In honoring the enslaved Ancestors, there are some collaborations that are destined to happen. One such collaboration is the one that the Slave Dwelling Project has developed with Montpelier, the home of our fourth President James Madison and First Lady Dolly Madison.
I first went to Montpelier in February 2014 to participate in a field school that would build a slave cabin in the same manner that it would have been built historically. The work was not arbitrary because archaeologists and other researchers had done the required field work to prove the dimensions of the structure. The work of building the cabin was grueling for the team but it made me appreciate the skills and endurance of the enslaved Ancestors.
In 2015, I returned to Montpelier to spend a night in the cabin that I helped to build. As a bonus, I got to interact with members of the Early family who were descendants of those who were enslaved at Montpelier. For an entire week, they had participated in a field school that allowed them to excavate parts of the south yard where their Ancestors were enslaved. My attempts to get any of them to spend the night in the slave cabin with me proved unsuccessful. I could only convince two of the descendants to come into the cabin and join in on the conversation before we all went to sleep.
My most recent trip to Montpelier would provide for me some unique opportunities. I was invited to dig in the south yard for artifacts, present at the Early family reunion and spend a night in the newly constructed slave cabin in the south yard.
I anticipated that I would get the most joy out of the dig for artifacts and I was not wrong in that assumption. Once I learned the technique of scraping the soil as opposed to digging, patience would have to override my desire for urgency in this process. An added bonus was that I got to excavate the site with Alice Vaughn and her daughter Constance Vaughn who are descendant of those who were enslaved at the site. I would often get excited when I pulled items from the earth only to find out from the experts that they were common rocks. Pulling from the earth a ceramic chard, although it was small, again raised my excitement level. The discomfort in my knees was a constant reminder that I am not as young as I used to be but I pressed on knowing that I was uncovering the history of some of our enslaved Ancestors.
Some down time allowed me the opportunity to search the bricks in the big house for fingerprints. My two previous visits to the site had yielded nothing. This time I found a fingerprint close to the back entrance to the house. If interpreted correctly, this sole fingerprint can complement the new exhibit that is being designed to interpret the slavery that existed at Montpelier.
The next day I was given a choice to work in the lab which meant that I could help to process the items already pulled from the earth or I could continue to excavate. If my knees had to make the decision, they would have chosen to work in the lab. The joy that I experienced the day prior from excavating was the deciding factor for me to continue. My “aha” moment came when after completing my portion of the dig, I got to hold all of the pieces that Alease and I had excavated from the earth. Knowing that these pieces when analyzed could help interpret the stories of the enslaved at this site was my satisfaction.
I also got to interview two members of the team who had participated in the dig in 2015. Together they found a pipe used for smoking which contained a masonic symbol. Although speculative, their conclusion was that because it was found in the area where the slave dwellings were located, it belonged to an enslaved person. How that enslaved person acquired the pipe is a mystery because only Black masons of that period were free masons.
Saturday and I got to present at the Early family reunion which was held at Holiday Inn Express in Orange, Virginia. While family reunions are common, this one was interesting because DNA played a big role in assembling the attendees, therefore there were Black and White folks who attended. They are all somehow related to the movie star Blair Underwood and have ancestral ties to Montpelier.
The overnight was preceded by presentations by some of those involved in making the moment possible. Some of the presenters would be spending the night in the structure with me. We were successful in convincing two descendants of the enslaved to spend the night with us, one descendant reneged after seeing wasps in the structure.
The newly constructed slave cabin could easily lull one into a false sense of lavishness bestowed onto the enslaved, but with proper aging and interpretation, when all of the buildings are completed, they can fulfill their roles of completing the story told at Montpelier.
The ongoing excavation at the site will continue to uncover the evidence of the presence of the enslaved. As other sites that were once associated with the institution of slavery continue to ignore the presence of the enslaved because the buildings where they lived don’t exist, through archaeology, Montpelier is proving that argument will not stand. The simple act of sleeping in slave dwellings is beginning to evolve into other methods that will enhance the efforts to continually honor the enslaved Ancestors. The Slave Dwelling Project is developing collaborations with archaeologists and genealogists, historic sites and institutions of higher learning.
Montpelier is a high profile site that cannot be ignored as it continues to take the interpretation of the enslaved to the next level.
I’m honored that I left there with the assignment of assisting the archaeology staff in assembling a team of African Americans to participate in a week long field school of excavating in the south yard. Scholarships can be provided for same and sleeping in the slave cabin is not mandatory. If you choose to participate in this dig at this prominent historical site, you will be empowered because who better can tell our stories than us?
My reflections of our sleepover at Montpelier. I feel glad that the “story” history of slavery isn’t being kept in the back closet, but is being told and retold so we will never forget the injustices whites have done for their benefits. I pray that others will be as passionate as Joe is to carry the torch when he can no longer carry it. We have read in our textbooks of our great founding fathers and how they formed our country but without the craftsmen and workers, they would have floundered and failed. All our greatness should be judged not on our own achievements but how we treat others. Thanks to Joe and Montpelier.
I’m an archaeologist at Montpelier, and for most of the past year and a half, my job has focused on the South Yard, where the Madisons’ enslaved domestic workers lived in the early nineteenth century. Although I was not involved in the excavation of the duplex quarters several years ago, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about what life, and work, in the South Yard must have entailed. It’s been an honor to be part of this effort to reach a better understanding of the lives of people enslaved at Montpelier and to share that understanding with the visiting public, and one of the most exciting things has been to watch the reconstructed duplex rise up as a tangible reminder of the story we’re trying to tell. It’s one thing to mention the presence of enslaved people or to point out the places on the landscape where their houses were; it’s another thing, a more powerful thing, to see physical evidence. I have long admired the mission of the Slave Dwelling Project—to call attention to these places that have been forgotten, ignored, or deliberately rendered invisible—for that reason.
For me, the opportunity to join Joe McGill in sleeping in the South Yard was an opportunity to connect with Montpelier’s past in a new way. As a white woman who makes her living digging up artifacts once owned by enslaved African Americans, I am always connected to the past, but also often feeling like I’m stepping on somebody or other’s toes. The need to empathize with and pay respect to the people who once lived here is never far from my mind; making these emotional connections is deeply important to me.
I didn’t do much sleeping. It was cold for April in Virginia, and despite my layers and the heavy quilt between my sleeping bag and the floor, there was no ignoring the building’s lack of insulation. The floorboards and siding were all that separated us from the outdoors, and the crack under the door was wide enough that I could see the lantern light outside as we went to bed. We weren’t allowed to use the fireplace, but I wondered if, for the inhabitants of the original duplex, my spot in one of the corners next to the hearth would have been a coveted one. I wonder if the enslaved family that once lived there would have spread themselves out the way we did or if they’d have slept near each other for warmth and comfort. The next morning some of us talked as well about what they might have done to cope with the hot summers. Slept outside? What about mosquitos and flies and other bugs?
Even though the only light in the morning came from a single small window in the west side of the room, we were all awake soon after dawn, with Joe quietly reminding us that if we were slaves, we’d have already been up and off to the day’s work some time ago. We talked about the lack of privacy, because in addition to knowing there’d have been a whole family living in that one room, during the night we’d all heard every snore and whisper and movement, not just amongst the five people on our side of the duplex, but through the thin partition wall from the other side as well. Later on we talked, too, about the fact that our modern notion of privacy is a recent concept; even the Madisons would have had much less of it than we’re accustomed to. But for the five or six enslaved families living in three buildings in the South Yard, all just feet from the mansion where the Madisons and their many houseguests dwelled, privacy would have been nonexistent.
Then Prinny Anderson pointed out that perhaps all that closeness of people living practically on top of one another would have been more positive than we tend to think. Perhaps, in the isolation of rural early America and in the total darkness of nights before electricity, knowing your loved ones were sleeping nearby, being able to hear them in the dark, would have been a source of comfort. As a 21st century introvert, I hadn’t considered that perspective, but it makes a lot of sense. It’s impossible to look at the sheer number of people enslaved on plantations like Montpelier and at the clusters of slave quarters where they lived, and not think about community, about the bonds between people, about families both biological and chosen. We’re a social species. Community and camaraderie must have played a huge role in the survival of enslaved African Americans. If slavery was hell, to be enslaved and alone would have been its deepest circle.
Our connections to the past are important to our communities now, too. Some members of the descendant community talk about feeling a spiritual connection to spaces at Montpelier, about feeling the presence of their ancestors and sometimes their approval of what we’re doing there through research and interpretation. I wonder if any of the South Yard’s enslaved inhabitants were with us in the duplex that Saturday night and the following morning. I wonder what they thought.
Dean Cummins and Paula Hancock
The landscape at James Madison’s Montpelier is changing. New, in the Madison homestead’s South Yard sits a beautifully reconstructed slave dwelling, a small duplex with a central chimney, upper lofts, and windows and doors facing out onto a central courtyard. It would have been home to twelve or more African American slaves during President Madison’s retirement years. This accurate reconstruction of the original slave dwelling that existed on this exact spot is the result of years of effort by Montpelier’s hard-working and dedicated archaeologists, historical architects, and master craftspeople. They are already hard at work rebuilding more of Montpelier’s slave dwellings and, even more importantly, in the process adding very significantly to our understanding of what it meant to be a slave in America.
In late April, my wife and I spent a night in the new slave duplex. We joined a group of 25 or so others who are brought together by the idea that it is important in 2016 and going forward to remember slavery, understand what it did to the lives of slaves, and think about how slavery has imprinted itself upon today’s world. Members of our group spoke from their hearts and their minds, looking at slavery from the perspective of descendants of slaves, archaeologists sifting through the artifacts of slave dwellings, or builders inspired by the idea of putting a place where slaves once lived back on the landscape.
Joseph McGill founder of the Slave Dwelling Project spoke to our group. Joe sees things from a broad perspective and has slept in pretty close to 100 slave dwellings around the country. He is working hard at developing resources to preserve African American slave homes and is very straight forward about why these places are important to him and why they should be important to all Americans.
We came away from our overnight experience at Montpelier with renewed confidence that these slave dwellings are important because of what they represent. They are symbols of what African American slaves had to endure: poverty, malnutrition, little or no access to education, and split-up families. They can also symbolize the great resilience of these slaves, their ability to conceive of a better future, despite the conditions of their lives. I think, as Americans, we all need to heed symbols such as these, not just to help us remember the past, but to help us understand how the past has shaped the present and what we need to do to get to a better place. Joe McGill is doing a great job making this happen. And so is James Madison’s Montpelier, by taking the lead in changing the landscape so that we all can, if we put some effort into it, better understand the past and, with the benefit of that, move forward.
The Early Family Reunion at James Madison’s Montpelier: Dealing with a Complex History by Examining the Facts
James Madison’s home, Montpelier, near Orange, VA, is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It has made an extensive, ongoing commitment to restoring the identities, stories, contributions and presence of the enslaved African American community to the way it presents the site. For example, over the past several years, the National Trust team at Montpelier has connected with descendants of the enslaved community, preserved the freedman’s dwelling, Gilmore cabin, and conducted a workshop on building a wood cabin which produced a replica of Miss Millie’s cabin, a slave dwelling. An ongoing program of interpretation, archaeological research, slave dwelling construction, and descendant family meetings led up to our recent Slave Dwelling Project overnight.
In conjunction with that overnight, the Earl(e)y Family held a reunion at Montpelier. Members of the family are linked to enslaved people of James Madison’s plantation. The Earlys’ gathering began with an introduction to the archaeological research and a day of “digging,” which turned out to mean scraping very gently and sifting the scraped up dirt. It continued with presentations, sharing family historical research, tours of Montpelier, and the opportunity to sleep in the second, newly recreated slave dwelling.
When I initially met the Early family members, I thought the gathering was like many other reunions – a gathering of relatives who’ve been meeting for years, telling family stories, and sharing family genealogical research. It is that, but also something special. All the people at the reunion knew a few of the others, but none of them knew everyone. This was their second gathering. They had come together as a result of being DNA matches, and were there to learn more about how they were connected to some of the ancestral families as well as to one another. They were enthusiastically embracing each other as cousins, although they come from various parts of the country and are a mixed group of African and European American heritage.
There seemed to be no hesitancy, no resistance to discovering that they shared DNA from common great, great grandparents who were slave owners. The buzz of conversation was about who their ancestors had been, what kinds of lives they had led, what they had accomplished in their lives, and where they had lived. They seemed to see the people first and foremost, with a straightforward acknowledgement of being connected through master-slave relationships. Apparently, this family could look at the data, accept it as objective, and build from there. Compared to my own experience and to stories I’ve heard from both white and black people about researching their relationship links through slavery, the early family seemed relaxed, low key, so at ease with how they are connected to one another.
Their gathering inspired me with the vision of the possibility that thousands of people might connect simply, like the Earlys, letting the DNA, the objective facts, show them that they are related, and using documents, family stories and photographs to fill out details and nuances.
The National Trust’s stewardship of Madison’s former plantation seems to have developed a commitment to uncover, preserve and present the story of the enslaved community as a result of the vision, resolve and passion of board members, staff, volunteers and descendants. But they too are guided by the facts. While Montpelier staff are proud to work at the home of the Father of the Constitution, they are not blinded by Madison’s remarkable contributions to the development of the United States and its government. They do not idolize him to the point of denying the flaws in the governing structures established by 1789 and the contradictions between what he espoused for his country – equality, freedom, justice – and the way he lived his life – a wealthy, landowner with slaves.
After all, the original version of the Constitution allowed only free, affluent, land-owning, typically European heritage (mostly white, primarily Christian) men to have a say in the American democracy. The Constitution also allowed for the perpetuation of slavery, and it even set up a mechanism by which enslaved people, who could not vote or participate in government, could nonetheless be counted toward ensuring that the political power of their slave owners through a stronger representation in Congress. And it left all powers not explicitly outlined in the document to be exercised by the states, facilitating a struggle over local vs central control that has both provided flexibility and enabled exploitation and injustice to persist for centuries.
Listening to several interpreters at Montpelier, I heard all these facts along with an acknowledgement of the contradictions. The story being told is more complicated, but more truthful, less romantic but more respectful and more informative.
My experience with the Early family and the presentation of history at Montpelier underscores for me that the journey to justice, equality and freedom requires a commitment to objectivity, a willingness to look at the whole picture and accept all of what is there, and the ability to keep telling the full, unvarnished stories with heart and enthusiasm.
Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration
Having Joe at our site brings a level of humanity to historic structures that is otherwise lost with the passage of time. The slave dwelling at Montpelier that we recently reconstructed was a home—it was where people slept, gave birth, passed away, loved each other, argued, and led their life. By sleeping in these buildings we connect with the experience of the ancestors before us in this space.
When we gathered for the evening, we had about thirty people assembled to hear Joe’s stories and tell our common experiences regarding Montpelier and honoring the enslaved community. Seeing the group seated around the rebuilt dwelling, I realized that it was the first time in close to over 170 years that so many have gathered for conversation and communion. Further, I was shocked with the realization that the number we had gathered was the size of the households that lived in the three homes in South Yard.
Following the evenings conversations (which were wonderful—thank you to everyone involved!), the folks spending the night broke out their sleeping bags and chose their side of the dwelling (there are two sides of the structure that share a common chimney). In all, we had about 10 people that spent the night—just about right for how many folks would live in the building back in the day. With the smell of fresh cut wood lingering in the air, most folks drifted off to sleep.
By midnight, I realized I was not going to sleep—the plaintive call of Granny Milly came to me through the snoring of my friend sleeping next to me. Honoring the ancient occupant of the log structure adjacent to the South Yard, I quietly gathered my things and headed over to her cabin. Similar to the frame building we were all sleeping in, Granny Milly’s cabin is a recently built structure based on archaeological finds. Archaeology revealed this home to be a log cabin with a clay floor—very different from the timber-framed structures with masonry chimneys we are building in the South Yard. Finding this building with our trowels brought to life a story told by Dolley Madison’s niece Mary Cutts regarding Lafayette’s visit to Montpelier in 1825. He recounted visiting Granny Milly’s cabin, a 100 year old slave who lived in a log cabin a short walk from the main house. After being lost for over 190 years, archaeology revealed the location for the home and for the life of Granny Milly. Sleeping on the clay surface inside the cabin made me wonder whether similar occurrences happened at this spot centuries ago where a loved one visited wanting comfort or to comfort Granny Milly. Either way, I feel asleep feeling that much closer to the people who passed before us and for whom we spend so much time finding through our archaeological digs.
In the morning, I woke and worked with Craig Jacobs (the builder who has reconstructed these homes) to assemble breakfast for our compatriots. Early morning murmurs came from the dwelling and people began to assemble around the coffee pot. By 9:00 we had gone our separate ways with Joe making his way back to South Carolina. What remained of Joe’s work is the spirit and understanding of the place and the lives that existed in this space. Not only do the ancestors Places Matter, but the ancestors Lives Matter—and that is the importance of Joe’s work on the Slave Dwelling Project. Thank you Joe for making this all possible!