Interpretation at Montpelier, James Madison’s Virginia plantation, owned since 1984 by the National Trust, has incorporated stories of the enslaved community since at least 1997. In 2000 the Montpelier Foundation was created and co-stewardship with the National Trust for Historic Preservation began. Between 2003 and 2008, the foundation undertook a massive restoration—removing extensive additions that the William duPont family had made to the Montpelier house in the 20th century. With two duPont-era rooms and an exhibition about the duPont family installed in a new visitor center, and by agreement with the family, the foundation decided that the period of interpretation would be that of James Madison’s retirement years, 1817–36.
Since 2000, staff members have conducted documentary and genealogical research to understand the Montpelier plantation and its enslaved community. To date we have identified nearly 300 enslaved people by name and located the living descendants of five. As a result of archaeological investigation, we have an overall understanding of the physical plantation landscape, including the relative locations of farm operations, plantation industries, and dwellings of enslaved domestic and agricultural workers, as well as the material worlds of those living under slavery.
Engaging with our descendant community has been a hallmark of Montpelier’s work interpreting slavery. We first connected with the African American community in 1999, when local resident Rebecca Gilmore Coleman approached us about commemorating Montpelier’s slave cemetery. Organize the commemoration led Coleman and local activist Carolyn French to found the Orange County African American Historical Society, which has partnered with Montpelier ever since.