Known as the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison was the fourth president of the United States, the architect of the Bill of Rights and instrumental in the country’s founding.
He was also a slaveholder, keeping more than 100 people in bondage over the course of his lifetime.
Now, the Montpelier Foundation and Montpelier Descendants Committee are using a $5.8 million dollar grant from the Mellon Foundation to build a monument memorializing the 300-plus people who were enslaved at the former president’s Orange County estate during its time as a working plantation.
“This is the beginning of a project to memorialize the enslaved folk who lived, labored, loved, laughed, toiled, cried, sacrificed, certainly at Montpelier but really in service of this nation, involuntarily,” Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, chair of the Montpelier Foundation board, told The Daily Progress.
This past Saturday marked the announcement of the project, a physical structure that will be erected at a site on the property, near the graves of more than 200 people who had been enslaved at Montpelier.
The first grave depressions were discovered there in the early 1980s, and a more intensive survey conducted at the site in 2019 revealed hundreds of graves, after which the Montpelier Descendents Committee was formed to “represent the voices of the people buried underground,” Rev. Larry Walker, president of the committee, told The Daily Progress.
The monument will likely overlook the graves, the mountains and the property, Walker said. The design, which will be informed by a committee and then executed in collaboration with an architectural firm, seeks to capture the humanity of the people enslaved at Montpelier.
“We want it to be a solemn place, we want it to be an open place, we want it to be a welcoming place but yet a place of reflection,” Walker said.
Beyond a physical structure and space to reflect, the monument represents the Montpelier Foundation’s recent efforts to tell a “fuller story” of the American experience.
Montpelier was rocked by board divisions and governance issues in 2021 and early 2022 which pitted the descendants group against the foundation, turned colleagues against each other, drained Montpelier of staff and rendered it “a sinking ship,” according to former foundation board Chairman James French.
Earlier this year, after a truce had been called between the factions and the foundation vowed to share power with descendants, Montpelier announced it had entered a new era, one in which it would tell the complete story of the people who once lived there.
Without diminishing Madison’s contributions to the country, a complete story highlights the essential role of the enslaved to the founding of the nation, Walker said.
“Our ancestors — not just mine but over 300 people enslaved there — their lives influenced James Madison,” Walker said. “They cooked, they cleaned, they toiled the fields, they built the properties, they took care of every need on that property for the Madisons.”
“From a young age that would have influenced James Madison,” Walker continued, “and more importantly, did the work that allowed him to have the time to study and read and become this brilliant democratic architect of government that he came to be.”
Eventually, the foundation hopes to find donors to contribute to building an “educational center” alongside programs to “memorialize the landscape,” Walker said. That includes identifying places on the 3,000-plus acres where slave communities thrived. Then, the foundation will work to bring those areas back to life.
“So people could come to Montpelier and stay for a week and not see all there is to see,” Walker said. “We’re grateful that Mellon wanted to be a part of this as we make Montpelier the preeminent museum site in the country.”
The Mellon Foundation provides grants to support the arts and humanities across the country. Montpelier’s grant is part of the foundation’s Monuments Project, a $250 million initiative to “transform the nation’s commemorative landscape,” according to the foundation’s website.
The project aims to tell fuller stories, with a particular emphasis on those stories that have been historically underrepresented.
In addition to Mellon’s $5.8 million grant, the foundation received $1 million from the commonwealth and is hoping for individual donations to contribute to this and future projects as well.