A front view of Montpelier. (Pam Soorenko/Montpelier)
Opinion writer

In 2007, while the restoration of James Madison’s Montpelier, in Orange, Va., was underway, a group of the estate’s African American stakeholders came to make a visit. Giles Morris, Montpelier’s vice president for marketing and communications, found himself on the terrace overlooking the South Lawn with Iris Ford, an associate professor of anthropology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland who is descended from people enslaved at Montpelier.

Ford wanted to know how much had been spent on the renovations to the main house. Her question called attention to the disparity between the attention lavished on the fourth president’s home and on the South Yard, where railroad ties marked the sites where an insurance map indicated that slave dwellings had stood. Weed killer had recently been sprayed on the area, and the ties rested on dead grass. The contrast between the grandeur of the South Terrace and the raw South Lawn was striking.

“It shames you, on some level,” Morris acknowledged when I visited Montpelier earlier in June.

Ten years later, and with the help of a $10 million gift from philanthropist David Rubenstein, the Montpelier staff has devoted new attention and resources to that untold story. The result is a series of reconstructed dwellings in the South Yard and a new permanent exhibit, “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” on the basement floor of Montpelier. The new galleries, which opened on June 5, do something radical: They treat the people who were enslaved at Montpelier as if their lives were as worthy of historical examination as that of the man who owned them.


A reconstructed slave cabin in Montpelier’s South Yard. (Pam Soorenko/Montpelier)

These displays at Montpelier provide ample evidence for visitors to consider as they reckon with the fact that the same James Madison who drafted the Bill of Rights also spent considerable time trying to track down a runaway slave named Anthony. (Madison’s own enslaved valet, John, went to his grave without telling Madison anything about Anthony’s whereabouts.) But that sort of reconsideration, important as it is, still risks consigning the people who were enslaved by the Founding Fathers to a subordinate role. If museums limit themselves to those assessments, they send, intentionally or not, the message that enslaved people’s importance lies in the way they illustrate the moral frailties of great men, rather than in their own lives and accomplishments.

Montpelier does not stop there. The people who were enslaved by the Madisons emerge from the displays as lively individuals.

Paul Jennings wrote a memoir, “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of Madison,” a chronicle of Washington as “a dreary place” and the evacuation of the White House during the War of 1812. Among other things, he debunked as “totally false” the myth that Dolley Madison saved a portrait of Washington in her flight.

After he became free, Jennings helped organize a plan to get 77 slaves out of Washington on the schooner Pearl, among them Ellen Stewart. The plan failed when the wind turned against the boat, and Dolley Madison contemplated selling Stewart for money for clothes for her son John Payne Todd. Northern abolitionists eventually bought Stewart and granted her freedom; she moved back to Washington, where she became part of a free black community in what is now Foggy Bottom.

These stories can be harrowing to hear: During my visit to Montpelier, a woman walked out of a video exhibition recounting Stewart’s experiences, murmuring “It’s too much.” But following these narratives to the end is more often rewarding than depressing. You can see why Ford would feel pride in the resilience of her ancestors, their ability to “pull up some strength,” as she puts it in one of the video displays.

To tell these stories, Montpelier relies on a range of tools.

“People struggle with the idea that property can own property,” said senior research archaeologist Terry Brock. But the South Yard excavations conducted under Brock’s supervision by students in Montpelier’s Field School — which offers scholarships to African American participants in an effort to diversify the field — and members of the public, including descendants, have turned up a rich material culture that gives visitors a sense of the objects slaves bought for themselves.

“The Mere Distinction of Colour” also drew on Jennings’s memoir and letters from enslaved people, as well as the correspondence of white residents of and visitors to Montpelier who observed the plantation’s black residents.

And Montpelier has embraced a broad definition of what it means for a family to be descended from the people who were enslaved on the plantation, rather than limiting that designation to what can be traced in written records. By treating family oral histories as valuable clues rather than mere rumors, Montpelier researchers have been able to fill in gaps in the movements of enslaved people and their descendants and to broaden their understanding of just how far the effects of Montpelier’s participation in slave sales spread across the country.

Piecing together these stories was half the equation. Figuring out how to present them was another.

“We wanted it to feel different than any other slavery plantation house,” said Christian Cotz, director of education and visitor engagement at Montpelier. “Instead of being earthy, we wanted it to be elegant. We didn’t want it to feel like a Ye Olde Space.”

Morris said that it was important to the descendants that the displays connect slavery to the persistence of racial inequality and racist violence.

“You have to deal with the humanity of our ancestors,” was half the takeaway, Morris explained. The other half was: “You can’t leave this story in the past because this is not over for us.”

The result is a sleek exhibition space that places material objects from excavations side by side with touchscreen displays and sophisticated video productions.

In keeping with the goal of myth-busting, and inspired by Edward E. Baptist’s economic history of slavery “The Half Has Never Been Told,” the exhibition explores how each state’s economy was tied to slavery and the slave trade. The curators decided to use “enslaved” as an active verb to describe what the presidents, including Madison, did because “we were focused, thematically, on the idea of agency and the language needs to reflect that,” as Morris said. In some of the audio displays, the words of the people enslaved by the Madisons are read by the living people descended from them.

One video installation tells Ellen Stewart’s story. Another, the product of a retreat focused on how to connect the past to the present, suggests an unbroken chain of events between slavery and more recent horrors, including the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. “I am three generations removed from being enslaved in Montpelier,” Rebecca Gilmore Coleman reminds visitors. When slavery is almost within living memory, the past doesn’t seem so safely distant.

“We hate history,” the poet Regie Gibson reflects at one point in that second video piece. “What we love is nostalgia.” At Montpelier, where the ghostly frames of slave cabins coexist with hedges for the steeplechase races that are held there every autumn, it may be harder to escape into quaint fantasies about the American past. But the new stories being told there make Montpelier a more beautiful and vibrant place, as well as a more honest one.