Was this kid starting to vibrate?
The fifth grader standing in front of me was pale, sweat was starting to bead up on his forehead, and the look on his face was one of shock and horror. He was one of a group of 20 on a day long field trip, and I had just told the story of James Madison’s last moments in the very room where he passed.
The 4th President had never enjoyed robust health, and now in his 85th year, his doctor, his family, and Mr Madison himself were aware that he had but days to live. On the morning of June 28th, 1836, he was brought his breakfast, and was attended by his niece Nelly Willis, and Paul Jennings, a slave who was likely the person closest to him in life, other than his wife Dolley.
Suddenly, Paul and Nelly realized that the President was having trouble swallowing. Jennings recounted the events in his 1865 memoir, “Reminiscences of a Colored Man with James Madison”.
“His niece, Mrs. Willis, said, “What is the matter, Uncle Jeames?” “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.” With that, “His head instantly dropped, and he ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out.”
At this dramatic moment, I paused for effect as I always did, and silence fell over the class. Suddenly, my fifth grader could no longer contain himself.
“Do you mean that his head fell off?”
I am not convinced that on that day I fully communicated the subtleties of constitutional government or Madison’s contributions, but I am sure that it was a story that young man will not soon forget.
The Why, and The Arc
Montpelier’s mission statement can be found at the foot of every page of the Foundation’s Website: A memorial to James Madison and the Enslaved Community, a museum of American history, and a center for constitutional education that engages the public with the enduring legacy of Madison’s most powerful idea: government by the people.
No matter our intentions, guests visit Montpelier for a variety of reasons of their own. For some, the goal is simply to check off another Presidential home on their bucket list, while others come to worship at what they imagine will be a shrine to the Father of the Constitution. Others just want to enjoy a peaceful afternoon in the stunning beauty of central Virginia’s pastoral landscape.
Having worked as an interpreter here for a little over three years, I’ve noticed subtle changes in what visitors are seeking and their reactions. One tour I am privileged to offer is about the Enslaved Community, and I try to stress that the intent is to neither foster guilt or celebrate victimhood. Instead, by telling the true stories of the enslaved, the hope is to communicate the lived experience of slavery, and how that legacy affects us all as Americans, right down to the present day. The stories we tell about the lives of Montpelier’s enslaved community are not quaint or picturesque, but often searing, difficult history in its rawest form.
When I started giving this tour in 2016 to almost exclusively white visitors, it was not unusual for guests to suggest that “the Irish were enslaved too”, or to insist that “as property, slaves were looked after and treated well”, or to ask if Mr. Madison “was a good slave owner”. Others seemed to revel in self-flagellation or harsh recriminations. However, ever since Montpelier opened the award winning exhibition, “The Mere Distinction of Colour” in June 2017, I’m aware of subtle shifts in the visitor experience. More and more, guests seem to arrive with a heightened understanding of the subject, and often take the tour on a journey to hone their understanding, not begin it.
The “The Mere Distinction of Colour” exhibit is a powerful tool to help enhance that understanding, even with guests who know the facts and figures, but may lack deeper empathy. One afternoon last fall, I gave a House tour to a German family who explained that they considered themselves to be Americanophiles, and who mentioned that they had visited the United States annually for more than thirty years, had a deep interest in, and admiration for American history, but could not understand what they perceived to be the unquenchable, American urge to continually examine, and pick at the difficult subject of slavery. I suggested that we defer that conversation until after they’d seen the exhibition.
It was more than an hour before the group solemnly returned from the cool dark cellars where the exhibit is presented, shielding their eyes from the bright fall sunlight, and sought me out to declare that they felt they finally understood, and had found their own answer to their question. Very softly, and almost reverentially they confessed that the exhibition had finally helped them understand that for Americans, the subject of slavery really is “unfinished business.”
It is reactions like theirs that convince me that Montpelier really is part of that long, difficult process of helping “the arc of the moral universe bend towards justice.”
Although I have no hard data, it is clear that Montpelier has seen an increase in African American visitors. Of course, as our intent is be truly inclusive and do what we can to better tell a more complete American history, we welcome this subtle surge.
Another privilege of being an Interpreter at Montpelier results from the fact that I often learn as much from the guests as they may learn from me. I have come to better understand the pride in the African American community of being descendants of survivors, of a people who never stopped resisting, and who very much employed their own agency to help achieve emancipation, as far back as the 1600’s. When discussing the genius of James Madison, I have had descendants agree, but also point to the genius of those enslaved by Madison. I have been continually struck by the kindness, and generosity of spirit of this community who could harbor sharp attitudes towards me as a white man, but who instead express gentle kindness, as if they empathize with whatever awakening they think I have experienced.
Early one recent Saturday morning, I gave a tour of Mr. Madison’s home to a group from a nearby Housing Alliance, who went on to experience the “Mere Distinction of Colour” exhibit on their own, and then spent time with our archaeology department to better understand what we know, and how we know it. Two reactions have stayed with me:
A few days after, one participant felt compelled to write in and explain that “as a white person living several generations after the end of slavery, I’ve often wondered what it is that black people want me to do to right the wrongs of the past. I’ve wondered why they can’t just get over it, so we can all move on. Saturday’s experience helped me, on a very personal level, to better understand why we can’t simply move on without fully acknowledging the truths of our past and our present. As someone put it during our visit on Saturday, “Sometimes you have re-break the bone for it to heal correctly.” I think that may be happening in our town right now. Time will tell. I think our job… is to help the bone heal correctly.”
Much later that Saturday afternoon, long after this group had left the property, a lone African American woman approached me as I was having a late lunch, sitting alone in the Montpelier cafe. She asked if she could join me, and I noticed that she too seemed pale, with beads of sweat gathered on her forehead. Apparently, she had heard some of my pre-tour remarks where I had referenced the importance of Montpelier’s Enslaved Community to understanding Montpelier, James Madison, and the inception of America. When the formal part of her day had ended, she had stayed on site to more fully immerse herself in the experience.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked without rancor, but with great intensity and wonder. “Why are sites like Montpelier telling these stories and telling this history?”
We proceeded to have a vigorous conversation about Montpelier’s sincere effort to tell a more complete and inclusive American story. Finally she sat back and told me that the experience had surprised her, that she was humbled and gratified by what she’d seen, and just how pleased she was with the strides that were being made, not just at Montpelier, but in the culture as a whole.
Had I the talent of a Rembrandt, I would have been incapable of replicating the glow on this woman’s face, or the happy aura she exuded.
Historic Interpreter and House Team Leader
Raised in New York, Russell began his professional life as a writer, journalist and freelancer. After some initial success, he eventually succumbed to the lure of business, and went on to start a company providing advertising and circulation services for newspapers and magazine publishers world-wide. After retiring from that business several years ago, he eventually found his way to Montpelier in 2015. As a member of Montpelier’s Department of Education and Visitor Engagement, his story telling skills perfectly segue with his lifelong interest in history and the civil rights era, and his passion to tell that ‘more complete American story’.