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Montpelier tour looks at brutal truths about slavery
BY ROB HEDELT
There are many historic homes and attractions throughout the South where particular phases of slave life are interpreted.
At some, it’s the life of field slaves explained against the backdrop of restored slave quarters.
At others, artifacts and exhibits are used to explain the emancipation era as slaves made the jump from plantations to the North or to plots of land borrowed or bought.
At James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange County, there’s a new tour that uses perhaps the most complete set of resources in one spot to share the experience from the forced servitude of the 1720s through to the Jim Crow Era.
It’s called the “Journey From Slavery to Freedom” and it covers some 250 years of American history by examining the experiences of African–Americans who lived and worked there.
The tour makes use of everything from the mansion of James and Dolley Madison to archaeologically provided details about slave quarters on the property in Madison’s day. Also included: a freedman’s cabin and even a segregated train station.
The tour pulls no punches, noting that the man who detailed the freedoms prescribed in the U.S. Constitution never actually freed any of his own slaves.
Nowhere in the tour is that more clear than at the Liberty Temple, a small but elegant dome off to one side of the mansion.
The tour, given twice a month, notes that while the dome and its majestic columns underscores the republican ideal of a great society, the ice house below was built by enslaved workers with no freedom or control over their own lives.
The honesty and historic underpinning of the tour is refreshing.
It includes vignettes on an interesting selection of slaves and workers, including a house servant Dolley believed was stealing from her, a pair who at different times accompanied Madison to Princeton, N.J., and to Philadelphia and a young woman forced into indenture because she was born a mulatto.
Also profiled: talented carpenters, Madison’s manservant, a slave who ran away more than once and two slaves who were actually tried for poisoning Madison’s father—receiving 29 lashes before being returned to the custody of his widow.
Along the way, the tour makes clear that Madison was deeply conflicted over the institution of slavery. He acknowledged its many evils while at the same time worrying that blacks and whites could not live alongside one another in a world where both were free and equal.
Other factors weighed on his actions: precarious personal finances due to poor crop income and ties between his slaves and those on nearby plantations.
That 90-minute-plus circuit of both walking and driving begins in the South Yard area, where various types of slave quarters existed on the property.
It starts with a discussion of the farm complex near the new visitor center, where archaeologists have found the footprints of a tobacco barn, an overseer’s house and slave cabins that were most likely used between the 1760s and 1840s.
Next comes a discussion of the work and lives of slaves at the stables and craft complex, which at different junctures probably included saw- and gristmills, an ironworks, woodworking shop and buildings where spirits would have been distilled.
When the tour moves on to the spot where house slaves would have lived, it’s the natural spot for a discussion of the different types of dwellings for the different groups of slaves.
They ranged from the log homes with mud floors of the field slaves to the more proper dwellings of the house slaves, who lived in wooden houses with chimneys, wooden floors and even glazed windows.
All throughout the tour, one thing is stressed: No matter whether they were slaves, indentured servants or, eventually, freed blacks living through segregation, the workers did what they could to resist second-class status through methods that ranged from running away to civil disobedience.
After the examination of slaves who worked from the fields to the mansion, the tour arrives at the Gilmore Cabin.
The small, recently restored structure across the road from the mansion is where George Gilmore, born into slavery on Montpelier in 1810, leased and then bought property that by 1910 was operated as a small farm.
Visiting it allows for the tour’s discussion of the emancipation of Montpelier’s slaves, Reconstruction and how it affected both the country and Orange County’s population.
To take the discussion forward to the Jim Crow era, there’s the restored Southern Railway Train Depot built in 1910.
The building between the road and tracks includes the separate train station waiting rooms for blacks and whites, the latter much larger and more comfortable.
That difference allows for the discussion of Jim Crow days and the struggle with segregation in Orange County and beyond.
One small feature of that last stop provides a modern-day footnote to the tour: a picture on the wall of President Barack Obama.
The 90-minute loop through 250 years of history is a unique way to see just how far we’ve come in this country, where the very same Mr. Madison created the U.S. Constitution.
What: “The Journey From Slavery to Freedom” follows the experiences of Montpelier’s African–American com munity through the arc of American history from slavery in the 1720s through the era of segregation. This guided walking and driving tour visits the South Yard, Madison’s Temple, the cellars, the Gilmore Cabin and the 1910 Train Depot.
When: Second and fourth Saturdays each month, 1–2:30 p.m.
Cost: Admission ticket plus $5
More info: montpelier.org or call 540/672-2728.
Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415