Clara Ellis Payne coyly calls herself a "friendly thief." But security officials at Montpelier, President James Madison's Orange County estate here, need not double-team her during her visit this weekend. In fact, they may want to honor the 78-year-old New Yorker for her light fingers.
As a child, Payne spirited away pictures and documents that she found in the house of an Orange County relative. Years later, they formed the basis for her lifetime endeavor -- tracing her family's lineage to when her great-great-great-great-grandparents were among Madison's slaves.
Payne said she plans to give Montpelier more than 400 photos. She might even throw in some old irons and bowls. "When I am gone, I'm not sure it's going to be coveted by my children," she said. "Besides, who else is going to take all this stuff?"
Payne's documentation promises to be a windfall for the Montpelier Foundation, which operates the 2,700-acre Madison homestead, and the Orange County African-American Historical Society. The two groups are piecing together the sketchy evidence of the once-flourishing slave life of Madison's time.
Their first step was to entice Payne and nearly three dozen others to travel here this weekend for a first-ever meeting to commemorate their historical connection. Each claims to be a descendant of slaves who worked this property when it was home to the fourth president, and this event was scheduled to tie in with the 250th anniversary of his birth last month.
Mary Ann French, secretary of the historical society, said the group wants this anniversary year to be about more than Madison's legacy as an author of the Federalist Papers and an architect of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. French, a former Washington Post reporter whose ancestors worked on a neighboring plantation, said she was concerned not only with the provocative paradox of Madison, a champion of liberty, owning slaves, but also with addressing how those slaves affected his career as a public servant.
"It's time for us to reintegrate the picture so it's as finely detailed and nuanced as it was lived in life," she said.
In three days of reenactments of slave life, discussion panels and tours, organizers want to show that without slave labor, Madison would not have enjoyed the economic freedom to be in public life and help craft the nascent republic.
Biographers and other Madison authorities contend he treated his slaves relatively well. He frowned on whipping and encouraged them to read and write. An estimated 100 slaves worked Montpelier's verdant pastureland at his death in 1836.
Ultimately, Madison was unable to fashion a solution to slavery that would keep the nation united; in later life, he headed the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending freed slaves to Africa.
Visitors to Montpelier this weekend were unwilling to give Madison much credit as a kind master.
"There's no such thing as a good slave owner," said retired Air Force master sergeant Alfred Mills, of Sacramento, great-grandson of a slave named George Gilmore. The Gilmore cabin, built of oak and chestnut, is among the few structural remains of 19th-century black life at Montpelier. The cabin offers no precise rendering of slave life -- Gilmore built it years after his emancipation -- but Mills, 71, remembers sleeping in it as a child, with "bugs crawling all around me."
As he stood amid the scent of lilac in the shadows of the Blue Ridge at dusk Friday, Mills reflected on his ancestors' hardships. "I don't think anyone living in today's time could do what they did," he said. "It made me very proud to see I come from such strong stock."
In addition to slave descendants, more than 50 historians and others assembled this weekend at Montpelier, now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Phyllis Cook-Taylor came on behalf of Friends of the Slave Quarters, a Loudoun County group that hopes to preserve a slave residence in Arcola. She also is looking for tips on tracing genealogy.
In remarks here today, former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder (D), the grandson of slaves, said, "This is an opportunity to educate America to its people, all its people." Wilder, the country's first elected black governor, said that within weeks he will announce the site of a national slavery museum planned for Virginia.
Bettye Kearse, 57, a pediatrician from Boston, was here to talk about "The Other Madisons," a book she hopes to have published in which she claims to be a descendant of Madison through an affair with a slave.
Kearse said she cannot support her family's long-held belief with records. But that's not important, she said. "What's important to me is what having this history has meant to our family. Our family has done well because we believed in ourselves and all were brought up under the saying, 'Always remember you are a Madison.' "
Montpelier Foundation President Michael C. Quinn does not dispute a connection between Madison, who was 43 when he married, and Kearse's forebears. "We're here to learn," he said.
French, who said she has located nearly 200 descendants of Montpelier slaves, hopes more will come to the next gathering in two years. "It's going to take more than one commemoration to get a real grip on re-creating the community as it existed here," she said.