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A More Complete American Story

How the Montpelier Descendants’ Community is helping to shape the interpretation of people and place

Dead Grass & Railroad Ties

The excavation, the reconstruction, and The Mere Distinction of Colour.

A small group of African American visitors toured Montpelier in 2007 after the completion of the restoration of James and Dolley Madison’s sprawling, Central Virginia plantation. As the group stepped out onto the second-floor terrace, which offers unimpeded views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and overlooks the South Yard, the historic home of the domestic enslaved community, Iris Ford, a cultural anthropologist whose grandfather worked at Montpelier when it was owned by Marion duPont Scott, asked a pointed question: “Where are my people? You spent $24 million on the Madisons, and all my people get are dead grass and railroad ties?”

The Montpelier South Yard in 2007, before the excavation and reconstruction of the slave quarters. — Matt Reeves

For a decade, tours of the Montpelier house had included frank discussions of slavery, but a prominent, uncomfortable, and unavoidable part of the Montpelier story was still conspicuously absent from the visible landscape. So much emphasis had been put on the house, the Madison family, and the history of their achievements as people and political figures, that the legacy of slavery and the African American contribution felt like a footnote.

Ford vocalized the lack of representation of the African American experience, and, in doing so, set Montpelier on a journey to represent a fuller, more accurate American story. This starts with addressing the basic facts that Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” and the “Architect of the Bill of Rights”, was also a life-long slave owner, and that the people he owned as property had their own remarkable stories. But it doesn’t stop there, because Americans need places to engage with and talk about the questions history presents to us, how they relate to our lives today, and, more importantly, how they inform the world we want to make tomorrow.

The culmination of the past decade’s work on this fundamental contradiction is the groundbreaking exhibition The Mere Distinction of Colour, slated to open to the public on June 5, 2017. Inspired by a Madison quote — the exhibition builds on 17 years of archaeological excavation, documentary research, and oral history and cultural exploration. Visitors will move through the cellars of the main house to six reconstructed slave dwellings and work buildings in the South Yard. This unique experience examines the institution of slavery in the Founding Era, celebrates the humanity of Montpelier’s enslaved people, and confronts the legacies of slavery in today’s world.

The project, funded by a generous, $10 million leadership gift from patriotic philanthropist, David M. Rubenstein, underpins Montpelier’s most daring and transformative initiative: to tell an honest and unabridged American story that relates to many of the wide-ranging social and cultural issues we face today.

“In order to be a relevant and valuable cultural institution,” says Montpelier President & CEO Kat Imhoff, “Our site cannot remain a monument to half-truths. We have to tell the full story, one that every American who comes up that long driveway, regardless of age, gender, or race, feels a part of, even though it’s complex and often uncomfortable. The story of race in America and how we got to where we are today is as much a part of that as the story of how the Constitution was created. In fact, those two stories are inextricably linked.”

Through continuous personal engagement with an active, national descendant community, archaeological study, and nationwide research initiatives, Montpelier remains committed to, above all, telling a more complete and honest story of the history of our nation. 

Building community

Montpelier engages descendant community to tell more complete American story.

Other Presidential sites of the Founding Era have elevated the importance of descendant engagement over the past two decades. However, two features set the work with the Montpelier Descendant Community apart from peer institutions. The first is how Montpelier defines its “descendants.” What started as those who traced their genetic lineage to people enslaved by the Madisons at Montpelier has grown into a broader stakeholder community, comprised of some with documented ancestral ties and others who feel a strong connection to, and ownership of, Montpelier’s history. Montpelier made the conscious decision to embrace African Americans who traced their roots to Montpelier via oral histories and invite them into the growing descendant community—for many African American families, documentary evidence prior to the 1870 census is scarce or non-existent. Additionally, the world of enslaved people didn’t conform to the boundaries of white-owned plantations, since family members often lived on neighboring sites, if not further afield. 

“When the Madisons were at Montpelier, their enslaved workers had connections across Orange County and beyond,” says Elizabeth Chew, Montpelier’s Vice President for Museum Programs. “Many Montpelier slaves had husbands, or wives and children, on other plantations.  By adopting a broad definition of who identifies as a member of our Descendant Community, we honor the web of connections radiating from Montpelier.” 

The other unique element has been the degree to which the Montpelier Descendants Community helps guide and shape the interpretation of history. “The most important thing about being inclusive,” says Chew, “is that it allows us to engage African American voices in the process of interpreting their ancestral story and the story of our founding.” 

The Gilmore Cabin in 1910. — Mills family, Virginia Beach VA

Montpelier’s strong ties to the local descendants started with Rebecca Gilmore Coleman, granddaughter of George Gilmore, an Orange Country freedman formerly enslaved at Montpelier. Her family’s ancestral home sits right across the road from Montpelier’s main gates. Though the cabin had been there since 1873, Coleman, her interest piqued by Alex Haley’s, Roots, didn’t learn of her connection until the 1980s, when her father pointed it out as they drove by. As the years wore on, the cabin was neglected and fell into disarray, a visual metaphor for the lack of attention many historic sites gave to the histories of the African Americans who had once inhabited their properties.

A prominent citizen in Orange, Virginia, and founder of the Orange County African American Historical Society (OCAAHS), Coleman saw an opportunity in advance of Montpelier’s commemoration of Madison’s 250th birthday in March of 2001. She lobbied The Montpelier Foundation, then taking over operation of Montpelier, to investigate and restore the Gilmore Cabin. Her efforts caught the attention of Matt Reeves, Montpelier’s Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration. The seed was thus sown for what would become the Montpelier Descendants Project, and in 2005 the Gilmore Cabin reopened, followed by the Jim Crow-era train depot across the street in 2010—both as permanent installations at Montpelier.

The Gilmore Cabin in 2000, right before restoration began. — Debra Mills, Virginia Beach VA

More people began to join the community of those tracing (or attempting to trace) their ancestral roots back to Montpelier. A new generation of family-historians buoyed by the increasing interest in, and availability of, genealogical records and technology, came from all over the country to share in their connection to the plantation and its history, and meet others whose ancestors occupied the same land hundreds of years ago. Bettye Kearse, a Massachusetts-based physician who serves as her family’s liaison, first came to Montpelier in the early ‘90s hoping to confirm her family’s oral account that she descended from an enslaved woman named Coreen who worked as a cook on the plantation. Iris Ford and her cousin Madlyn Anglin grew up spending summers in Orange during the Jim Crow era. Their ancestors had been enslaved at a plantation adjoining Montpelier and their grandfather worked for the duPonts as a building supervisor. Descendants of Paul Jennings first visited Montpelier in 2008 after being contacted by Montpelier’s then Director of Education, Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, during research for her biography of Jennings, A Slave in the White House — and many returned for the dedication of the timber-frame structures in the South Yard in 2011. In 2016, the Maddens of Culpeper joined the community to celebrate their connection to indentured servant, Sarah Madden.

Rebecca Gilmore Coleman stands in the doorway of her family's cabin, restored by Montpelier in 2005. — Eduardo Montes-Bradley on behalf of the Montpelier Foundation

Today, engagement with the Montpelier Descendants Community takes on many forms, from archaeological programs, to gatherings and celebrations, to advising Montpelier’s interpretation of exhibitions and programs.

“Over the course of the last 10 years, as an educator, as a researcher, and as someone who is very much interested in her own ancestral roots and family history, I’ve found that developing relationships with people at Montpelier, at many levels, has been rewarding,” explains Patrice Grimes, Montpelier Descendants Community member and UVA Curry School of Education Professor.

Trailer for the 2016 Virginia Film Festival to run before screenings of Liberty & Slavery

The Roots, the Tree, and the History

Archaeology connects descendants with ancestors.

“The archaeology is vital,” explains Montpelier Foundation Board Secretary, Margaret Jordan, great-great-great granddaughter of Paul Jennings. “The more concrete pieces of history we can discover, the more real it is.”

The daily realities of Montpelier’s enslaved people are mostly absent from documentary records, therefore the interpretation of their material culture is a primary source for piecing together the puzzle of what life was like for them. Montpelier’s unique approach to public archaeology has created an avenue for members of the Montpelier Descendants Community to connect to their past and their ancestors.

Montpelier descendants Leontyne Peck and Lillie Pitchford Green holding the Masonic pipe that was uncovered in the South Yard of the property. — Matt Reeves

“Feeling the dirt, touching what enslaved people have touched changed my perspective on my heritage,” remembers Leontyne Peck, a member of the Montpelier Descendants Community, whose family history is connected to Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay. “I felt more connected with, and aware of, that history.”

A Montpelier archaeology expedition helped Gilmore descendant, Michelle Taylor, choose her career. The recent VCU graduate discovered her family’s connection to Montpelier and joined a dig in the South Yard. Taylor credits that experience with solidifying her decision to commit her life to studying history.

“I’ve always loved history, but I couldn’t ever really connect with it personally,” Taylor recalls. “I knew some of my family’s history, but I didn’t know how it connected to American history and African American history. So when I started researching my own family and seeing how it connected to an American president, everything just kind of came together for me.”

The descendants participation in archaeology has also deepened Montpelier’s understanding of the history of the place. During a descendant expedition in 2015, roots of a large walnut tree were impinging on the search to uncover one of the six structures in the South Yard.

Aerial shot of the expansive witness tree roots. It is believed that this tree bore "witness" to the lives of the enslaved people on the property. — Matt Reeves

Archaeologically, the first impulse was to get rid of the roots. This proposal would of course harm the tree, but in the pursuit of accurately reconstructing the building, it was considered an acceptable outcome. However, through discussions with descendants and arborists, there was ample evidence that the tree was a witness tree.

In light of this new information, archaeologists worked with the arborists to complete the necessary excavation while preserving the roots, the tree, and the history.

“Archaeology is one of the most powerful ways to engage with the past,” says Reeves. “The descendant expeditions bring to light parts of the story we’ve never even thought of and allow us to more accurately and honestly interpret our history.”

Making History

It’s easy to get behind the idea of engaging an open community of African American stakeholders in contributing to the interpretation of history, but putting it into action authentically can be challenging. “We don’t engage with descendants as a rubber-stamp process,” insists Christian Cotz, Director of Education and Visitor Engagement. “What we’re trying to do is actively solicit information and feedback in a genuine effort to build credibility and accurately represent the history. If we aren’t continuously striving in earnest for this truth, we’re failing as a cultural institution.”

“The thing we heard over and over again from the descendants was that we couldn’t just leave slavery in the past,” says Chew. “And the other thing we heard, loud and clear, was that we had to communicate the personal, intimate humanity of these people, and make them about more than merely their labor.”

“In order for us to become that great nation that we keep hearing about, the truth has to be told."

In June 2016, the entire Descendants Community was invited to Montpelier for a two-day African American History gathering, which offered a comprehensive briefing on the work going into the upcoming exhibition, archaeological excavations of enslaved community sites, genealogical research efforts, and the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution’s online course on slavery and the Constitution. Nearly 100 people attended the program, which culminated in a Juneteenth celebration organized by the OCAAHS. The conversations at the gathering were far-reaching and helped guide the work on The Mere Distinction of Colour at a critical phase of its development.

“As descendants, we provide valuable perspective,” reminds Jordan. “[Our ancestors] helped to make Montpelier what it was. [Montpelier] spent a lot of time understanding my family and where we’ve been and what my ancestors’ lives were like. They’re attempting to offer the African American community that built, inhabited, and upkept the property, the same weight as Madison.”

By genuinely engaging with and seeking out African American descendants, Montpelier is moving ever-closer to creating and articulating a more complete American story.

“This isn’t African American history,” says Hugh Alexander emphatically. “This is American history.”

For further reading on the Montpelier descendant community, we suggest: