housekeeper. She relied on Selina to keep not only her house and family in order but her frame of mind. Over the years, mistress and slave developed a kind of mutual respect for one another. However, most importantly, the Civil War and the survival of Arlington House and its Washington heirlooms bound them together in a significant cause. (Byrne)

When her husband joined the Confederacy as commander of the military forces in 1861, Mary Lee realized that she and her children would have to leave Arlington House as it was so close to the Union capital. According to Selina’s daughters, Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Thompson, when Lee fled, she took with her only two slaves because the journey to Ravensworth [NB: define it, another Custis plantation?] had to be swift and inconspicuous. (Baker and Thompson) Similarly, since carrying a large quantity of personal effects was impossible, Lee shipped some of the family’s belongings, but had to leave behind many of the Washington artifacts and all of the household furniture. (Baker and Thompson) Consequently, before she left Lee gave her trusted maid, Selina Gray, the keys to Arlington House and thereby made a slave the official “head of the household.” (Byrne)

One can only imagine how Gray felt about the departure of her owner and the impending arrival of Union troops. She surely appreciated the opportunity that she and her family suddenly had for freedom. But as Karen Byrne asserts, Gray had grown up “steeped in the Washington apotheosis” and well understood the national significance of the Washington treasury. Moreover, Gray must have known that Mary Lee had “supreme confidence” in her abilities to safeguard the mansion, and she probably shared Lee’s belief that her guardianship would be temporary. (Byrne) For whatever reasons, Selina Gray stayed put and with her family protected Arlington House just as she promised she would.

Union forces occupied the Lee estate on May 23, 1861, and made Arlington House the headquarters for the Department of Northern Virginia. According to two of her daughters, Selina Gray greeted the commander, General Irwin McDowell, at the front door and, hoping to avoid any conflicts that might jeopardize the safety of the Washington heirlooms, graciously handed him the keys to the mansion. (Syphax and WIlson) During the next few months, Selina and her family watched helplessly as an encampment of thousands of federal troops surrounded the main house. The soldiers destroyed much of the property by constructing roads, removing trees, and building fortifications. Selina could do nothing about these activities, and so concentrated her efforts on saving the Lees’ belongings. In December, however, “she discovered that various items had disappeared.” (Byrne) Soon thereafter, she witnessed some of McDowell’s men looting the house. Her daughters said that Gray tried to intervene and told the thieves “Never to touch any of the things, [that] they were Miss Mary’s things,” but the soldiers ignored her. (Syphax and Wilson) Later, Gray investigated and meticulously inventoried the supposedly secret areas of the house where she had hidden Mary Lee’s keepsakes. When she discovered that some of the Washington relics had also disappeared, she promptly provided a list of the missing objects to General McDowell and convinced him that the significance of the collection required his involvement. He first secured the attic and basement areas to prevent further theft, then had the remaining Lee heirlooms shipped to the Patent Office in Washington, DC for safekeeping. McDowell was upset and embarrassed that such crimes had been committed under his command, so he included a note with the boxes that stated: “I have, during the time I have been here, endeavoured to take the greatest care of this house and its furniture, and of the grounds . . . [T]his place is not a safe one for the preservation of anything that is known to have an historical interest small or great.” (Nelligan, 424-5) The note was significant because it established that McDowell, the man to whom the soldiers owed their complete obedience, believed that he could not protect the Washington relics. Had Selina Gray felt the same way, their fate would have been very different.

Six years after successfully executing the monumental task of safeguarding the Lee treasures, Selina and her family finally left Arlington House. Like other newly emancipated blacks in the area, they bought land and established a home of their own in what was called Convalescent Camp, a community located along present-day Shirlington Road in Green Valley. There the Grays farmed their fifteen-acre property and harvested produce that they sold at the corner of Seventh Street and Louisiana Avenue in Washington. They lived out the rest of their lives in freedom. (Gillem Interview)

Selina’s legacy has been too long overlooked. By the time of her death in 1907, she appeared to be just an ordinary black woman. By contrast, most early preservationists, like Ann Pamela Cunningham, who founded the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, were the wives of wealthy white men, and they had little interest in celebrating the contributions of a former slave. (Byrne, 22) Despite her origins (or perhaps because of them), Selina possessed many of the qualities essential to success, especially courage, confidence, and conviction. In the generations that followed, these traits would come to define other members of the Gray family as well.