ARLINGTON, Va. (WJLA) - A Civil War-era photograph of slaves owned by General Robert E. Lee is now being preserved and will soon be put on public display at Lee's Arlington House. It was recently discovered, thanks to the keen eye of a local volunteer.
Historians say photographs of slaves are very rare. But incredibly a second photo of an enslaved woman, Selina Gray, was recently discovered by National Park Service Volunteer Dean DeRosa.
DeRosa said he found the photo up for auction on eBay for just $20. He said he immediately recognized Gray.
The photo was eventually bought for $700 with funds from the organization Save Arlington House Inc. And it was later donated to the National Park Service, which operates the Arlington House at the Robert E. Lee Memorial at the top of the hill of Arlington National Cemetery.
On the back of the photo, a handwritten inscription reads "General Lees Slaves, Arlington, VA." Historians believe it was taken during the 1860s. On Saturday, the artifact will be on public display for the first time at Arlington House.
“What I find so fascinating is how well dressed Selina and her daughters are in this photo,” said DeRosa, who collects vintage photography as a hobby.
Selina Gray was not the typical slave. She was the trusted head housekeeper for General Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Custis Lee – the great granddaughter of Martha and George Washington.
“Not only was [Gray] a slave who they allowed to get married, which was illegal at the time, they also let her get married in their home in the parlor where they got married,” said Jenny Anzelmo-Salres, a National Park Service Ranger at Arlington House.
After studying the photograph, rangers realized it was taken next to the slave quarters on Lee’s estate where Gray lived with her family 150 years ago.
During the Civil War, as the Union army advanced, the Lee family fled and entrusted Gray with the keys to the property. In effect, she was in charge. Today, historians credit her with saving the home and the treasures inside from being destroyed or stolen as Union troops swarmed the estate.
“Selina was an incredibly courageous woman,” said Anzelmo-Salres. “She stood up to Union generals to say save this place, save these priceless heirlooms from President George Washington that were here then in the home of a Confederate general.”
National Park Service Deputy Superintendent Lee Werst also emphasized Gray’s courage. “Even though she's enslaved, she's going to stand up [to Union troops] and is actually going to come out and protect those things. That's amazing,” he said.