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A presidential estate opens its doors to conversation on slavery

August 10, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Montpelier, President James Madison's bucolic Virginia plantation, is beginning to share a rich and rarely told side of its history by shedding light on the lives of the people who were enslaved there. A new exhibit offers insight on the factors that cemented slavery in the Constitution, and stories told by living descendants. Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As part of our ongoing Race Matters Solutions series, special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault recently visited Montpelier, the home of the fourth U.S. president, James Madison. It’s in Virginia.

A new permanent exhibit is opening the door on a rarely told side of Madison involving his slaves and how they lived.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: This sprawling, bucolic Virginia countryside is the plantation where James Madison, the so-called father of the Constitution, puzzled over liberties as he helped frame America’s democracy.

It’s also here that he and his wife, Dolley, held over 300 slaves. Now, with a new interactive exhibit called The Mere Distinction of Colour, there is a new way of looking at that story.

Visitors hear stories of the slaves here told by their living descendants. There’s insight into economic, ideological and political factors that cemented slavery in the Constitution, without ever using the word slavery.

And films connect the past to the present, looking at the legacy of slavery to issues of race and identity today.

In addition to the new exhibit in the Madison home itself, there are new ways of talking about the rich and complicated history of Montpelier.

Visitors can tour slave cabins, tour a slave cemetery which bears no headstones, watch archaeologists dig up more evidence that pieces together the interconnectedness of everybody on the plantation.

To talk about those issues, I spent time with Leontyne Peck, a genealogist and participant in Montpelier’s public archaeology program.

Peck took me inside one of the cramped slave quarters where eight people lived.

So, this was all dirt?

LEONTYNE PECK: It was all dirt, yes.

We found our artifacts. We found a lot of different things. We found a pipe, which was extraordinarily exciting. My grandfather, he had smoked a pipe. And, really, when I touched the pipe, I really felt connected to him.

And then I found much more than that. I found my family.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I also visited Madison’s bedroom with Mary Alexander, a great-great-granddaughter of Paul Jennings. He served Madison at the White House and also at Montpelier. He wrote the first White House memoir, “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison.”

She told me what her reaction was when she saw this room or the first time.

MARY ALEXANDER, Montpelier Descendent: I had just finished caretaking for my father, who died of Parkinson’s disease. And to think that Paul Jennings was doing the same exact things for James Madison that I had done for my father, it just overwhelmed me.

I knew the intimacy and the love and the care that had to go on between the two of them, because you can’t take care of someone and not love them.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I talked further with Mary Alexander and with Montpelier president and CEO Kat Imhoff inside the Madison mansion.

Kat, first tell me how you arrived at the title for this exhibition.

KAT IMHOFF, President, The Montpelier Foundation: The title The Mere Distinction of Colour comes from a quote that Madison writes in his notes when he’s working in 1787 on the Constitutional Convention.

He says: “We have never seen the mere distinction of color in a most enlightened period of time a ground for the most oppressive dominion exercised by man over man.”

Now, Madison is saying this as a young man. He’s in the debates about the rights and the freedoms that are going to be set forth in what becomes the U.S. Constitution.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: When he uttered those words, he didn’t have slavery in mind.

KAT IMHOFF: He did. He was saying that mere distinction of color, what an incredible missed opportunity that we’re using that distinction of color to make one man oppress the other.

And this is as a young, idealistic 35-, 36-year-old in the hot rooms in Philadelphia as they’re duking out writing the U.S. Constitution.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But who had slavery.

KAT IMHOFF: And he is a slave owner, and he’s grown up now third-generation slave owner here at Montpelier.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, what happened? He just didn’t make that distinction, or …

KAT IMHOFF: What the debate ends up being is, can you get enough votes to get the U.S. Constitution ratified? If you said that you were not going to allow or enable in some way or codify slavery, without ever mentioning it, you were never going to get enough votes to ratify the U.S. Constitution.

So, James Madison, in those early days, chooses the union over really what he knows in his heart is the right thing to do. But the other part that got me so intrigued was the descendant community was involved with Montpelier early on, but no one had really been able to pick up that thread and bring those 300 voices into the stories.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The descendant community is sitting next to you. So what drew you here?

MARY ALEXANDER: Well, actually, my mother, she never told the family history to anyone outside of our family.

Paul Jennings was enslaved here with James Madison. He said that he shaved him every day for 42 years. My understanding is that he and James Madison had a relationship where they were almost like brothers with each other, the way that they interacted.

I think if you put it in the context of slaves being assets and property, and that, when James Madison died, his estate being in such debt, and them having to sell off every asset they had, and, unfortunately, the human beings who were here were assets also, he didn’t get the chance to be distinguished outside of those people.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Kat, how do you see that?

KAT IMHOFF: Well, they had trouble explaining their double standard even to themselves during their time period. And I think it’s quite intriguing to look at their own writing on this.

But, I mean, I think that’s the challenge of American history. Not only can you be inspired, yes, James Madison, father of the Constitution, great thinking, defines rights, but I think we have always had this love-hate affair with really understanding how complex our history is.

Not only can I be inspired by James Madison, but I can be inspired by people like Paul Jennings. I can now understand that African-American history is indeed American history.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do you think it’s working, Kat? I mean, who is coming here? And what are they taking away from it in terms of race?

KAT IMHOFF: What I’m hearing from people when they’re visiting, they’re both saying, we’re so happy because now we really understand more the humanity of the people who lived here.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Black and white.

KAT IMHOFF: Black and white.

I think, really, people, when they hear those stories and they can put themselves, project themselves into those places, they really take more away from it, and also the relevance today. I think that’s what we have always been — it’s really easy to talk about things 200 years ago.

And it’s a lot more difficult when you bring it all the way up today, and you go, no, the legacy of slavery is still with us. It’s part of our democratic DNA. It is hard-baked into how we are as a people.

MARY ALEXANDER: There’s a morality question that all of us have to grapple with. This was a business to these people.

Unfortunately, the business was other human beings. James Madison would have never been able to do, or any of the founding fathers would have never had the liberty to go into this whole discussion about government and humanity and how people should conduct themselves. They would have never been able to do that without these people who were in the background working for them.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, this will help set that record straight, you think?

MARY ALEXANDER: I’m praying.

KAT IMHOFF: You know, Mary has often commented on how she wants people to think and understand and have that strong intellectual connection. So, I love that fact that we’re both the heart and the head in thinking about how people should connect with Montpelier.

MARY ALEXANDER: And I also recognize you can’t get the head without getting to the heart first.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Kat Imhoff and Mary Alexander, thank you so much for your insights. Thank you very much.

MARY ALEXANDER: Thank you.

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