The Power of Truth-Telling to Create Racial Reconciliation
by Renee Ombaba
written April 28, 2023
Descendants of the enslavers and the enslaved unite for a family portrait at the Arlington House, the former plantation once owned by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Custis Lee. Dee Dwyer for NPR
On April 21-23, 2023, I had the pleasure of assisting with the meeting between the descendants of the enslaved and enslavers from Arlington House, a plantation once owned by General Robert E. Lee. In an article written by Debbie Elliott, she described the meetings as "Descendants of the Confederate general gathered with the descendants of the people the Lee family once enslaved on the property in Virginia." The meeting between members of these eight families; Branham, Custis, Gray, Henry, Lee, Norris, Parks, and Syphax, marked their first physical meeting after two years of virtual meetings and planning. Derived from the Welcome Table program, the Family Circle is a process of reconciliation through truth-telling. Throughout the weekend, the descendants had a meet-and-greet, a public program, and a meeting to plan next steps. They see themselves and this process as a model of what America can look like.
I served as a hostess for Friday's meet-and-greet. My bread and butter before my current job was hosting DC events. When Dr. Susan Glisson, Mississippi historian and the guiding organizer for the families, asked if I could help, I immediately got in my bag. I was one of the first faces to greet the nervous, yet excited family members. I quickly learned everyone's names and family connections. My now bestie, Bingo, who also graduated with a degree from Southern Studies from Ole Miss, and I were the welcoming spirit that ushered in what the families wished for with the weekend: harmony, reconciliation, and joy for the future. I felt the longing, the pain, the fears and the hopes of every participant. But most importantly, I felt their power and courage. Each person stepped into the room and into Arlington County with a new bravery. Not just the bravery to uplift the pain of the past, but the bravery to speak truth to power.
I left Sunday's family planning meeting feeling rejuvenated both in myself and the importance of my work with the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. However, I did not realize that the skills I learned from these families would be put into action so soon. After Sunday's meeting, I met an 'admirer' of Robert E. Lee at a local restaurant. Now, we did not go from meeting each other to immediately discussing Lee's legacy and Arlington House. I am often very careful about how I present myself and my work to others because it is alarming to mention Emmett Till to those who know and even more triggering to share with those who do not know Emmett Till. As a Black woman, I often mask, but in those moments, I am careful about my safety and the safety of others when discussing my work. Even writing this shows just how much emotional labor I go through when discussing my work, but I find it valuable to reach common ground with new people I meet. This person, a white man from the Midwest, was no exception.
We connected over Ole Miss. I always tell people about my degree in Southern Studies when discussing my time at Ole Miss. After that connection, he asked me about my work, and I gave a brief history of Emmett. He said, "Oh, he was, you know, by the bad people in the, you know, white and hoods." After a quick history lesson, which I promise was less than a minute, he asked about my weekend. At this point, we're getting deep into racial reconciliation work, and I had to choose between rolling my sleeves up or lying. I dived in because I am equipped to have these hard conversations. We discussed Arlington House, and I shared about the eight families meeting over the weekend. He explained his admiration for Robert E. Lee complete with history lessons on General Lee, the House, and the Cemetery. When we got to the part about Union soldiers' descent on Arlington House, I interpreted him with some truth.
Here, we discussed Selina Gray , who was enslaved to personally care for Mary Custis, wife of Robert E. Lee. I shared about Gray's role in protecting and preserving artifacts essential to America's history. I went on to tell him about why the families were meeting and how this could change the landscape of American history. Who knows if I changed his mind about anything or even if that was the point. I am proud that we both uplifted truth in that moment despite our differences. Even in that small setting between a middle aged white man and a young, beautiful Black woman, there was some sense of racial reconciliation through truth telling. I respected his truth, and he respected mine. Neither of us were afraid to get into the messy and difficult details of truth nor were we afraid to sharing our historical memory. In those moments, we created new memories of America and possibly new futures.
This weekend, in both big and small ways, truth-telling led to transformation. It was quite miraculous to put into action exactly what I learned this weekend from the eight families. I want to thank Dr. Glisson for her work over the year with the families and letting me be a small part of creating the American history we can be proud to know and share.