For two years, Montpelier has been developing a new exhibit it hopes will paint a true American story—shedding light on all those who lived on the property—from James Madison, “Father of the Constitution,” to the enslaved community who worked there.
“The Mere Distinction of Colour” will open to the public June 5, allowing visitors to experience the stories of the enslaved in the founding era, while connecting those stories to the legacy of slavery in modern America.
The vision for the innovative exhibit, which encompasses the mansion’s two cellars and South Yard, was to move beyond the stereotypical slavery exhibit of other plantations. Montpelier’s new exhibit explores the economic, ideological and political factors that cemented slavery in the U.S. and its Constitution. The Mere Distinction of Colour also works to dispel commonly held myths about enslaved people including their communities and connections and facilitates recognition of enslaved people’s humanity through the voices of their descendants.
While the exhibit has taken two years to create, more than a decade of work has gone into archaeological excavations, documentary research and oral and cultural exploration.
Another key component to the exhibit is the Montpelier descendant community, a group of living descendants of the African American women and men who were enslaved at Montpelier and elsewhere in Orange County. Descendants also include local, regional and national African American groups whose members identify and connect with the history of Montpelier.
The group has been essential to the foundation’s ability to create a more comprehensive Montpelier story, said Christian Cotz, Montpelier’s director of education and visitor engagement.
During a tour of the mansion’s $24 million restoration in 2007, a descendant questioned how much Montpelier was investing in the South Yard, the six buildings where Madison’s domestic slaves lived and worked.
When Montpelier received a $10 million donation from philanthropist David Rubenstein, half the gift was committed to allow the foundation to complete the excavation of the South Yard, rebuild the six structures and create the slavery exhibition.
“Even though Montpelier has been interpreting slavery and working with our descendant community since the late 1990’s, the South Yard is the most major effort to this date to return slavery to the landscape in a way that is impossible to ignore,” said Elizabeth Chew, Montpelier’s vice president of museum programs.
Visitors will be able to walk within the dwellings, where the enslaved lived and worked, and hear stories of those slaves through the voices of their descendants. Audio panels, artifacts and other multimedia tools will be used as part of Montpelier’s modern interpretation on slavery.
According to Montpelier’s vice president of marketing and communications Giles Morris, allowing descendants to speak for their ancestors evokes humanity to a subject that people can’t always engage with on a human level.
“Slavery is not relegated to the 19th century or the 18th century,” Cotz said. “We wanted to help people understand that and make people realize this is a bigger story and it goes beyond Montpelier.”
The north and south cellars of the mansion will examine other aspects of slavery, including the national story of slavery, the lived experiences of slaves and the legacy of slavery.
One of the features of the exhibit includes a movie titled “Fate in the Balance,” outlining the story of 15-year-old Ellen Stewart. She was enslaved by the Madisons and experienced her family being torn apart by slavery.
“Sold like animals,” Stewart cries in the film. “I sit here with tears on my face and fear in my heart knowing one day I will bring children into my condition. And like my mother and sister, I’ll lose them, too.”
Ellen’s story is based on archival research, Chew said, and is Montpelier’s attempt to have people relate to the experiences of slaves on a personal level.
Other rooms of the cellar explore the ideology of slavery during Madison’s lifetime and the economic importance of slavery to the nation, which was founded on ideals of liberty and justice.
“In Virginia, for a period after tobacco had failed to be the primary cash crop, the primary assets that these plantation holders had was their slaves.” Morris said. “They were building their wealth on selling people.”
From Georgia to New Hampshire, slavery was critical to each of the 13 colonies’ economies. Thirteen of the first 18 U.S. presidents owned slaves, who were essential to the type of lives they lived, Morris added.
The framers of the nation protected the institution of slavery because they relied on it for wealth, therefore they cemented slavery into the new national government they developed, Cotz explained.
“We want to celebrate Madison’s contributions to this nation,” he explained. “Madison was a visionary. He was a genius and solved a 2,000 year-old problem in self government, but he couldn’t figure out how to extricate the nation from the institution of slavery. It was the most profitable thing going and there was little hope of getting us out of that. It’s not an excuse, but for us as museum, we need to look at that.”
By 1850, 80 percent of American exports were the product of slave labor. By 1860, slavery was a more than $3 billion industry.
“The Constitution, because of all the compromises required to get everybody on board, protected the institution of slavery although it doesn’t say slave or slavery in the document,” Chew added. “That was because of the strength of the southern states.”
The idea for the title “The Mere Distinction of Colour” comes from a Madison quote from 1787.
“We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man,” the quote reads.
While Madison was an intellectual thinker whose achievements have been foundational to the country, he understood what they were doing and the inertia behind slavery was too strong for him to face, Morris said.
“We’re not running down the Constitution or replacing the understanding of the foundation of American intellectual history, but we are trying to be honest and matter-of-fact for people in such a way that they can see the integrity and wholeness of the story—we’re telling a complete American story for the first time,” he said. “We believe that is an act of stewardship because the next generation of people who care about the founding era and the origins of American intellectual history aren’t going to buy a story that’s incomplete, dishonest or hiding the truth.”
The emotions a visitor gets when they’re in the library learning they’re in the room the Constitution was born are not the same emotions a visitor will get when in the cellar, Morris added. Those emotions shouldn’t oppose each other, but instead give people a unified experience and understanding of life at Montpelier, he said.
“We’re adding a lot of value to the tourist experience, so there’s that benefit, but we’re also complicating the experience,” he added.
In working with the descendants’ community, Montpelier sought to not only illuminate the humanity of their ancestors, but also to connect the story of slavery to the present.
In another movie featured in the cellar, visitors will learn about the legacy of slavery in modern culture. Included in the film is Orange County’s Rebecca Gilmore Coleman, whose great grandfather was enslaved at Montpelier until buying a cabin across the road.
“We tiptoe around talking about slavery,” she said. “I feel like it is our responsibility—both black and white—to talk about what happened because if we don’t know where we came from, then how are we going to go forward?”
The challenges that confront society when it comes to race is something people need to talk about, Cotz said, and Montpelier wants to be part of that conversation.
“We’re connecting the past to the present and we’re sort of going there with the idea that we’re still living today with the inequities that are the result of there being slavery in the founding era,” Chew added.
Montpelier CEO and President Kat Imhoff said she saw her position at Montpelier as an opening to tell a more complete American; a mosaic of all those who lived there, not just a single narrative.
“We have to tell the full story, one that every American who comes up that long driveway, regardless of age, gender or race, feels a part of, even though it’s complex and often uncomfortable,” she said.
Telling this more “realistic” interpretation will not be easy, but is the right thing to do, Imhoff said. The impact of the exhibition will not be realized right away, but will be an evolution, she added.
Chew said she is most proud of Montpelier’s ability to work with the descendant community on the planning and designing of the exhibition.
“One of the things that tends to happen for museum visitors is they sort of park slavery in the past and think of it as being gone and over, but there are people walking the earth today who, through DNA, the enslaved live on,” she said.
Chew said she has worked on interpreting slavery for almost 20 years, but Montpelier’s approach is something she hasn’t experienced before.
“To me, working with the descendants has been the most rewarding part of this,” she said. “Having them be part of it and having them be so invested in what we’re doing here means a great deal to me.”
Chew said she has been able to share the exhibit with some of the members of the descendant community and they’ve all cried, reassuring her that the exhibit has the impact Montpelier was hoping it would.
“We’re looking at the experiences of people through that lens of empathy,” Cotz added.
The connections Montpelier developed within the descendant community were instrumental to Montpelier’s ability to develop the exhibition once they got Rubenstein’s gift, he said.
“I think it’s because Montpelier as a foundation has been steadily and slowly pushing that ball forward,” Cotz said. “You can’t build those connections at the drop of a hat. It takes a long time to build trust and get people that involved.”
Montpelier’s approach has been innovative, Cotz explained, and while people in the museum field tend to worry about the public’s reaction to new ideas, those worries usually are unfounded.
“I think taking it to the present—bringing the descendants into the story, talking about the modern legacy of slavery—that transcends anything that most presidential homes are willing to do,” he said.
Museums are seen as “trustworthy repositories of truth,” and Montpelier is trying to tell that whole truth with hopes others will follow, Cotz said.
“A trail blazer means other people follow, so I think we’ll definitely blaze the trail,” he said. “The question is will any body else keep the trail trod?”
The Mere Distinction of Colour opens to the public June 5. For more information on Montpelier, visit www.montpelier.org.