The Reckoning With Our History Is Not Just About Smashed StatuesBreaking News
tags: slavery, memorials, James Madison, Montpelier, public history
One of my favorite places in the country is Mr. Madison’s old place, Montpelier, tucked deep in Orange County, Virginia. (If you drive there from DC, you go through several Civil War battlefields, including Chancellorsville—Make sure you stop and see the tombstone where they buried Stonewall Jackson’s amputated arm!—as if to remind you that Mr. Madison’s work in Philadelphia had one deep and serious flaw.) It doesn’t have the iconic status of Mount Vernon or Monticello, largely because people actually lived there until well into the 20th century. The DuPonts were the last private residents and, at some point, painted the house a godawful pink.
The restoration work done there has been nothing short of miraculous, and one aspect of that restoration has been to integrate fully into the history of Montpelier the stories of the people who were enslaved there, which is really god’s own archaeological work. The result has been an object lesson in how to confront the complicity of the Founders in one of the country’s two fundamental historical crimes, and in celebrating the hands that really built America.
And the project is more than just digging up old pottery and reconstructing the old slave quarters. The historians there are also trying to piece together the lives of the individual enslaved people, to give them a voice through which they can tell their own stories. For example, there is the story of Ailsey Payne, who lived long enough to die a free woman in the late 1890s. Ms. Payne vividly describes a gala dinner hosted by James and Dolley Madison in 1824 in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette.
HNN Readers can follow the progress of archaeological excavation at Montpelier on Twitter through @Montpelier_Arch--Ed.
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