The making of James Madison’s Montpelier’s “The Mere Distinction of Colour” Q&A: Part 4

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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, part 2 here, and part 3 here.

Part 4: working with descendants Continued

H@W Editors: You’ve already discussed the JMM Descendant Community involvement in the exhibition a bit. Can you tell us more about that group?

James Madison's Montpelier Staff (left) and Descendant (right) working on an archaeological project together (Photo by Eduardo Montes Bradley, Courtesy James Madison's Montpelier)

James Madison’s Montpelier staff member (left) and a member of the JMM descendant community (right) working on an archaeological project together. Photo credit: Eduardo Montes Bradley, James Madison’s Montpelier


Kat Imhoff, CEO, JMM: We are lucky to have such an active and committed descendant community to advise us and help make decisions. Their feedback, combined with the guidance of experts in the field, produced what you see today. It’s also important to note that our definition of “descendant” is more broad and inclusive than other institutions. For many, you are only considered a descendant if you can provide verifiable genealogical evidence. For us at Montpelier, we consider anyone who feels connected to our history or the history of the area as a “descendant,” whether or not they have a genealogical or biological connection to individuals.  We want to invite people to the site and to the story and ensure they have a voice in the telling of this history.

H@W Editors: In part 2, you mentioned the descendants’ involvement in your archaeology program. Can you tell us more about that?

Matt Reeves, Director of Archaeology & Landscape Restoration, JMM: Prior to the exhibit being conceived, we used the archaeology to bear witness to the hundreds of people that called Montpelier home. We organized our first descendant dig in 2014 and held digs with community members on an annual basis after. What we experienced as a collective team (staff archaeologists and descendants) was a connection where descendants encountered their ancestors through a physical presence—they were uncovering artifacts last touched by their ancestors some 200 years ago.

The past four years have reshaped how we see archaeology at Montpelier. It is no longer an academic pursuit but one whose meaning comes from a collaborative process of discovery, ownership of information, and shared authority between archaeologists and descendants. Our team today is a family made up of staff, descendants, and participants who see themselves as part of the process of discovery. This has brought a greater sense of responsibility of what we do and ensuring that we incorporate the views of descendants into our research questions, the evidence, and our final outcomes. We are no longer colonizers of the archaeological past, but rather stewards of the past using the shared excitement of discovery to make JMM into a welcome home place for descendants to find their ancestors and determine how we present JMM’s history.

H@W Editors: Can you tell us more about how you cultivated your relationship with JMM’s descendant community? Do you have any tips you might have for staff at other sites who may want to get descendants of enslaved people involved in programming?

Hannah Scruggs, Research Associate, African American Descendants’ Project, JMM: People at Montpelier have been cultivating relationships with descendants for over a decade. When I was hired as a research associate, African American Descendants’ Project, I joined the team of an existing project. I’ve met and formed personal relationships with many descendants through onsite programming and community events, but I really believe the key is making sure descendants know and have relationships with as many staff members at varying levels as possible. We are also working on having more informal get-togethers throughout the year for descendants. To me, it’s really important to create relationships on descendants’ terms. If we find a descendant via genealogy, or if someone contacts us, I make sure to keep them in the loop via email and invite them to the site and to different programs. That said, people aren’t always interested in coming to places where their ancestors were forcibly held in bondage. This place is a site of trauma for many descendants, and it’s really important to remember that.

H@W Editors: How do you think descendant participation at JMM has enhanced the interpretation of the history of slavery there?

Margaret Jordan, Descendant of Paul Jennings: Montpelier made a very early decision in 2001 to host reunions of the descendants of JMM’s enslaved people. Since then, there have been several meetings of the descendants to provide input and perspective on the interpretation of JMM’s landscape including plantation, the house, the buildings, etc. Descendants have been invited and participated in dedications of the South Yard and the newly constructed slave housing. Descendants met to provide input into the developing The Mere Distinction of Colour. The largest gathering was the opening celebration of the exhibit in 2017. There has been growing ownership and affinity for JMM as “their” place.

H@W Editors: In an article by historian Talitha LeFlouria titled “When Slavery Is Erased by Plantations” and published in The Atlantic recently, LeFlouria discussed the fact that you hosted the “inaugural National Summit on Teaching Slavery.” Can you tell us a little bit about the goals of this summit were and the national rubric this group developed?

Elizabeth Chew, Vice President for Museum Programs, JMM: For the National Summit on Teaching Slavery in February 2018, we invited a group of fifty academics, museum and historic site professionals, and descendants of the enslaved at those sites to come together at Montpelier for a weekend. The goal was to create a rubric of best practices for engaging descendants in the interpretation of slavery. The summit built on the successful model of descendant engagement implemented during the creation of MDOC and practiced at Montpelier since the late 1990s.

Until recently, museums and historic sites have fallen short in their inclusion of enslaved individuals and their descendants. Historic homes, many with direct connections to the institution of slavery, traditionally focused on fine and decorative arts, architecture, and the lives of wealthy white Americans. Despite these efforts, some museums and sites still “intellectualize” slavery, approaching it as an academic subject and not as a massive trauma still affecting millions of human beings. For this reason, descendants of the enslaved don’t feel welcome in these institutions.

The rubric, which you can view here, builds a scalable methodology that sites can utilize to rate themselves as they engage descendant communities in their work. It contains concrete steps to ensure high-quality research, make connections and maintain relationships with descendants, and create inclusive and accurate and empathetic exhibits and programs. It gives museums a place from which to start addressing difficult themes and traumatic legacies of slavery. Most importantly, the rubric insists sites work with descendants of the enslaved at every step to ensure that they are interpreting slavery in a manner that is effective, informative, and respectful of the experiences of the millions of men, women, and children who were enslaved.

H@W Editors: Do you have any suggestions for people working at small sites with limited staff who might want to address the history of slavery or engage with descendant communities? If they only have the time or resources to make just a single change or reach out to just one person, where might they start?

Hannah Scruggs, Research Associate, African American Descendants’ Project, JMM: I would begin by allocating a little time, even if it’s just an hour or two each week, to learning about slavery and African American history at your site and your site’s region. From there, you can begin to piece together the lives of the enslaved at the site. If there is a descendant that has introduced themselves or has been found using research or oral history, I would recommend that they are at least introduced to each person at the site. And, if they’re interested, have lunch or coffee regularly to begin building relationships. Relationship building is the core of descendant work.

Editors’ Note: We have learned a lot about how JMM collaborated with descendants. Next, we’ll delve into the nature of their collaboration with exhibition design firms and others and learn more about practical and methodological considerations in making this exhibition come to life.

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