Montpelier Dedicates the South Yard

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Throughout the Madisons’ retirement years (1817-1836), visitors to Montpelier were often surprised “at seeing [Madison's] negroes go to church [on] Sunday. They were gaily dressed, the women in bright-coloured calicoes; and, when a sprinkling of rain came, up went a dozen umbrellas.”1

This past Sunday, visitors to Montpelier also donned their much-needed umbrellas to pay homage to the generations of enslaved African Americans who lived and labored at Montpelier.

The formal dedication of Montpelier’s South Yard—the location of the homes and work spaces for the plantation’s enslaved domestic servants—was a heart-felt celebration of the fortitude and endurance these individuals maintained through a lifetime of servitude. The pouring rain dictated that the event be moved into the cellar, a fitting location to discuss the experiences of the enslaved community.

James Madison’s Montpelier President Michael Quinn; Vice President of the Orange County African-American Historical Society Donald Brooks; Margaret Hayes Jordan, a descendant of Montpelier slave Paul Jennings; and Judge John Charles Thomas all spoke about the importance of returning the presence of these structures to the South Yard landscape. The Little Zion Baptist Church’s senior choir provided the perfect complement to this assemblage.

Margaret Jordan encouraged attendees to imagine what it must have been like for the enslaved individuals who inhabited such spaces going about their days at Montpelier. She urged listeners to picture the women, the men, and the children. “Hear the worry, and also the singing,” said Jordan. “Hear the laughter, and hear the crying.”

Despite their bondage, these enslaved individuals worked, loved one another, worshipped, and shared dreams. Judge Thomas reminded attendees that although research remains, one needs only pause and imagine what it must have felt like to be denied freedom of movement, of choice, of the basic rights we all take for granted today.

Since its inception in Spring 2010, the African-American Research Initiative at Montpelier has joined with archaeologists and curators to foster the documentary, artifactual, and oral history research of the Africans and African Americans who called Montpelier home for generations. This investigation has produced new material that informs our understanding of the black experience at Montpelier. In moving forward, this initiative will continue to identify the important contributions made by a dynamic group of individuals, and discover new information and long-forgotten stories about Montpelier slaves and their descendants, making vital connections with our community past and present.

Check back soon to learn about our investigation of the Taylors, an enslaved family who labored as domestic servants for the Madisons before attaining their freedom.

Notes:

1. Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel (London: Saunders & Otley, 1838) 

Margaret Jordan, descendant of Montpelier slave Paul Jennings, drives a ceremonial peg into a South Yard structure.

 

Donald Brooks, Vice President of the Orange County African-American Historical Society, addresses the crowd.

 

 

 

 

Montpelier Staff