The forest around Montpelier, James Madison’s former home and tobacco plantation, has miles of paved trails. But Larry Walker isn’t using them. Instead, he has strapped on a rucksack, laced up boots, and tucked his pants into his socks. No asphalt today – he’s ready for a walk in the woods.
For miles, he and a group of colleagues travel what feels like the opening scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” adapted to Virginia history. They walk in a line, carrying sticks at eye level to catch cobwebs. Out front, Matthew Reeves, Montpelier’s director of archaeology and landscape restoration, clears a path with a machete. He even wears a fedora.
Mr. Walker and James French, another foundation board member on the mid-August hike, are descendants of the more than 300 people once enslaved at Montpelier. The two men are scouting a permanent trail in the east woods, leading past former irrigation ditches, tobacco fields, and slave quarters. It’s part of a museumwide reimagining of Montpelier’s mandate, led by the nation’s first museum of its kind governed by descendants.
This odyssey, over decades, has at times deeply tested relationships. Earlier this year, Montpelier’s governing board fought publicly over who should tell Madison’s story – part of it as Founding Father of the United States, part as an enslaver. But that fight has ended, and the museum is trying to expand Montpelier’s narrative of history. That effort has led staff beyond the big house and toward the backwoods, where artifacts of enslaved people sit undisturbed.
“For me to center the voice of my ancestor doesn’t diminish the voice of anyone else’s ancestor,” says Mr. Walker. “If anything, it amplifies.”