More and more historic sites are beginning to tell the whole story. What I mean is after many decades of avoiding difficult topics, such as slavery, they are pushing past self-imposed boundaries, seeking the complex truth, and striving to find ways to tell these stories. Three of Virginia’s most well-known sites, Mount Vernon, Monticello and Montpelier, all presidential homes, have been boldly leading the way. Mount Vernon has a new exhibition Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Monticello recently made national news by opening a new exhibition about Sally Hemings, and Montpelier recently opened The Mere Distinction of Colour, an expansive exhibition and recreation of some slave quarters based on years of archaeological and historical research.
Montpelier, President James Madison’ home, sits in Orange, Virginia, only a 40-minute drive from Charlottesville. Set in rolling horse pastures, the Blue Ridge mountains on the western horizon, the property is serene and bucolic. The Madison story is obviously different from Jefferson’s and Washington’s and in many ways more cerebral – it’s about a man with ideas that changed the nation and a woman whose presence on the national scene lasted for decades. Yet, America’s fourth president, like it’s first and third, and many others in the early period, was a product of a culture of slavery. The hypocritical position of speaking and writing rhetoric of freedom while holding humans in bondage is hard to reconcile and the need to try to understand and learn is crucial. James and Dolley Madison were flawed humans, like everyone. They were entangled in a culture they did not create, but one in which they had power to make change. They owned over a hundred slaves and never directly freed any of them.
In 1787, the year of the Constitutional Convention, James Madison wrote the lines from which the exhibit’s title derives: “We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.” His thoughts on slavery varied throughout his life and show a deep inner struggle.
The Montpelier staff has been winning awards and receiving accolades for its new slavery exhibition which opened in June 2017. I finally managed to visit and was impressed with the efforts to interpret a challenging story. A key facet of the multi-year project was the careful cultivation of relationships with the slave descendant community. The Montpelier staff wanted not only buy-in from this important audience, but participation. They understood that the final product would be much richer with their involvement. The result is a powerful mix of history and the present, with connections between the two. The multi-media exhibits raise fascinating questions that some visitors may be uncomfortable with, but it’s truth based on solid research. They tell stories of real people who rose above their circumstances to create a world they could call their own.
The two parts of the exhibition are located in the main house cellars, realm of the domestic workers. One side focuses on slavery in general and the other side focuses on slavery at Montpelier.
In the South Yard, not far from the house, several outbuilding have been recreated to explore the life of the domestic and field slaves. The exhibits feature powerful objects from the excavation – from a brick with finger indentations to many kinds of buttons. The exhibitions humanize the enslaved workers who made the plantation what it was. But instead of keeping the topic in the past, the exhibits strive to include the voices of descendants and make connections to today. The past does shape the present and the legacy of slavery is a vital topic for history sites to tell. For those who may think that the past is not relevant to today, this exhibition proves otherwise.