Descendant of slaves rewrites the history of James Madison

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, James Madison

Leontyne Peck relocated to the rural Madison County area of Virginia a few years ago because she felt drawn to the area. She had no idea how deep that pull was until she literally started digging in the dirt.

Through the public archeology program at Montpelier, the home of President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, Peck started finding artifacts — first, a marble, then a pipe carved with Masonic symbols. Through them, she says, “[I] found my family.”

“I came to explore and then I found much more than that,” Peck told NewsHour Special Correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault on a recent trip to Montpelier.

Through her excavation work, Peck, who works at the nearby University of Virginia’s President’s Commission on Slavery, has helped interpret several notable artifacts, many of which are now featured in a permanent exhibit at Montpelier called “The Mere Distinction of Colour.” Her devotion to this project has grown so deep, she says, she now has “an addiction to genealogy” she wants to share with others.

The reframing and retelling of slaves’ profound contribution to the Madison estate — and presidency — is at the center of the exhibit. Madison, often called the “ father of the Constitution,” held some 300 slaves at Montpelier throughout his lifetime.

She says she used DNA to trace her family to Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, who was a friend of James Madison, as well as to slaves in the area.

“The history is deep and when most people migrated, they migrated as families,” said Peck, who speaks and writes on genealogy and works as an educational consultant. “You find out who they were, you find out who you are … you find out your African ancestors but also your European ancestors.”

She also wrote a book about what she found, called “Silver Children-The African American Family of Henry Clay.” ...

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