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Defining the Color Line

In the fall of 2018, Ohio State University History Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries and ten of his students traveled to Montpelier to immerse themselves in the history of the place that spawned the U.S. Constitution, which established slavery as the law of the land. What follows is Dr. Jeffries’ account of that journey, and the reactions of those students.[vc_separator border_width=2 el_width=70]

Ohio State University Students Explore Race, Democracy, and the Enslaved Community at James Madison’s Montpelier

I first visited Montpelier in January 2017 as a part of a small group of scholars, filmmakers, and artists tasked with developing a film treatment on the legacy of slavery for The Mere Distinction of Colour, Montpelier’s award winning exhibition on American slavery that would open to the public later that year. Upon arriving, Christian Cotz, Montpelier’s Director of Education, led us on a tour of James Madison’s house. He discussed the current displays and explained the focus of the coming exhibition, including its emphasis on the lives of the enslaved community and their descendants. During the tour, we met exhibit designer Chris Danemayer, who described in detail The Mere Distinction of Colour, pointing out exactly which displays were going where and why. As I looked, listened, and learned, I knew immediately that I had to bring students to see the new installation and experience Montpelier.

Then in August 2017, white nationalists descended on nearby Charlottesville with the twofold purpose of terrorizing the local community and unifying white supremacist organizations around the country. Their actions, along with the stupefying inaction of law enforcement, culminated in the savage beating of counter protesters and the murder of anti-racist demonstrator Heather Heyer. As I watched the events of “A12” unfold, I knew that I not only had to bring students to Montpelier, but I had to do so right away.

I teach African American history at The Ohio State University. My courses examine the African American experience from slavery through the present and explore the ways race and racism have shaped the contours of Black life and American society. To teach this history effectively, I try to connect the past to the present, to draw my students’ attention to the importance of understanding what has come before in order to make sense of what is occurring now. “The past is never dead,” wrote William Faulkner. “It’s not even past.”

In the classroom, there are real limits to what can be done. To be sure, documents, books, films, and increasingly virtual reality, allow students to imagine and better comprehend days gone by. But there is no substitute for studying history at the actual sites where history happened. Nothing surpasses the power of place.

At Montpelier, it is possible to explore how democratic ideals such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion, which Madison embedded in the new nation’s constitution, existed alongside slavery. This is because it is impossible to ignore that Madison’s personal library, where he conceived and wrote the Virginia Plan, which became the outline for the Constitutional Convention and the Constitution itself, rests on a foundation of red bricks made by the African American children he enslaved.

Also at Montpelier, it is possible to learn about enslaved African Americans as real people and not merely as someone’s supposed property. Remnants of their material culture unearthed by Montpelier’s archeological team reveal a community of family and friends, an intergenerational group of real and fictive kin who laughed and loved, cried and cared, ran away and rebelled.

Charlottesville, meanwhile, provides an opportunity to explore contemporary manifestations of white supremacy, the ideology that undergird slavery. Most obviously, racial hatred brought together those who descended on the city to wreak havoc in August 2017. But white supremacy is also inscribed in the city’s landscape. In Charlottesville, Confederate monuments still stand, but the vibrant black community of Vinegar Hill is long gone, razed some fifty years ago in the name of urban renewal.

In October 2018, I brought ten Ohio State students to Montpelier to study the formation and evolution of the color line from the colonial era through the present. For four days we explored all that Montpelier had to offer – Madison’s house, The Mere Distinction of Colour exhibition, the reconstructed enslaved quarters and active archeological site in the South Yard, the enslaved cemetery, the old growth forest, the cabin belonging to the freedman George Gilmore, and the Jim Crow era train depot.  And the night before we departed, we drove to Charlottesville, where Kendall Bills, a local resident and community activist, shared her personal account of the events surrounding “A12” as she led us from the city’s Confederate statues to the alleyway where Heather Heyer was killed.

It was an unforgettable journey through time, one that made real the harsh reality of slavery, the fallibility of the nation’s founders, the resilience of enslaved people and their descendants, and the depth and breadth of white supremacy today. And through it all, as we walked and talked, we tried our best to make sense of America then and now.

After their visit, Dr. Jeffries tasked his students with producing a documentary video/film which appears below, about their visit to Montpelier and Charlottesville. It is a truly powerful piece in which each student reflects on a different aspect of their visit to Montpelier and talks about what the experience as a whole meant to them. They are really proud of the piece, as well they should be – it is honest, candid, thoughtful, thought-provoking, and well worth watching. Dr. Jeffries is also the host of the podcast series Teaching Hard History: American Slavery which reviews lessons we should have all learned in school, told through the voices of leading scholars and educators. Of special interest is the episode recorded with Montpelier’s own Christian Cotz and Price Thomas, along with Dr. Patrice Preston Grimes, Associate Dean in Office of African-American Affairs at the University of Virginia.[/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column]

YouTube video


If you are interested in bringing your class to Montpelier, please contact Kyle Stetz, Montpelier’s Manager of Student and Family Programs for more information on what Montpelier has to offer college students.