Montpelier's African American Descendants' Project
Connecting with the Descendant Community
The Descendants’ Project seeks to identify and work with living descendants of the women and men who were enslaved at Montpelier and elsewhere in Orange County, Virginia. We believe that engaging the Descendant community in the research and the work we do at Montpelier results in a better understanding and interpretation of the past and how it connects to the present. It is imperative for the descendants of those who were enslaved here to be able to tell the story of their ancestors in their own words.
A Collaboration Begins
Montpelier has collaborated with descendants of those enslaved at Montpelier since the early 2000s, when Rebecca Gilmore Coleman approached the Foundation and asked about greater representation for the families enslaved at and around Montpelier. Inspired by Rebecca’s advocacy, the Montpelier Foundation took on the restoration of the Gilmore Cabin. Rebecca’s great-grandfather George Gilmore was born into slavery at Montpelier, and in 1873, shortly after emancipation, he bought the land and built the cabin for his family. After George died, the duPont family (then the owners of Montpelier) bought the cabin and surrounding land. The restoration of the cabin was finished in 2005, and was the first major project where Montpelier incorporated African American Descendants into the process.
Using documentary research, genealogy, oral history, and archaeological research, Montpelier began to connect in a more formal way with other descendants, some of whom had known of their connection to Montpelier and had already been in touch. We have hosted descendants gatherings in 2001, 2007, 2009, 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2018, inviting many families who are connected to Montpelier to spend time learning more about Montpelier and their ancestors.
The Mere Distinction of Colour
The restoration of James Madison’s home was completed in 2008. After seeing simple outlines where slave dwellings once stood, descendant Iris Ford challenged the Montpelier Foundation with her question, “Madison gets a $10 million restoration and all my ancestors get is dead grass and railroad ties?” Thus began the development of Montpelier’s permanent exhibition on slavery, The Mere Distinction of Colour. Descendants were involved in every step of the process – from giving input during the design phase, to sharing family histories and stories for the exhibit, to recording their voices as narration for portions of the exhibition. Using a combination of documentary research, genealogy, oral history, and archaeological evidence, the Mere Distinction of Colour powerfully exposes visitors to the realities of life for enslaved people at Montpelier.
Our Guiding Principles
The Descendants’ Project has coalesced around several key principles :
- It’s Intentional. We purposefully strive to bring descendants into the research and decision making processes at Montpelier.
- It’s Descendant Driven. We believe that research about African American history should attempt to answer the questions that descendants want asked, and address what they want to know about their ancestors and the history of their families.
- It’s Inclusive. Our descendant community includes those who have ancestors that were enslaved not only at Montpelier, but also throughout Central Virginia. We also welcome those who feel connected in other ways to the work that we are doing at Montpelier. Since we know we don’t have every record that may have existed at Montpelier with the names of enslaved people, and the records we do have give us only a few surnames, it is challenging to trace the genealogy of every family that lived at Montpelier. We also know that families existed across the bounds of local plantations (like the family of Paul Jennings) and that people enslaved at Montpelier traveled all throughout Orange County. Because of this, it makes sense to have a more inclusive descendant community.
Our goal is to make Montpelier a space that descendants of those who were enslaved can recognize as a place their ancestors lived, worked, and toiled, and where descendants can feel welcome in a place where their ancestors suffered. We do not expect all descendants to desire to visit, or to seek a connection with places that their ancestors were held in bondage, but we extend the invitation to anyone who does. We strive to portray the full humanity of all those who were enslaved here, and to make sure that none of our visitors leave without knowing about the lives of the enslaved.
Resources for Research
The federal census is a starting point, but there are challenges for tracing African American genealogy prior to 1870.
If your genealogy research has come to a dead end, try these strategies.
Emancipation in antebellum America was rare. So when it did happen, what did it look like legally? And what happened next?