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Invisible no longer: James Monroe's Highland hosts Descendants Day

Two centuries after President James Monroe sold two dozen enslaved people to a Florida plantation owner, their descendants gathered at the Founding Father’s Highland estate in Albemarle County to honor a shared past.

“Our goal is to give our ancestors the voice that they didn’t have then,” Jennifer Stacy told The Daily Progress at the Saturday event. “They were invisible and now they’re not.”

Stacey was one of some 200 people to gather for the second annual Descendants Day, where the distant relatives of the people the former president once enslaved joined together, many meeting for the first time.

Eric Armstrong traveled from Tampa, Florida, to be there.

“This is a place where I can come to show respect to my oldest ancestors,” Armstrong said, speaking of Dudley and Eve McGuire, whom he believes to be his fourth- or fifth-great grandparents.

“To come back as a free person to the place where they were enslaved, it’s important,” Armstrong told The Daily Progress.

For well over a century, relatives of the people who had once been enslaved at Highland lived just a few miles from the site. But it was only recently that the plantation-turned-museum learned of their existence.

After years of family histories being excluded from the museum, in 2017, a number of descendants decided to form what is now known as Highland’s Council of Descendant Advisors in an effort to have “shared authority” over the exhibits and stories told at Highland.

“It started out with lunches and dreams,” Stacy said, referring to conversations that were had between descendants and Highland officials.

“One of the things we talked about was a huge family reunion and that morphed into what we have today,” she said.

Although the stories of the enslaved had largely been excluded from Highland for much of its existence as a museum, today Stacy describes the relationship between Highland and descendants of the enslaved as strong.

“Foundationally, it’s about respect, trust and feeling like you’re being heard. And the evidence is in the exhibits and days like today,” she said.

Highland and its descendant community are not alone in their efforts. Highland’s next-door neighbor Monticello, the former residence of Monroe’s political ally and fellow Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, has its own descendants project known as “Getting Word,” which has been in operation for decades now. And farther north in Orange County at James Madison’s Montpelier, the home of yet another Founding Father, the estate-turned-museum offers its own Descendants‘ Project “committed to researching and interpreting African American history in an accurate, comprehensive, and compelling way.”

Back at Highland, F.W. Scott said he and his family always knew about the former plantation and their connection to it, but it was rarely, if ever, discussed.

The parents of Scott’s great-great-grandfather Ned Monroe are believed to have once been enslaved at the plantation. While Scott — who is from Albemarle County — had driven by the site many times in his life, it was not until 2017 that he stepped foot on the property.

“When I got here I actually cried,” Scott said of his original visit. “The first thing that lit up in my mind when I got here was seeing them toiling out here in the fields.”

Scott is one of 10 members on the Council of Descendants, which last October took a trip to Monticello, Florida, the place where in 1828 James Monroe sold two dozen enslaved people for $5,000 in an effort to pay off his many debts.

After emancipation, some of those same formerly enslaved people established Casa Bianca Church. The current pastor and first lady of that church, Tobbie and Sharon Berrian, drove with some of their congregants — who are themselves descendants — to attend Saturday’s event.

“It’s a powerful experience,” Sharon Berrian told The Daily Progress. “It’s wonderful connecting the past to the present.”

David Williams said he experienced that connection shortly after arriving at Highland from his home in Utah. In chatting with other descendants, he met a woman who thought he looked familiar. She pulled up a photo on her phone of her own late family member, another David Williams.

Now, they both believe the photo to be of the Utah David Williams’ long-lost father.

“I never knew anything about my father until now,” he said.

The day ended with a “Calling of Names,” during which the names of all 133 people known to have been enslaved at Highland were distributed among the crowd.

For three full minutes, attendees, many with tears in their eyes, shouted the names of each enslaved person, an effort to honor them after they’d been forgotten for so many years.

Rakeem Walker, 26 years old and the youngest member of the Council of Descendant Advisors, led the reading.

“It used to be a negative thing to know that you were once enslaved,” he told the crowd before starting. “But now I feel very proud, because it’s a great thing to know that my people were able to persevere.”


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