The making of James Madison’s Montpelier’s “The Mere Distinction of Colour” Q&A: Part 3

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Editor’s Note: Want to know more about what it takes to develop an award-winning exhibition about the lives of enslaved people at a founding father’s historic site? We did, too! In this series, we will learn more about what went into the new permanent exhibition The Mere Distinction of Colour (MDOC) at James Madison’s Montpelier (JMM) in Virginia. The exhibition won NCPH’s 2018 Outstanding Public History Project Award and featured collaboration with descendants of slaves who identify with the JMM community. To learn more about the exhibition, be sure to check out the review by Megan Taylor-Shockley, published in the November edition of The Public Historian and provided generously by University of California Press for free for a limited time. Questions for this series were developed by the H@W lead editors as well as lead editor Will Walker’s students at The Cooperstown Graduate Program. JMM staff and MDOC collaborators took the time to provide in-depth, thought-provoking answers. We are publishing this conversation as a multi-part series highlighting topics ranging from exhibition development and design to working with descendant communities. This is a new feature that integrates NCPH’s print and digital publications. Let us know what you think! Questions and responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

You can find Part 1 of this series here and Part 2 here.

Part 3: working with descendants and interpreting slavery

H@W Editors: The process of planning and conducting research for MDOC clearly changed the way you think about the site’s history. Can you tell us more about how JMM’s interpretation of slavery has changed over time? Do you think MDOC has changed or enhanced Montpelier’s approach of “relative incorporation?” We’re thinking of Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small’s Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums (Smithsonian Books, 2002). In that book (a review of which you can find in the Summer 2004 issue of our journal The Public Historian), the authors classified Montpelier as a historic site that featured “relative incorporation” of the experience of enslaved people in its interpretation. According to Eichstedt and Small, sites that employ “relative incorporation” include topics such as “enslavement and those who were enslaved. . .throughout the tour” (10-11) of the site.

Rebecca Gilmore Coleman, a member of the James Madison's Montpelier Descendant Community, sitting inside her ancestors' restored farm home, which is now on Montpelier property (Photo by Eduardo Montes Bradley, Courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation)

Rebecca Gilmore Coleman, a member of the James Madison’s Montpelier Descendant Community, sitting inside her ancestors’ restored farm home, which is now on Montpelier property. Photo credit:  Eduardo Montes Bradley, courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation


Margaret Jordan, Descendant of Paul Jennings: I don’t think the exhibit has changed JMM’s approach. The tours, education sessions, and storytelling at JMM have been using the approach of relative incorporation over the last twenty years. However, the exhibit provides additional invaluable information and visibility for all educational opportunities.

Hannah Scruggs, Research Associate, African American Descendants’ Project, JMM :
MDOC has added more content and context to JMM’s interpretation of slavery. It brings slavery into the present tense and works to disrupt an idyllic view of the founders and of the foundation of the country.

H@W Editors: How have descendants’ relationships with JMM, or relationships of individuals in the local African American community with JMM, changed over time?

Margaret Jordan, Descendant of Paul Jennings: Montpelier’s relationship with the local African American community has been substantial over the years. Local community leaders have held JMM accountable for considering and acting on their input and perspectives. And JMM’s staff has consistently demonstrated the value they place on these communities’ input and participation.

Hannah Scruggs, Research Associate, African American Descendants’ Project, JMM: Over the past year and a half, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know and build relationships with people in our descendant community. I started working at JMM in the weeks before the exhibition opened, so many of my first interactions with descendants were at the opening. Since then, I’ve spent more time with our descendants at different events, and I’ve gotten involved with the Orange County African American Historical Society (OCAAHS), which was started by many people that are also part of our descendant community. I don’t know that our relationship with the local African American community has changed much since the opening of MDOC. We don’t generally have many African American visitors, nor do we have many visitors from Orange County (where JMM is located).

H@W Editors: To what extent did you alter the tour of the Madison’s home (or other interpreted components of JMM) to reflect or integrate themes featured in MDOC?

Lucas Allamon, House Supervisor, JMM: One of the challenges we hadn’t anticipated was the need to integrate the exhibition philosophically and practically into the institution and public experience as a whole. We found at first that the exhibit was in one silo and our tours were in another. Visitors were jarred by what they saw as tension or contrast between the two. As a department and organization, we had to discuss, train, and reconsider preconceptions we held, just as some of the public may when they see the exhibition. That meant reworking some of our tours to engage with the subjects introduced in MDOC. In the enslaved community tour, for example, the role of the descendant community in our understanding of the topic was elaborated on. In the house tour, more context concerning the break-up of the enslaved community upon Madison’s death was necessary. This (ongoing) process has been greatly beneficial to JMM because it forces us to consider our positions, aspirations, and responsibilities as an institution. To this extent, the exhibition will continue to shape the interpretive decisions we make at JMM for years to come.

H@W Editors: As we have been learning, your collaborations with descendants informed your exhibition. Tell us more about your plans for working with descendant communities in the future.

Hannah Scruggs, Research Associate, African American Descendants’ Project, JMM: Right now we’re working to better incorporate descendants into the research process by asking descendants what they want to know and letting their questions guide our research. We are currently working on memorializing the enslaved where many enslaved people were buried on the property. We are planning the memorial alongside the descendant community and are making decisions based upon their wants and desires. In addition, JMM has been recording oral histories from descendants since the early 2000s. This year, I’ve been focusing on documenting communities of African Americans from Orange County that formed post-emancipation. We have two large communities in Washington, DC, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I’ve been in touch with different people connected to those communities as we’re working on preserving some of the stories of migration of folks who went from Orange elsewhere.

Editors’ Note: Our conversation about descendant collaboration in the making of MDOC will continue in the next post.

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