Once upon a time, the powers that was made it a criminal act for the enslaved Ancestors to be educated. To that end, the history of African Americans has been stifled and we have been playing catchup ever since. Historians, genealogist and archivists are assisting in filling in the blanks to that history. DNA is also been a major step in putting the pieces back together. One other discipline that is helping to put the pieces back together is archaeology. While some historical sites are doing a better job than others with archaeology, I applaud those sites that are putting forth the resources and effort to make archaeology an integral part of telling the stories of the enslaved.
Twelve of our former Presidents owned slaves, eight of whom owned slaves while they were in office. The Slave Dwelling Project is developing relationships with some of these sites. My first interaction at a presidential site was my sleepover at the Hermitage in Nashville, Tennessee, the home of President Andrew Jackson. For the past two years, I have spent nights at Monticello with the descendants of Sally Hemings and others who were enslaved by President Thomas Jefferson.
I have had the most interaction with Montpelier, the home of James Madison our fourth President and father of our Constitution. My first interaction was to participate in a one week field school that built a hand hewn log cabin. That experience gave me an appreciation for the hard work of the enslaved Ancestors who built those cabins.
My second visit to Montpelier was to spend a night in that log cabin and the Gilmore cabin which is also located on the Montpelier site. This visit involved hanging out with the descendants of those who were enslaved at Montpelier.
My third interaction was to participate in an archaeology field school and to sleep in one of the newly constructed slave cabins in the south yard. This was also an opportunity to hang out with some the descendants of the enslaved at Montpelier. Through DNA, Black and White family members came together to conduct a family reunion.
Over the years, I have developed a relationship with Matthew Reeves, the Director of Archaeology at Montpelier. Because of Matt, Montpelier has been offering Archaeology Expeditions.
Matthew Reeves, Director of Archaeology
Over the next several years, we will be examining a number of different archaeological sites. What makes Montpelier a wonderful property for surveys and excavations is its relative undisturbed condition. All of the sites we excavate have never been plowed–and most were abandoned in the 1840s, leaving the archaeological features in pristine condition.
In the Spring of 2016, we will be excavating domestic and work sites in the South Yard of the Montpelier Mansion, where the enslaved laborers of James and Dolley Madison worked and lived during the first half of the 19th century a series of outlying quarters for field slaves as part of our on-going enslaved community study. These projects are part of a larger effort to interpret and reconstruct the South Yard slave quarter so it can be accessed by visitors.
The LEARN Archaeology Expedition program has been operating at Montpelier for a decade-and-a-half, with many of the same volunteers returning year after year. We are, however, keen to add new faces to the program. All of the scheduled programs are designed to give participants actual excavation experience on an archaeological site working side-by-side with trained professional archaeologists. We have a staff of seven archaeologists who work with participants both in the lab and in the field, which means you have personal interaction with archaeological staff and this allows you to work on sensitive features, artifacts, and deposits that normally one would not get to handle. You are treated as a member of the research team and we step you through the entire excavation process. While you are here at Montpelier, you will be engaged in lectures, take tours of various archaeological sites on the property, and of course get a tour of the mansion.
Although these Archaeological Expeditions are quite successful, Matt expressed an interest in having more African Americans participate in these expeditions or better yet, having an expedition of all African Americans. Although this had already been done through having an Archaeological Expedition of the enslaved descendants, Matt’s desire was to spread the opportunity beyond that group. My commitment to this worthy quest was to participate personally and assist in the recruiting process. We both came to the conclusion that to pull this off and for various reasons, the week of activities had to be condensed to two days.
The two days were October 13 – 14, 2016. The Expedition would not involve a sleepover in a slave dwelling however, we would spend two nights in the Arlington House which itself has its own history associated with slavery.
As usual, on the first day, Matt’s welcome and assessment of the task before us stressed the importance of why it is important for African Americans to be participating in the Expedition. He stressed how James Madison, the Father of our Constitution, was himself a slave owner. Matt also stressed the commitment that Montpelier has to telling the stories of all of the people who occupied the property. Matt’s presentation was our inspiration to dig in the south yard with conviction, knowing that we were uncovering the evidence that the enslaved Ancestors were a vital part of the history of Monticello. His words motivated me to endure the pain of being on my knees as I excavated the dirt that could contain a potential artifact that could help fill in the blanks of the stories of the enslaved. Every fragment that I found be it a nail, piece of glass or porcelain, fueled that desire to find the next.
It was a pleasure to be a part of the effort of all the people who looked like me who came to dig in the dirt in the south yard at Montpelier. Hearing the dejections when the amateur archeologists found out that all they discovered was a rock or the elations when they found something more substantial and relevant to the lives of the enslaved. I had gone through all of those emotions during my first opportunity to dig in the south yard. The find of the day was a cufflink that was made of glass and contained an image of a person. One would have to wonder why an enslaved person would have cuff links. Was he a coachman or maybe a butler?
My second day in the south yard was limited. They had plans for me to be a part of a photo shoot and take part in an interview that will be used in the new exhibit being created to tell the stories of the enslaved at Montpelier. I dug in the south yard long enough in the morning to uncover half of a horseshoe. The questions abounded about what a horseshoe could have been used by an enslaved person.
Before I left the south yard, I had the pleasure of showing some of the seasoned archeologists some of the fingerprints in the bricks on the mansion that I discovered on some of my previous trips to the site. Terry James and I had found more. Being able to touch the fingerprints in the bricks excited the young archeologists like kids in a candy store. It gave me the feeling that my work there was done.
My main mission for the second and final day was to assist Jerome Bias with the period cooking process. For the novice, Jerome Bias has been interacting a lot with the Slave Dwelling Project during the past year. Jerome Bias has been participating in Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved. Jerome was cooking a meal over an open fire for the Expedition participants and some of the Monticello staff, a total of about fifty people. Matt Reeves jumped at this idea when it was presented to him. Jerome’s menu was pork jambalaya, chicken and cabbage. My duties consisted mainly of cutting vegetables. Eventually, we were joined by Tammy Gibson who took on the responsibility of washing dishes and cooking hoe cakes. Terry James took on the responsibility of keeping he fire stoked and distributing coals and embers as necessary. Needless to say, there were no leftovers. This was a great lesson for me as the Slave Dwelling Project will be conducting its living history at more sites during 2017.
I often get pushback from sites that use the fact that they have no extant slave dwellings as the reason they do not interpret the history of the enslaved. 1) That is a lame excuse for not interpreting the history of the enslaved. 2) Commit the resources to do the archaeological excavations to find where those structures were. 3) If a site is really serious about interpreting the history of the enslaved, do as Montpelier is doing and go that extra mile and recreate those dwellings based on that archaeological evidence.
The Hermitage, Monticello, and Montpelier know that I come in peace, I mean them no harm. I need these prominent sites to help me convince the other historic sites of our slave holding presidents to allow me to come and apply the concept of the Slave Dwelling Project. Together we can help heal what ails America because when descendants of the enslaved and those who enslaved them gather in these places we are compelled to talk about slavery and the legacy that it has left on this nation.
Yes, Mount Vernon, George Washington slept there, but I haven’t! What say ye?