Correction to This Article
A headline on a July 12 Style article about the papers of Robert E. Lee mistakenly transposed the middle and last names of his daughter Mary Custis Lee.
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A Portrait in Letters

Mary Custis Lee left the trove in a vault in 1917, a year before her death.
Mary Custis Lee left the trove in a vault in 1917, a year before her death. (Virginia Historical Society)

In the archive biz, such stuff is known as "ephemeral material" -- a nice way of saying junk -- and there was a lot of it packed into Mary Custis Lee's trunks. But buried among the ephemera -- and the priceless letters from her father -- was a packet of papers related to the events of June 13, 1902, when she was arrested in Alexandria.

"She was sitting in the African American portion of the streetcar and a conductor told her to move and she refused," Shepard says. "He came back and she refused again. They took her to the police station, and when they found out who she was, she was released."

"BREAKS COLOR LINE," reads the headline in an unidentified newspaper article found in her trunk.

"Miss Mary Custis Lee of Alexandria, Va., has some of her celebrated father's disinclination to yield ground in response to coercion," begins another article from the trunk, this one fastened together with a rusty pin. It ends with a bit of editorializing: "It is nothing but petty tyranny for the state of Virginia to prohibit Mary Custis Lee from riding with negroes if she choose to ride with them."

The arrest made news around the world, inspiring several people to write, congratulating the general's daughter for defying segregation. "Please accept my thanks for your human action in breaking the color line in the sunny south," wrote a man from Alberta, Canada. "Only a dear good girl with a Christian heart would do that. God will reward you for such kindness of heart."

Was Robert E. Lee's daughter, in some perverse way, a forerunner of Rosa Parks?

"She was perceived that way by some people," Shepard says. "I don't know if it's accurate or not."

One newspaper reported that she refused to move because her luggage was too heavy. Another reported that she refused because she was sitting with her black maid. Unfortunately, nothing found in her trunks clears up the mystery.

"It's something we need to do more research on," Shepard says.

He smiles. "My understanding is that Mary Custis Lee was a rather formidable person," he says. "She had a stubborn streak. You didn't want to mess with her."


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