Historic slavery plantations of Virginia now teach visitors about slavery, but they didn’t always

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Slavery interpretation began at the Madisons’ home right after the Montpelier Foundation was formed in 1999, explains Vice President for Museum Programs Elizabeth Chew. (Montpelier had been open to the public earlier, but slavery there was not emphasized.) “Soon thereafter,” she says, “Elizabeth Dowling Taylor (a slavery scholar) came here with the idea of doing research and learning what there was to learn about this slave community.” From this effort blossomed a better understanding of the Madisons’ enslaved African-Americans. Taylor has since left Montpelier—she subsequently published A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons and was interviewed by Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show”—but Chew’s staff continues searching for more Montpelier slave narratives. In central Virginia they’ve found what they call a descendant community—direct descendants of people owned by Madison still living nearby.

Slavery interpretation at Monticello commenced in 1993. A major Mulberry Row archaeological dig a decade earlier had provided much insight into the lives of its enslaved community. So too did the Getting Word initiative, started in the same year, Monticello’s oral history outreach to the descendants of the 600-plus individuals Jefferson owned. Over the next 18 years, three groundbreaking books on slavery at Monticello were published by Cinder Stanton, Monticello’s senior research historian. And, in 1998, the results of the Jefferson DNA study performed by Dr. Eugene Foster were released. The study indicated a strong possibility that Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings, Sarah “Sally” Hemings’ youngest son. (Sally—an enslaved, mixed-race lady’s maid and seamstress—was an older sister to John Hemmings.)

Interpreting slavery at [James Monroe's homestead, Ash Lawn-Highland] is not new—it goes back to the 1980s. Most of the guide staff’s slave references back then, however, were to unnamed cooks and house servants. “In the mid-1980s,” says Bon-Harper, “Ash Lawn-Highland reconstructed the three-room slave quarters” in back of the house. “At that moment that was fairly cutting-edge, building a dwelling that was for enslaved people. It wasn’t universally accepted as a good thing to do, reminding people about a really bad period of our history.”

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