Michelle Taylor has had a peculiar fascination with dead people for most of her life. As a young girl, she wanted to be a mortician, a pronouncement that sometimes earned her gawks and stares. Later, she took classes in mortuary science.
The obsession ultimately turned from the recently dead to the long dead and a fixation with her own family’s genealogy. She began tracing her family’s roots from Detroit, where she grew up, to Henderson, Ky., where her slave ancestors worked on a plantation and where her great-grandmother was born.
But the anthropology student’s move to Virginia Commonwealth University — and a keen instinct for genealogical research — put her closer to her own roots than she could have imagined. Taylor found herself inside the home of a distant ancestor, George Gilmore, who had been enslaved by James Madison at Montpelier, about 70 miles northwest of the school.
Taylor’s link to Gilmore, who was freed during the Civil War, injected new energy and meaning into her efforts to unearth her family’s past. It also reaffirmed her aspirations to make anthropology and archaeology her life’s work.
“I knew after that, archaeology and anthropology was what I needed to do,” said Taylor, a 24-year-old recent graduate of VCU. “I’m telling the story for so many others now.”
At the Montpelier Foundation, which manages the Madison home and surrounding property, leaders want to make the legacy of the region’s African Americans — from those who were enslaved by Madison, to those who lived under the oppression of Jim Crow laws — prominent. Gilmore’s restored cabin is an important centerpiece of the initiative, but work also is underway to reconstruct slave quarters.
The effort is not just to show Madison’s apparent hypocrisy in fervently arguing for the nation’s freedom while also owning slaves. It’s also an attempt to show the complexity of the lives of African Americans, demonstrating their skills as artisans and the discreet economy they operated.
“They had their own independent economy, and in many ways, this is what allowed them to survive after slavery,” said Matthew Reeves, Montpelier’s director of archaeology.
Bringing descendants to the site and asking for their input has been a critical part of the effort. The organization also has assembled groups of descendants to help unearth artifacts there.
It’s part of a broader effort in the general field of archaeology to involve descendants in explorations and digs, said Bernard Means, an archaeologist who taught Taylor.
“Her story helps inform the interpretation of that site. It makes people realize that the past is still alive for people,” Means said. “There has been a shift at a lot of these sites to focus more on what are sometimes known as sort of the hidden history — the invisible people, the people who don’t make it into the history books.”
Taylor’s interest in her family’s genealogy stems from her great-grandmother, Sophia Deadwiler, who raised her mother.
Despite living in poverty, Deadwiler ensured that Taylor’s mother got a college education, which in turn was a strong influence on Taylor going to college. Exploring her family’s roots is Taylor’s way of honoring her great-grandmother.
“She wanted so much for the family,” Taylor said. “She wanted us all to be educated.”
Taylor’s first major break came from Ancestry.com, where she found evidence of a pension application from a distant ancestor, Harriet Bentley, a freed slave who was married to two different slaves who were later freed and fought for the Union Army.
In a pension application, which Taylor found at the National Archives, Bentley told her story of life as an enslaved woman and of her first husband being sold off.
Taylor wept over those pages, excited about the discovery but deeply saddened by the woman’s tale of repeated heartbreak and trauma.
“I couldn’t believe I was touching the original paper,” Taylor said.
Taylor later heard of her connection to the Gilmore family through her mother’s first cousin, Robert Banks. She used census records to confirm the connection to George Gilmore. And when she Googled his name, she discovered that his cabin was preserved at Montpelier. She pulled up a recent photo snapped of his descendants. Taylor’s mother recognizedthem — they were distant cousins.
In August 2012, Taylor traveled to Montpelier as part of a public archaeology program, spending a week helping with excavations. In the South Yard, where slave quarters were based, Taylor helped unearth a broken Dutch oven, believed to be one of the tools slaves used for cooking.
Midweek, she got a tour of the restored cabin where Gilmore lived after he was freed and where he managed to purchase some of the land.
It was a breathtaking experience, one that drilled home the difficult life her ancestors had in the years after the Civil War.
“It was a great experience,” Taylor said. “I was very happy knowing that an ancestor of mine was responsible for building this home for his family.”
Since then, Taylor has continued her work on the Montpelier site, working at Virginia Commonwealth University creating 3-D copies of artifacts unearthed there. She graduated in August but hopes to continue her work in archaeology.
“I’ve always felt proud of myself,” Taylor said. “Now that I hold on my shoulders the pride of my family, it feels like a completeness there.”