Selina Gray

Selina Gray
Selina Gray

NPS

Selina Norris Gray, the daughter of Leonard and Sally Norris, was a second-generation Arlington enslaved person. Selina Norris and Thornton Gray were married by an Episcopal clergyman in the same room of the house where Mary Custis had married Robert E. Lee in 1831. While the church recognized the marriage, the unions of enslaved people were not legally binding. Enslaved people, as property, could not enter into legally binding contracts. Selina and Thornton would have eight children and raise their family in a single room in the South Slave Quarters.

Selina was the personal maid of Mrs. Robert E. Lee. In 1861, under the threat of union occupation, the Lee family evacuated Arlington and Mrs. Lee entrusted the household keys, symbolizing that the responsibility of the families material possessions was left to Selina Gray. Locked away inside Arlington House were many of the “Washington Treasures.” These pieces were cherished family heirlooms that had once belonged to Mrs. Lee's great-grandmother, Martha Custis Washington, and President George Washington.

The United States Army assumed control of the Arlington Estate on May 24,1861. Later, U.S. Army officers occupied the house. When Mrs. Gray discovered some of the treasures had been stolen, she confronted the soldiers and ordered them "not to touch any of Mrs. Lee's things." Gray alerted General Irvin McDowell, commander of the United States troops, to the importance of the Washington heirlooms. The remaining pieces were sent to the Patent Office for safekeeping. Through Selina Gray's efforts, many of the Washington pieces were saved for posterity.

Selina and her family were freed by the will of George Washington Parke Custis in December, 1862, but continued to live on the estate for several years. Their descendents are numerous and some still live in the area. Her children were instrumental in the restoration of Arlington House in the 1920s and '30s.

 
Selina Gray and two daughters
Civil War era stereogram believed to be enslaved housekeeper Selina Gray and two of her daughters.

NPS Image

In 2014, the National Park Service acquired a rare and previously unknown Civil War era stereo view photograph of enslaved housekeeper Selina Gray and two of her daughters. This extraordinary find was made by National Park Service Volunteer Dean DeRosa while perusing the online auction website, eBay. The seller, based in England, had found the photograph in a box of "unwanted" photographs at a "boot fair" in Kent, England. The Arlington House friends group, Save Historic Arlington House, Inc., jumped into action to bid on the item and, against stiff competition, won the auction. The photograph itself is priceless and will be an invaluable addition to the park's museum collection, as identifiable period images of enslaved people are extremely rare. Only one other Civil War period photograph taken on site at Arlington House of an enslaved person owned by the Custis and Lee family has ever been known to exist prior to this discovery and that person is unidentified.

Last updated: November 3, 2020

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McLean , VA 22101

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