Montpelier’s exhibit could serve as a national model for telling the complete history of slavery

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The dwellings of the enslaved inhabitants at Montpelier stand in the South Yard, adjacent to the Madisons' main house. Photo by Eze Amos The dwellings of the enslaved inhabitants at Montpelier stand in the South Yard, adjacent to the Madisons’ main house. Photo by Eze Amos

Amateur archaeologists had been kneeling in the dirt of the South Yard at James Madison’s Montpelier for hours, painstakingly searching for intact artifacts that could be used in exhibits detailing the lives of the enslaved community that was forced to live and toil there. Among them was Leontyne Peck, who was participating in her first weeklong excavation. Peck thought the experience would enrich her life, but she didn’t expect it to be so personal.

As she carefully dug through the brown soil to unearth connections to the people who had been there before, she discovered a connection to her past—a hand-carved pipe covered in Masonic symbols. Peck has vivid memories of her paternal grandfather, Willie Clay, who grew up in Madison County, Virginia, and who had also been a Mason, smoking a pipe filled with cherry tobacco.

“When I touched the pipe, it was like I was touching my grandfather,” she says. “I actually felt connected with him.”

Peck says she understands why descendants of the enslaved people often don’t feel comfortable visiting sites where slavery was the oppressive foundation upon which the landowner’s prosperity was possible (places like Montpelier, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Monroe’s Highland). But for Peck, “I feel like I’m home,” she says. Peck has even earned the nickname “Universal Cousin” from her time spent on digs at Montpelier. The first thing she asks someone when she meets him is, “What is your surname?” From one name, Peck, originally from West Virginia, can trace their shared heritage, her own lineage born from the Clays of Madison County and Orange (her maiden name was Clay), to the enslaved communities at both Montpelier and Monticello.

Leontyne Peck, a descendant of the enslaved community at both Montpelier and Monticello, has participated in several archaeological digs at Montpelier and often finds artifacts from people who lived there. Photo courtesy of Montpelier

Since her first dig three years ago, Peck has uncovered a meaningful object each time. Once it was a marble (which she plucked out of the ground after only 10 minutes), and another time a pink crystal, not dissimilar to the one Peck has in her own home, to bring good luck, as part of the African spiritual tradition.

“Finding the crystal was another sign to say, ‘We were here, we brought our traditions with us,’ and they passed the traditions on,” Peck says. “[The crystal says] ‘you can work me, you’re getting my labor to get what you need but you can’t take my spirit, you can’t take my soul. When I have this quiet moment with my spiritual force you can never take that from me.’”

Peck says it’s become somewhat of a joke that she always finds something when she participates in a dig—but it doesn’t surprise her.

“There are certain people walking the earth, and I count myself among them, that the ancestors have said, ‘Tell our story and tell our full story because we weren’t born to work for people day in and day out. Our humanity was taken and it needs to be restored.’ …Every time I go on a dig it’s a spiritual journey for me because I feel as though I’m helping to recover and touch the humanity of the enslaved men and women and children who were there.”

The staff at Montpelier has focused on that holistic narrative with their newest exhibit, “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” which debuted in June. The exhibit was made possible by a $10 million gift in 2014 from philanthropist David Rubenstein, and in 2015 museum staff began meeting with members of the Montpelier enslaved descendant community as well as scholars and museum colleagues who concentrate on African-American history. The main goals that emerged from those workshops were two things that are rarely seen at historical sites: Connect the history of slavery with the present, and illuminate the humanity and stories of the enslaved community.

“If you’re African-American, the legacy of slavery is something you live with every day and your families think that way,” says Giles Morris, Montpelier’s vice president for marketing and communications. “If you’re white, you never think that way; you think it’s a historical thing that happened.”

Talking about history in a new context

Divided into two former cellar spaces underneath the main house and continuing into the adjacent South Yard (where dozens of members of the enslaved community lived and worked), the exhibit shines a spotlight on the present-day effects of slavery and racism in its Legacies of Slavery video, the economics of slavery, ways in which protections for slavery were written into the Constitution by its author—Madison—and the fate of the enslaved community at Montpelier, with the stories told by their descendants.

The title of the exhibit centers around a quote from Madison during the Constitutional Convention on June 6, 1787, which is displayed on a pillar at the beginning of the exhibit: “We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.” In contrast, the adjacent economics of slavery part of the exhibit shows that wealth of the domestic slave trade, including in Virginia, was built on the sale of humans—considered property by their owners—to cotton mill owners in the South. Another interactive exhibit reveals that all states allowed slavery in 1787 at the end of the American Revolution.

The next room walks visitors through debates on slavery during Madison’s time, while another room shows an elevated written Constitution with six sections outlined in red. Each highlighted passage corresponds to a panel in the room that illuminates how that language perpetuated slavery without stating so outright.

“People are interested in James Madison for his role in creating the Constitution, which is our rights, our way of understanding our rights,” Morris says. “…he both personally denied freedom to the enslaved people who lived and worked here but also publicly he compromised over slavery and saw the compromises through—and he had very complex and nuanced and interesting writing about all of that. Instead of it being compartmentalized, having the hero story over here and slavery over here, how do you tell one story about how America got created?”

The Legacy of Slavery video features four different perspectives on how slavery and the legacy of slavery are connected to present-day events such as police officers shooting black men and white supremacist rallies. Photo by Eze Amos
The original idea was to have the Constitution on the floor of the exhibit, but the end result is an elevated Constitution with highlighted passages containing language that perpetuated slavery without stating so outright. Photo by Eze Amos
The Economics of Slavery portion of the exhibit includes an interactive station that shows how much of Virginia’s wealth was built on the domestic slave trade. Photo by Eze Amos

One hurdle for Montpelier was the lack of documentation surrounding plantation life. Madison’s wife, Dolley, and her son, Payne Todd, then the property’s administrator, sold the property in 1846 to cover debt (many documents vanished with the sale), and Madison’s formal books, which had been transferred to UVA’s Rotunda after his death in 1836, burned in the 1895 fire. And Montpelier staff has been building its history with only eight known last names of members of its enslaved community. Because Montpelier is relatively new in relation to other presidential homes (the Montpelier Foundation was established in 2000 and the Madison house only opened to the public in 2009), and because of the flexibility that comes with less historical documentation, the staff has expanded the definition of its enslaved community to anyone who has connections to the western Orange County area and wants to share their oral history and genealogy. Their contributions are seen most in the second part of the exhibit focused on the lives of the enslaved.

One question that arose during the creation of the exhibit: How do you depict slavery in a non-photographic era? With a primary goal from the descendant community being to illuminate the humanity of their ancestors, staff wanted to be careful not to misappropriate any images. They used photos of enslaved people from the Library of Congress and created a shadow effect around the photo. They then overlaid on top words that could have identified who this person was.

The contemporary look of the panels and the space as a whole was intentional, Morris says. By placing visitors in a context they are familiar with, they are more likely to relate to the members of the enslaved community. On one of the panels, a woman bending over to work in a field is defined as: “I was a mother. I was broken. I was tired. I was a singer. I was a worshiper. I was angry.” But each panel ends with the same line: “I was property.”

“People can’t identify with working 14 hours of back-breaking labor every day, can’t identify with the emotional realities [of slavery],” Morris says. “A lot of the story will never be told and can’t ever be told, and we have to acknowledge it. It has to be in the conversation.”

The next room unpacks further the thought of enslaved people as property, with images of actual ledgers from the household projected onto the wall. The notes, written in loopy scrawl, show meticulous records of everything bought and sold. In one letter, Payne Todd asks for a suit of clothes, and Dolley Madison responds that she’s planning on selling certain people and then he’ll have enough money for his clothes.

A video playing in the next room, Fate in the Balance, illustrates this idea in perhaps the most tangible way. During research for the exhibit, the team at Montpelier discovered the story of the Stewart family, and through oral histories, letters and newspapers were able to trace the stories of Ellen Stewart, her mother, Sukey (Dolley Madison’s ladies maid), and other members of the family. Filmed by Northern Light Productions, the movie was shot in Boston with actors behind a screen. The end result looks like a moving chalk drawing—living history that’s fluid.

The film focuses on the fate of the Stewart family after Madison’s death. His will transferred ownership of the enslaved people (300 total in his lifetime) to his wife, but stated no one should be sold without his or her consent. The film watches as members of the Stewart family are sold to pay debts: first Ellen’s brother, Ben, then her sister, Becca, and finally her mother, Sukey. It details how Paul Jennings, who had been Madison’s servant in the White House, eventually earned his freedom and attempted to help 77 enslaved people, including Ellen, escape.

When Peck first saw the video, which she calls “the most powerful part of the exhibit,” she couldn’t watch it all the way through. When the image of Becca holding her baby, whom she had to leave behind at Montpelier, was shown, Peck was so overwhelmed she had to leave the room. She eventually returned and cried through the rest of the film, because “that is the essence of what the exhibit is trying to teach people, about the humanity of the people who were there.”

Fate in the Balance tells the story of the enslaved Stewart family through the eyes of 15-year-old Ellen (top), using live actors shot behind a screen. The family’s history was traced by letters, newspapers and oral histories. Photos by Eze Amos

Margaret Jordan, a board member at Montpelier who lives in Dallas, is a descendant of Jennings and says she feels lucky that her family knows not only the history of how they are related to Jennings, but who he was as a person. For the exhibit, Jordan was filmed for one of the multimedia stations in which descendants and historians discuss topics around slavery. She says the interview caused her to reflect on something she hadn’t put into words: what slavery means to her.

“The world has had slaves for many centuries, but they’ve never had chattel slavery like America has where it was such a dehumanization, a deliberate institutional strategy and attempt to dehumanize an individual and make them into a piece of nothing, something to be bought and sold and take away someone’s complete dignity and not use their last names,” she says. “When I really stopped and dealt with that it’s more than sobering.”

Jordan read the convocation at the opening of the exhibit last June and has spoken at several events at Montpelier throughout the years. She says the first time she visited the exhibit she couldn’t make it through the entire thing because it’s so emotionally draining, but she calls the exhibit “important” and says she always reads something new each time.

“I feel like I’m on hallowed ground when I’m at Montpelier because I know there were hundreds of people who lived there and we know the names of some proportion of them but not all of them, and you feel them looking down saying, ‘Continue to make us be real to people: We lived here, we worked here, we were a part of this, and we suffered here. It’s really important that it be understood that we existed.’”

Framing the national conversation

In mid-February, Montpelier staff, in conjunction with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, organized a national summit on teaching slavery. The goal? Create a universal rubric that could be used in schools and at historic institutions. Fifty scholars, museum interpreters from around the country (including representatives of Monticello and Highland) and descendants of the enslaved community convened for a weekend-long series of workshops and discussions, all aimed at creating the framework for teaching the history of slavery that could become a national model. The goal is to roll out out the rubric in June.

“We had a shared version that historic sites could play a leading role, not just a role, in how the nation comes to understand American slavery,” says Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at Ohio State University.

Jeffries can be heard speaking in the Legacies of Slavery video about the “Disney version” of history he often sees his students bring into the classroom, and myths associated with that.

He was conflicted when Montpelier first asked him to contribute to the exhibit in late 2016. His historian side wanted to jump at the chance to be involved, but he says the African-American in him made him hesitate. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be affiliated with an institution that had fostered slavery. But Jeffries says from his first weekend on the property, when he saw the majority of work that had been done on the exhibit, it was clear that they “got it.”

“Slavery is bound by time but its legacy isn’t,” he says. “Slavery was an economic system that at its core was designed to extract labor at its cheapest possible cost, and once slavery ends the same impulse that drove slavery continues forward, justified by this belief in white supremacy so that everything that we see afterward in terms of race relations, the African-American condition to the development of America is tied to these implications of what slavery was. The things we see today are informed very much so by what happened in the past.”

Jeffries studied history, and specifically African-American history, as a way to explain what he saw growing up in Brooklyn. Riding the subway in a big city was an easy way to see that segregation still existed, and Jeffries was dissatisfied with the explanations he learned in school. And he says lack of education of American history is a growing issue, with an increasing emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. He points to a study released in January from the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Teaching the Hard History of American Slavery,” for which he served as chairman of the advisory committee. It surveyed high school seniors and social studies teachers, and analyzed state content standards and 10 popular history textbooks. The results? Only 8 percent of high school seniors could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War; just 44 percent correctly answered that slavery was legal in every colony during the American Revolution. Going forward, Jeffries says it is even more important for historic sites to give detailed and complete history lessons.

“Part of the challenge for places like Montpelier is not only to tell an accurate story but also to educate—re-educate people because they aren’t coming in as blank slates,” Jeffries says. “They’re coming with a version of slavery and the role of enslaved people in that story that’s very often just wrong.”

Peck, who also attended the summit, has a term for what she believes should be a straightforward discussion of our American history, including its contentious past: “straight, no chaser.” She says slavery is a collective open, gaping wound for all people, the medicine for which is changing education curriculums from kindergarten to post-secondary institutions, as well as having people continue to educate their families. While in West Virginia, she led a Saturday morning group for white and black children called Club Noir in which they discussed African-American history and culture and took field trips.

“The important thing is that it’s consistent and not just during Black History Month,” Peck says. “Slavery is an extremely heavy topic but it has to be discussed.”

Kat Imhoff came on board as president and CEO of Montpelier five and a half years ago with the vision of telling a more complete American story. She says the local events of August 12 “stiffened her backbone” in providing a 360-degree view of our past.

“I believe that we are constantly rediscovering ourselves and our history,” says Imhoff. “When people treat history as something dull and boring I think you have no idea it’s actually incredibly radical. When you are willing to look under the covers and look at the complexity, and I for one believe Americans can deal with complex stories, it makes our founding very rich, but it also has reverberations about what we do and [how we] think and act today. And for us, that’s what’s so important: We want to link the past and present in order to inform our actions today and make the world a better place.”

Next year marks the 400th anniversary of the first documented slaves from Africa arriving in America at Point Comfort, Virginia. Peck hopes to be there to honor her ancestors, to honor the place where their feet first touched American soil.

“When you’re sitting around face to face you understand we want the same thing: You want your child to be happy, I want my child to be happy,” Peck says. “People want safety, family preservation, want to have fun, good careers. Then, when we dissect how come certain people have privileges and others don’t, that’s what we have to look at as a society. Make it a society that’s fair to all citizens, everyone.”


James Monroe’s Highland is in the beta testing phase of its augmented reality tours on the property’s grounds. Photo by Eze Amos

Virtual reality

James Monroe’s Highland recently announced its partnership with ARtGlass to become the first historic site in the United States to offer augmented reality tours using smart glasses designed by Epson. In the planning process for more than a year, the tour includes 11 stops for the viewer in which he is guided to specific points around the property at which images, videos, 3-D reconstructions and conversations between animated characters appear through the glasses, projected onto the Highland landscape. The experience provides the visitor with a more immersive experience, and delivers content in a new
way, says Sara Bon-Harper, Highland’s executive director.

“[The tour content is about] diversity of perspective, the connection with the larger threads of U.S. history and trying to engage the audience in a way that they couldn’t otherwise,” Bon-Harper says.

The AR tours are in a beta testing phase right now, and staff is making changes and updating content based on feedback from visitors.

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