December 22, 2023

Eola Dance: The Dynamic Cultural Landscape of Montpelier

When the Montpelier Foundation appointed Eola Dance as its new president and CEO in June 2023, they chose a leader whose roots already ran deep at this National Trust Historic Site located in Orange, Virginia.

Dance, who served as the chief historian at Jamestown, during the Virginia and African Landing 400th Anniversaries, had, as early as 2010, collaborated with the community of historians, archaeologists, and interpreters who supported Montpelier. This included piloting the Urban Archeology Corp with Dr. Mary Furlong Minkoff in 2011, and most recently in 2022, working with Dr. Elizabeth Chew, then the executive director and chief curator at Montpelier, and Elon Cook Lee, the director of interpretation and education at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, on the Re-Imagining International Sites of Enslavement (RISE) working group. In becoming part of the community of practice focused on descendant engagement, Eola was able to bring full circle an aspect of telling all American stories that had been a part of her work over the course of her career.

A view of Montpelier Foundation's executive director Eola Dance standing on the South Yard between the rows dwellings where enslaved people lived. She is a colorful dress on green grass.

photo by: Sharen Montgomery/The Montpelier Foundation

President and CEO of the Montpelier Foundation Eola Dance standing in the South Yard of Montpelier.

When she describes Montpelier, her words are elegant in how they encapsulate the essence of this historic site: liberty, leadership, and legacy. Dance said, “What was attractive to me was the opportunity to work with such amazing professionals, to help shape what structural parity would look like, to continue to advance the Descendant Engagement Rubric, and to empower descendant communities to tell their own stories. That is the opportunity at present at Montpelier, and it is a real privilege to lead that work.”

Today, visitors can experience Montpelier in a variety of ways, including through a podcast called “Consider the Constitution,” with Dr. Katie Crawford-Lackey and online discussions with Montpelier’s lead historian Hillarie Hicks who is researcher spearheading the Naming Project.

I interviewed Eola Dance about her work and to learn more about what she hopes for Montpelier in the future.

What inspired your love of history?

I would have to say my family—in particular family photos. I grew up in a large family from Louisiana, but I lived in Virginia, and so all of my understanding of Louisiana culture, the food, the music, the dancing (like Zydeco), all of these things I learned through family photos. Over time, I realized that through the family photos I was learning about American history.

What is your earliest memory of experiencing a Historic site?

My earliest memory of visiting a historic site was Jamestown in Virginia. My aunt and uncle visited us from Texas and there's a photograph of me at the Pocahontas statue. I really remember this visit. I remember the heat. I remember just the feel of being by the water. I remember curiosity about the history of Native Americans in Virginia, that history was all around me in the names of streets, buildings, and schools, but I didn't recall interacting with Native people. And oftentimes as a young person I've reflected back to this early memory of being at Jamestown and seeing that statue and wondering where it was. And when I had the opportunity to serve as the chief historian at Jamestown, I realized that that's where I had visited.

A view of a sign in front of Montpelier that says We the People and Love.

photo by: The Montpelier Foundation

This sign with the combined words of "We the People: Love" greets visitors as they arrive at Montpelier.

When people visit Montpelier, what do you want them to see, do, and feel while they are there?

On a visit to Montpelier, I want people to see themselves in the history—even some of the difficult histories—and I hope that they will feel a sense of pride, and that they will feel hopeful and curious to learn more. As you can imagine, with 2,600 acres and Madison’s 22 room mansion, the enslaved community South Yard, the enslaved burial grounds, the Constitution Center, there's more than you can experience at Montpelier in one day. And so, we hope that people will be curious enough to visit us, visit us often, and bring family and friends.

What is your favorite part of Montpelier?

As you can tell, I am especially excited about cultural landscapes and communities. So, it's so hard to ask an ethno-historian that question, so bear with me.

For me, it is awe inspiring every time I approach the home, immediately after I come through the gates and you begin to see the home on the horizon, you're welcomed by a sign that says “LOVE” and “We the people”, you can see the expansive DuPont Era race track which is used for the Steeplechase race, and you see the Liberty Temple, Madison's home and the South Yard.

So, when I mentioned—as my three words—liberty, leadership, and legacy, that is what greets me every time I arrive, every time I'm working, every time I bring visitors, in particular my family, and I'll sneak in that my sons have lineal connections to Orange County and the Dance family history also has roots here.

Their favorite room is Madison's library where he locked himself in his library studying governments led by the people, and he looked out in the opposite direction at that same view that I just described.

It's a tough choice for me, between the library and arriving and seeing the landscape.

A view of some bookshelves with older books at the library at Montpelier.

photo by: The Montpelier Foundation

A view of the Old Library at Montpelier.

A desk in the foreground is facing an open landscape at Montpelier in Orange, Virginia.

photo by: William Adams/The Montpelier Foundation

A view of the landscape of Montpelier from the library window.

What project at the site is energizing you today?

I am finding so much energy in working with our entire team, the Montpelier Descendant Committee (MDC), and our university partners on the Memorialization Project; which has several layers to it. One is honoring and remembering the 300 documented enslaved people at Montpelier and creating a memorial at the burial grounds located at Montpelier in the overgrowth forest. We are working directly with the MDC at present on that effort that we hope connects with local, national and global audiences, and it is an opportunity for all to come to that contemplative space that we're in the planning [stages].

We received a $5.8 million Mellon grant to pursue this work, and we know that it will take much more than that, but we are so appreciative of that funding that will help us to bring people together and plan for this space that can then be part of an arc to the enslaved community, connecting communities and place and space that also tells these hidden and sometimes marginalized and erased histories.

This descendant work is happening at so many sites like William and Mary’s James Monroe’s Highlands, or like my colleagues at Woodlawn, to name a few. From Point Comfort to Washington D.C.; from Richmond to Fredericksburg, or right here in and around Orange County and we're seeking to bring those sites together as a trail or network.

Lastly, I would say, fundamentally, I'm invigorated and energized about how all of this is connected to the U.S. Constitution. As we're all preparing for the 250th commemoration and thinking about the American Revolution and the birth of American ideals of liberty, justice, and freedom, the 250th is on the road to the American Constitution. James Madison is revered as the father of the U.S. Constitution and the architect of the Bill of Rights, and Montpelier is the birthplace of those ideas.

Today, we all have a shared history and connection because of the values and ideals that are the foundation of American society. And so collectively, that work in memorialization and memory is what brings me energy every day.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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