The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

James Madison’s Montpelier receives $5.8 million for memorial to enslaved

Visitors tour Montpelier, home of President James Madison, in Orange County, Va. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)
3 min

RICHMOND — The Mellon Foundation has awarded nearly $5.8 million to James Madison’s Montpelier estate for a memorial to the “Invisible Founders” — the enslaved men, women and children who helped build the nation but whose identities have largely been lost to history.

The family of Madison — the nation’s fourth president and lead author of the Constitution — enslaved six generations of people at Montpelier over a span of 140 years. Their work at the estate outside Orange, Va., will be commemorated by the new project and by ongoing archaeology and research, the estate said Tuesday in a news release.

James Madison’s plantation vowed to share power with Black descendants. Then things blew up.

“This memorial will expand public understanding of the term ‘Founders’ to include enslaved Americans, whose vast intellectual and skilled contributions supported the birth of the Republic,” the estate announced in a joint statement with the Montpelier Descendants Committee.

The committee is a group of descendants of the enslaved who have entered into a groundbreaking partnership with the Montpelier Foundation to share in the administration of the estate. In an arrangement called “structural parity,” the foundation’s board last year elected 11 members nominated by the committee as equal partners in running the organization.

It took a struggle — several board members resisted the arrangement, and the board fired top Montpelier staffers who had spoken out in favor of parity. But the disgruntled members resigned after a bitter public battle, and most of the staffers returned under the new structure.

James Madison's Montpelier strips power from descendants of the enslaved

“As the first American institution to have achieved equal co-stewardship with the descendants of the enslaved, our work is the full expression of the Madisonian principle of equal representation for all,” James French, a founder of the descendants committee and now chairman of the foundation board, said in a prepared statement. “By bringing people together at Montpelier to explore the evidence of a far more complex and broader origin story, at the home of the Father of the Constitution, we wish to plant the seeds for stronger democratic bonds and for repairing a divided nation.”

In an interview Tuesday, French said the award kicks off a three-year process of planning the memorial. The foundation intends to proceed with a principle of “informed consent,” French said, by which descendants of the enslaved will have full say in deciding how to memorialize their ancestors.

About 300 enslaved people are buried at the 2,650-acre site. Historians will gather as much information as possible about those individuals, French said, and archaeologists will begin surveying the boundaries of the burial site in April. Planning for the memorial itself will probably begin toward the end of the year, he said.

The grant is part of the Mellon Foundation’s “Monuments Project,” a $250 million program to better commemorate the contributions to American history of populations that have often been marginalized or overlooked. Late last year, Mellon awarded $11 million to the city of Richmond to help create a memorial center in the Shockoe Bottom district that before the Civil War housed the nation’s second-busiest slave market.

“It’s a very exciting time,” French said. The Mellon grant “is an affirmation of our legitimate right to decide how the sites of enslavement — that are also sites of defining American history — are interpreted.” Calling it a “years, years-long dream,” French said the board takes the assignment “very seriously. We understand that we have a huge responsibility on our shoulders to bring something of value to the nation as a whole.”