After years of careful planning, James Madison’s Montpelier has finally opened its extensive new permanent exhibit on enslaved families and slavery, which, in many ways, completely breaks the mold. WMRA’s Jordy Yager has this report.
Jerome Bias is a living historian. He travels the country, demonstrating what life was like 150-200 years ago. You can probably picture him—billowy white shirt, greyish blue trousers, uncomfortable looking shoes. But Bias depicts not just any 19th century life, but the life of an enslaved African American.
Over the years, he’s been to dozens of historic sites, and when it comes to their portrayal of race and slavery, he’s noticed something.
JEROME BIAS: Most sites are afraid to go and have those hard conversations. Most sites take the perception of, ‘What would be comfortable for my white — our white visitors?’
Today, Bias is setting up a cooking demonstration at President James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange County. And there are mostly white visitors. But last week, Montpelier opened a new extensive multi-million dollar exhibit that takes visitors beyond Madison’s story alone, and delves into the lives of the 300 African-Americans that he enslaved, and whose labor his family profited from.
The exhibit is called a Mere Distinction of Colour, and it’s a tapestry of intersecting displays, artifacts, and testimonials spread throughout the plantation.
There’s the physical changes to the property itself—less than 50 yards from Madison’s mansion, stand two giant re-constructed slave quarters and two smaller smoke houses. It’s where they originally were, right near where Bias is cooking today.
But Montpelier didn’t want just another exhibit on slavery, like you see at any number of historic sites. And so they began a crucial process of asking living descendants of the enslaved: What do you want? And it’s those voices that visitors hear at the displays inside each of the slave quarters. Buildings the descendants themselves helped reconstruct. Descendants even partook in the archaeological digs, as did Bias around this time last year.
BIAS: It’s so wild to see African-Americans wanting to participate in the historical field, where before we’d never been invited to, never participated in, and you see this woman, who’s a descendant, being an archaeologist, digging in the dirt and she keeps plowing away at it—we’re going, ‘It’s lunch time!’ And she keeps going, and she finds a silver cufflink with a nice little glass stone on the top of it, and she’s got the biggest, most wonderful smile on her face. What else can you say to that?
A stone’s throw away, in Madison’s mansion, are two new exhibits that run the length of the cellar. One relates the personal stories of the enslaved at Montpelier, with listening stations, an interactive map, old documents, and a film that depicts the horrors of seeing your family broken apart by slave traders.
The other exhibit delves into the national system of slavery. It pinpoints how every state prospered from enslaving black and brown people, and how America would likely have failed as a country if not for their forced labor. It details how slave-holding states got more representative votes in Congress, and were able to shape the first laws of the new country. But then, the exhibit goes a step further. Christian Cotz is the director of education and visitor engagement.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: One of the other things that we wanted to do, and again this is coming from talking with these groups of descendants that we work with, was bring it to the present, right? Everybody ends slavery in 1865. And that’s fine if you’re white. But if you’re an African American, slavery is still a part of your world. And it’s not that long ago.
Seated in the basement of the house once owned by America’s fourth president, the framer of the Constitution, the lights go out, and a 10-minute film begins…
(ED AYERS, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, UNIVERSITY OF RICHMOND): People come to Montpelier and can’t help but be struck by the contradiction between the words of the Constitution and of the reality of slavery. Slavery was profitable, and the richest people in America depended on it for its profits. We need to remember that 80 percent of all American exports by 1860 are produced by enslaved people.
And then the film goes to a place that no other historic site has really taken it…
(RAKEYIA SCOTT, WIFE OF KEITH LAMONT SCOTT): Don’t shoot him, don’t shoot him, he has no weapon, he has no weapon.
The video connects the past to the present.
(REGIE GIBSON, LITERARY PERFORMER AND EDUCATOR): And when you’re living constantly with the fear of going to jail because you fit the description or because you can’t afford a lawyer… [fades out].
Cheyney McKnight is a living historian and was up from Colonial Williamsburg to help Bias with the cooking demonstration for the day. She and Bias say the new exhibits raise the bar for every other antebellum historic site. And that’s important, for many reasons, she says, but namely it bucks the trend of portraying the enslaved as inferior in their capacity.
CHEYNEY MCKNIGHT: If you think that about the enslaved persons, what do you think about their descendants? What do you think about their humanity, if you can’t find the empathy for this experience that they had, that they lived through for generations? If you can’t have empathy for that, then how do you feel about the situation of the African American community now?
Montpelier’s new exhibit is a significant step towards having a deeper conversation on race. The conversation that’s been on the tip of our tongue for 150 years. Now, there’s hope, we may finally be finding our voices.