How I (Safely) Toured Montpelier

March 31, 2020 by Katherine Malone-France

Yesterday, at one of our National Trust Historic Sites, I was pleased to join a group of almost 50 people for a tour. We were at Montpelier in Orange, Virginia, which was home to President James and Dolley Madison and a significant community of free and enslaved African Americans across two centuries.

Don’t worry, I was still social distancing: Our walk in the woods together at Montpelier was virtual.

During the tour, Matt Reeves, Montpelier’s Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration, guided us through some of the newly discovered sites on the property. Among them were remarkable irrigation ditches, some extending for a quarter of a mile, that had been engineered and dug by enslaved people to make it possible to grow tobacco in bottomlands. As Matt reminded us, over time this landscape has been planted and harvested repeatedly, gone fallow, and then turned to forest—all the while holding its rich stories until we discover them anew.

Or, to put it more simply: Montpelier is resilient. This site, like thousands upon thousands of historic places across the nation, embodies our capacity to persevere, adapt, and endure in ways that are incredibly inspiring, especially in a time of crisis and uncertainty.

Another such place is the home of Dr. Justina Ford in Denver, Colorado, which just received a grant from our 2019 Partners in Preservation program, sponsored by American Express. Dr. Ford was Colorado’s first licensed female African American doctor, but she was denied access to hospitals because of her race. Instead, she practiced gynecology, obstetrics, and pediatrics from her home for half a century, treating patients who were not able to access other medical care. They often paid her in all that they had—their own goods and services.

Across her remarkable career, Dr. Ford experienced discrimination and unfairness over and over again. But she kept working, kept caring, kept healing. Fortunately, Dr. Ford’s home was saved from demolition in the 1980s by the Five Points Community and Historic Denver, and its stories are still told there at the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center. Today, her home and her story remind us of the deep legacy of courage and perseverance that undergirds the heroic medical professionals on the frontlines of the fight against the coronavirus today.

Historic places also yield contemporary stories of resilience. In historic commercial districts across the country, small businesses are showing incredible creativity and adaptability as they continue to serve and sustain their communities during this crisis. Our colleagues at Main Street America are collecting and sharing these stories online, from the inspirational quotes posted in Downtown Albany Georgia’s storefronts to a virtual farmer’s market sponsored by Downtown SLO in San Luis Obispo, California.

Through their powerful stories and capacity to adapt, historic places offer comforting and inspiring evidence of both our cultural and our natural resiliency. At the National Trust, we’ll continue to tell the stories of places that sustain us, and we hope you will continue to share with us the places that are helping you get through these challenging times. While we often talk about saving places, it is worth remembering that sometimes those places save us right back.

Join the movement to save and sustain historic African American places. The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund will help every American see themselves, their history, and their potential in our collective story and national cultural landscape.

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