How this slave descendent is helping reframe history at Madison’s home

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.

READ MORE: In new presidential exhibits, slavery takes center stage

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.”

“We assume that president Madison and his family would not have achieved what they did if it were not for the enslaved individuals who lived there,” Peck said. “The average American doesn’t understand that.”

Peck believes most visitors see the house and think it’s beautiful, and also that Madison was smart. But who milked the cows, got the bathwater, built the house? It “was the hundreds of enslaved people … that is the strongest message. You can connect the dots emotionally and spiritually.”

“[Madison] was successful because of other people — other people who were enslaved,” she added. “Because we are part of the community … we are not invisible. We can tell this story. We are still here.”