June 16, 2015

Breaking New Ground at Montpelier for Interpreting Slavery

For the last two decades, historic sites around the country have been engaged in a steady, thoughtful discussion about slavery and race. This conversation isn’t always comfortable or easy, but it happens consistently and it happens with the authenticity and veracity that can only happen in an old place, in a place where history happened and history is preserved, and history is connected to the present. This year the Preservation Leadership Forum takes a look at National Trust Historic Sites and how their interpretation of slavery has evolved and changed over the years.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, more than 300 enslaved Africans labored at Montpelier in Virginia as field hands, domestic servants, and skilled craftsmen during the three generations the Madison family owned Montpelier, now a National Trust Historic Site operated by The Montpelier Foundation. Several dozen domestic servants lived and worked close to the main house in what is today called the South Yard, a complex of domestic outbuildings within the mansion’s formal grounds. The South Lawn structures were demolished prior to the 1850s, and the area was eventually incorporated into the formal lawn surrounding the plantation.

Looking from the Stable Quarter log cabin to the South Yard and Montpelier Mansion.

photo by: Montpelier Foundation

Looking from the Stable Quarter log cabin to the South Yard and Montpelier Mansion.

In April 2015, The Montpelier Foundation broke ground for the reconstruction of the South Yard. Over the next few years, the complex will be returned to its appearance during James and Dolley Madison’s retirement era (ca. 1817-1844), including the reconstruction of a detached kitchen, two smokehouses, and three duplex slave dwellings. Extensive archaeological and historical research, consultation with architectural historians, and continued engagement with wide audiences—especially the families who descended from the enslaved Montpelier community—is informing and shaping this critically important reconstruction and interpretation project. Throughout the process, we are sharing our discoveries and plans with the public and the preservation field through on-site activities, interpretive exhibits, professional conferences, a webcam, and week-long, hands-on participatory programs for archaeology and timber-frame construction.

Starting with Archaeology

Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Montpelier excavated a portion of the South Yard in 2010-2013. These excavations revealed that, surprisingly, the Madison-era surface rests undisturbed only 3-4 inches below the ground. As a result, all artifacts, features, and deposits were preserved in an extraordinary time capsule. Architectural remains provided clear evidence of the size, construction techniques and appearance of two duplexes, detached kitchen and two smokehouses. In addition, dense trash deposits provided extensive information on life in the South Yard, including insights into the personal belongings of the enslaved inhabitants, the diet of the families, the clothing they wore and how the yard spaces were used. We are conducting additional excavations to better understand the entirety of the South Yard as we reconstruct this area over the next few years.

View of the South Yard and the Stable Quarter timber-frame structures looking toward the Montpelier Mansion. | Credit: Ken Garrett Photography, The Montpelier Foundation

Complimented by Historical and Architectural Research

Over the past two decades, Montpelier has developed a reputation for authentic and accurate restoration work in the Chesapeake region. This began with the mansion restoration (2002-2008) and has continued with extensive architectural research on outbuildings and the landscape. The restoration of the mansion focused on the Madison-era history of the property. Some 30,000 manuscripts, including visitor accounts, bills, correspondence, and even fragmentary references shed light on the site and its residents, both free and enslaved, during the early 19th century. In particular, the 2002 discovery of an 1837 insurance plat guided archaeological excavations and corroborated architectural features revealed in the subsoil.

Expanded by the Descendant Community

For nearly a decade, Montpelier has engaged the local African American and slave descendant community in the process of representing their ancestors on the landscape at Montpelier. During a 2007 descendant reunion, the community witnessed the restoration of the mansion and made a call for better representation of their ancestors’ homes, particularly in the South Yard area. We responded by “ghosting”or physically representing slave dwellings through framed outlines on the South Yard in 2011 (similar to Franklin Court in Philadelphia). A descendant workshop in 2014 led to recommendations for the reconstruction of these structures.

Photograph of restored c. 1873 Gilmore Cabin and Farm. This structure was built and owned by the Gilmore family through the early 20th century. | Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation

Descendants felt that reconstruction would better allow for the interpretation of daily life at Montpelier and help visitors today understand the scope and depth of the enslaved community who lived and worked on the property. We continue to work closely with descendant families. Recently, many returned to participate in a week-long excavation program in the South Yard and to attend our groundbreaking for this project, and they continue to provide additional suggestions on our interpretation.

Telling an Authentic African American History

Authenticity is the primary value of historic sites. We embrace authenticity in many ways at Montpelier. First, we strive for authenticity of appearance, ensuring that the character of the buildings, the interior furnishings and designs, and landscapes are accurate based on painstaking historic, curatorial, archaeological, and architectural research.

Likewise, we strive for authenticity in the stories we share. This commitment ensures that we share the whole story of the plantation, focusing not only on the lives of Dolley and James Madison but also the men and women who built and maintained Montpelier. Bringing places to life requires telling complex stories. Oral history, documents, and archaeology provide the clues to inform our authentic stories.

To ensure authenticity, we must make our stories and histories relevant to modern visitors. Slavery is just one chapter of African American history—to speak only of slavery is to tell an incomplete story. At Montpelier we are able to discuss the full arc of citizenship through venues that track this history through specific points in time. With the Civil War and Freedman Trail, a one-mile trail that passes through a Confederate encampment occupied shortly before emancipation, we can discuss how slavery helped divide the Union and how the war led to freedom. The trail leads to the Gilmore Farm, where visitors can enter the restored freedman’s home of a former Madison slave.

Restored 1911, Montpelier Train Depot shows segregated passenger entrances. Inside the depot is a multimedia exhibit on the Jim Crow-era in Virginia. | Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation

At this site, we explore the lives of slaves freed from Montpelier, including individuals and families who established homes, businesses, and farms nearby. At the trail’s end, the visitor arrives at the Montpelier Train Station, which was constructed in 1910 as the train depot and post office for later owners. This train station was recently restored to its early 20th century appearance with separate waiting rooms for white and black passengers. This striking distinction provides a poignant opportunity to interpret segregation-era America.

Taken together, these spaces of enslavement, freedom and Jim Crow tell a more complete and relevant story of American life. Potentially disparate sites trace multiple trajectories through time and explore how past institutions and their legacies resonate with Americans today.

A $3.5 million donation from David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and co-CEO of The Carlyle Group, is making the project possible. Given Montpelier’s history of active planning and representing buildings and community on the landscape, the opportunity presented with Rubenstein’s gift could not come at a better time. We will continue the relationships we have already established with various experts, craftsmen and community constituents on this project, and look for ways to tell the full story of African American citizenship and the formation of American society.

Matthew Reeves is the director of archaeology and landscape restoration at The Montpelier Foundation.

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By: Matthew Reeves, Ph.D.

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